Former Met Bill Pulsipher recognized it right away, like the opening riff to his least favorite song.
Daniel Bard was laboring on the mound during the World Baseball Classic, his brow furrowed, as if he was asking himself why the thing that’s always worked just didn’t anymore. Pulsipher had a decent idea of what would come next. After all, he’d heard this one before.
Walk, single, hit by pitch, wild pitch, walk, wild pitch, walk.
Team USA manager Mark DeRosa and pitching coach Andy Pettitte let the righthander wear it, even after a pitch hit Jose Altuve so squarely, an X-ray later revealed Bard had broken Altuve’s thumb. Shortly after, Bard landed on the injured list with anxiety, becoming the first of three MLB players to hit the IL for mental health reasons so far this season, later joined by Austin Meadows and former Met Trevor May.
“It told me that those are guys that have never felt anything like this before,” Pulsipher said from his East Moriches home, referencing DeRosa and Pettitte.
Then, wryly: “It must be nice.”
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‘STEVE BLASS DISEASE’
For years, Pulsipher, part of the trio known as Generation K, was one of the very few players willing to talk publicly about anxiety and depression. But that hardly meant he was alone — not in such a high-pressure environment that often allows nascent mental health issues to flourish.
“Baseball is unique,” said Dr. Hillary Cauthen, team psychologist for Austin FC, the Texas MLS team. “Every sport is performance based but this one is so statistical, so analytical. There are so many numbers that can measure [success] . . . Most athletes will experience anxiety and depression at a higher rate, and those are the most common disorders because of this fear of failure: Am I good enough? Can I work through this? Have I failed?”
About 20% of all people will live with a mental health condition at some point in their lives, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, but that number goes up for athletes. A University of Michigan survey estimated that a third of college athletes experience “significant symptoms” from a mental health concern, and a 2019 study published in the British Journal for Sports Medicine said that up to 35% of elite athletes will suffer from some sort of mental health crisis.
This isn’t new, but MLB’s willingness to address it is.
For decades, mental health concerns were shrouded by hushed conversations or cutesy euphemisms. Pulsipher remembered being told he had “Steve Blass Disease” — named after the Pirates pitcher who went from All-Star to retiree in the span of a year. Sometimes, people say it’s “the yips.” And sometimes, sudden shifts in execution are treated like an inexplicable phenomenon contained to a single player — Rick Ankiel losing the plate, Chuck Knoblauch throwing the ball away, or Jon Lester muffing his pickoff throws.
The subtext is clear: This is weird, but it could never happen to me. Except it does happen. Over and over again.
“The most comfortable place for me in the world became the most uncomfortable place,” said Pulsipher, the hotshot lefty who went from being deemed “Future Mets Ace” on the cover of Baseball America to cobbling together parts of six seasons over a decade around the majors.
“I couldn’t handle the things that I used to be able to handle and I didn’t know what in the world was going on,” he said. “At that point in time, nobody ever really said anything about it.”
GENERATION NOT OK
That was true for a long time, Cauthen said. Sports have often lagged behind when it comes to mental health discourse, and one of the first big shifts didn’t really happen until 2015, when college athletes started the conversation. By 2016, access to sports psychologists was part of baseball’s collective bargaining agreement, and this year, the Mets are having a Mental Health Awareness Day Saturday, when Pulsipher will throw out the first pitch.
It’s a wild plot twist for the pitcher, who blazed a thorny trail and has the scars to show for it.
Long before Naomi Osaka stepped away from the French Open to work on her mental health, or before former Jet Brandon Marshall disclosed his borderline personality diagnosis, there was the kid from Fairfax, Virginia, who was supposed to save the Mets from themselves, but instead bore the burden of fans’ disappointed hopes.
At 21, Pulsipher was the first member of Generation K to make the major leagues, pitching to a 3.98 ERA in 1995 and showing all the promise that had sports pundits proclaiming that he, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson would dominate the NL East for years to come. Isringhausen’s and Wilson’s careers were upset by injury, though Isringhausen re-emerged as an All-Star closer in the early 2000s, and Pulsipher required Tommy John surgery after his first year, missing all of 1996.
But even through his rehab, Pulsipher maintained the rookie bluster that could be read as cockiness or confidence, depending on your mood. The first blow to that, though, came during spring training 1997, when he learned from a newspaper that instead of starting the year with the Mets, he’d open his season with a rehab assignment for Triple-A Norfolk. The news — and the fact that he hadn’t been told about it personally — startled him.
“I started dealing with feelings that I never felt before,” he said.
