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|Duchscherer was so "overwhelmed" he began to wonder if he should continue playing baseball.|
|Baseball was taking Justin Duchscherer away from the one place he desperately wanted to be -- with his son Evan.|
"I guess the word that best describes it is 'overwhelmed.' I was so confused, I didn't know if I should retire or if I even cared about baseball anymore. I didn't know what was wrong.''
In late August, Duchscherer revealed that he was putting his baseball career on hold to undergo treatment for clinical depression. Rather than mask his problems with a pulled hamstring or pseudo-malady, he chose to acknowledge his personal baggage and address the issue publicly.Those efforts have taken him to a better place, less cluttered with internal conflict and self-doubt, and allowed him to concentrate on being a better father and person. If Duchscherer isn't necessarily a new man at age 32, he can take pride in being a more enlightened, grounded version of the old one. That's a development worth celebrating as he spends Thanksgiving at his mother's house in Lubbock, Texas, with his son, Evan, age 6. "It was really important for me to change -- to accept how I viewed myself and the things I've been through,'' Duchscherer says. "If someone says, 'He's weak' or 'He's soft,' that's not my problem. It's on them.''
“Yet the same perfectionist's streak that drove Duchscherer to succeed also made him brutally hard on himself. Damon Lapa, Duchscherer's agent, saw it firsthand in a game against Boston in late May 2008: After throwing eight one-hit innings to beat Josh Beckett and the Red Sox 3-0, Duchscherer spent more time lamenting the fastball that David Ortiz hit for a single than celebrating his victory. "Instead of looking at the game as a success -- like, 'I just one-hit one of the best offenses in the game' -- I went home and I was disappointed because I gave up a hit,'' Duchscherer says. "I kept ruminating over what I could have done differently to Ortiz. It was just a terrible way to look at things.'' Even as Duchscherer's baseball career blossomed, his personal life began to unravel. He separated from his wife, Michele, in April 2007, and their four-year marriage officially ended in late 2008. The ordeal dredged up unresolved issues from Duchscherer's parents' divorce when he was 10, and led to feelings of guilt and shame. The strain of a ballplayer's life didn't help. Since he's on the road eight months a year and Evan lives in New Jersey with his mother, Duchscherer sees his son sporadically. During the 2008 season, he was able to channel his anguish over his failed marriage into his pitching, but he didn't have that luxury this year. When the A's broke camp in April, Duchscherer stayed behind in Arizona to focus on his rehab. The more time he spent alone, the more he missed Evan and dwelled on his shortcomings as a husband and a father. "It was a combination of baseball and the divorce,'' Duchscherer says. "I felt like a total failure. I felt like, 'I can't stay healthy enough to perform, so I'm not doing my job, and I failed at my marriage.' I started to get into a lot of negative thought patterns. Duchscherer's downward spiral took him to a dark, lonely and all too common destination. The World Health Organization defines depression as a "a common mental disorder'' that results in "depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy and poor concentration.'' The malady affects about 121 million people worldwide, and is a significant factor in the estimated 850,000 suicides annually. Depression can be treated successfully up to 80 percent of the time by psychotherapy, medication and changes in diet, exercise and lifestyle, but the WHO reports that fewer than 25 percent of people afflicted receive treatment.
I felt like a total failure. I felt like, 'I can't stay healthy enough to perform, so I'm not doing my job, and I failed at my marriage.' I started to get into a lot of negative thought patterns.” -- Pitcher Justin Duchscherer
|Duchscherer, a two-time All-Star, hasn't thrown a pitch in the majors since Aug. 18, 2008.|
“During his treatment, Duchscherer was fortunate to receive whole-hearted support from his agent, Lapa, and the A's, who treated him as a friend in need of help more than a commodity or a drain on the payroll. David Forst, Oakland's assistant general manager, declined to address the specifics of Duchscherer's condition because of medical confidentiality laws, but said the A's are aware of the burden that depression places on players. "It's not something we have a ton of experience with, but we recognize that being a Major League Baseball player doesn't make someone immune from the issues that people in everyday life have to deal with,'' Forst says. "That certainly extends to mental health issues. We know it's serious, and we would always say that life comes before baseball.'' The A's aren't alone in this age of enlightenment. Every news flash puts a crack in the traditional male culture, which regards it as a sign of weakness to admit to emotional or mental setbacks. "Teams are becoming more educated and aware about the severity of this condition,'' Lapa says. "It's not just an old boys' attitude anymore of, 'Rub some dirt on it and get back out there.' There's a newfound understanding that this cuts across all lines, all races, all economic statuses. It's something that knows no boundaries.'' For all the progress Duchscherer has made in sorting out his life, there is still work to be done and a career to resume. He's looking to land a job as a starting pitcher through free agency, and works out regularly at trainer Brett Fischer's facility in Phoenix. It appears that he'll have no difficulty finding work. Lapa says that interested teams seem to regard Duchscherer's history of depression as more a "technicality'' than an "obstacle'' to overcome. As long as clubs think he can still pitch, it's more a yellow caution light than a red flag. If Duchscherer can help remove the stigma of depression by sharing his story -- and convince another athlete to seek help -- it will be a wonderful fringe benefit. That consideration pales next to the feeling he has when he wakes up each morning. He's discovered that it's liberating to live by his own definition of success, and not somebody else's. "I thought once I got to the big leagues and made my first million dollars, that's where true happiness was,'' Duchscherer says. "It's not the case. You're going to have the same emotions whether you have a million dollars or five dollars in the bank. Sure, it makes it easier to pay your rent. But when you're divorced and separated from your son, having money doesn't make it feel any better.'' Duchscherer continues to miss Evan when they're apart, but he's come to realize that the paternal bond is rooted more in quality time than the quantity of hours spent together. Father and son talk daily on the phone about Evan's