Pulsipher called that start with Norfolk a disaster, even if write-ups from the time were kinder (Newsday said he was “wild but effective”). He allowed just one hit in 5 1/3 innings but walked seven. By the end of his 30-day rehab assignment, though, things had gotten worse: 0-5 with a 7.81 ERA, with 38 walks in 28 innings.
“Something was just totally wrong,” Pulsipher said. “I had the cold sweats, and I was just nervous for the first time. I used to always look so forward to my starts and being out on the mound, and something was just completely different.”
He told the Mets, but the response was to send him to ‘A’ ball, and then extended spring training. It was around that time that he met the organization’s psychologist, Dr. Allan Lans, who put him on Prozac.
“It was difficult because people didn’t want to accept what was going on,” he said. The pills, too, weren’t a cure-all — sometimes he’d feel better and stop taking them. “Then you’re throwing the ball all over the place,” he said. “It’s a vicious cycle . . . and it’s all encompassing.
From 1997 to 2005, Pulsipher fought to get a toehold in the major leagues, appearing in 106 games in that span. In April of his final season, he wrote a first-person account for ESPN describing how clinical anxiety and depression affected his career. He still lives with both but has been able to ease off the medication now that he doesn’t have to deal with the stress of professional baseball, he said.
“Sports, as much as we want to say it’s what you do, this is an identity for athletes,” Cauthen said. “They’re known for this. Then there’s this fear evaluation that sets in . . . [Failure] becomes personal. It becomes them and their self-worth and they’re not good enough and that’s what sets off the depressive episode.”
A NEW APPROACH
Mental health issues can affect sleep, hygiene and motor function — all which can have a negative impact on performance, Cauthen said. But teams have often taken a reactionary approach to addressing the issues. She herself started as a mental skills coach, a role that was more accepted when she entered the field in 2008.
Recently, there’s been a “shift and an initiative to say, hey let’s own what’s happening,” Cauthen said. “If a player can’t perform because something is impacting them, even if it’s not physical, it’s at a mental and emotional level that’s impeding them to play, we won’t hide from that. And I think that’s amazing.”
The Yankees have six full-time mental conditioning professionals at all levels of the organization and provide further help to players and staff via an Employee Assistance Program that offers mental health resources in both English and Spanish. The Mets also use EAP professionals and have mental skills coaches throughout their domestic and international development programs.
At Citi Field, there will be further emphasis on mental health the whole month, including moments of mindfulness for fans, said Mets senior vice president of corporate partnerships Brenden Mallette.
“We’re trying to make it a more comfortable conversation for everyone,” said Mallette, noting the team has partnered with New York- Presbyterian and Carelon, which offers behavioral health services. “There are people in very significant roles, whether it’s a sports hero or an educator or somebody like that, that have expressed very similar feelings that you might be feeling. It [makes people see] that if it can happen to them, it can happen to me, and if they’re confident and comfortable to speak up about what’s affecting them, hopefully, that can help some other people.”
That was Bard’s motivation in speaking up about his anxiety, telling Bally Sports that he wanted to “give hope for people to get through really hard things, especially in sports.”
“I was going through that for so long, and there’s not much out there,” Bard said. He’d hear that “most people don’t ever come back from this, and that’s not what you want to hear when you’re going through anything like that. So for me being able to get to the other side maybe can be motivation for some people.”
Still, Cauthen hopes for larger strides in the future, and a continued focus on mental health over mental illness — that is to say, a proactive approach rather than a reactive one.
Pulsipher, while heartened by the changes he’s seen, also believes more can be done.
“There’s definitely a faction of people that are supportive of it, and those are probably people that have gone through it a little bit more,” he said. “Then there’s probably another side that just says this is absolute nonsense and you know, be a man and pick yourself up.”
It’s far from that easy, though. And even now, at 49, Pulsipher is thinking about that Flushing mound with some level of trepidation. What’s it going to be like to be back there? And the intrusive thought: Will fans boo him?
“I still battle with it,” he said. “I hope that it will be all right [but] Generation K was a thing . . . I feel like I’ve been accepted pretty well by Mets fans but this will be the first time I’ve been put out in front of a stadium full of people, so I’m a little bit apprehensive as to how I’ll be received. I obviously need to practice a few first pitches.”
It’s probably a common enough sentiment for people who do these types of things, but it’s still a vulnerable thing to admit for a guy who once made pitching look so easy. But that’s Pulsipher — all these years later, he’s willing to say what few others will, and making baseball better for it.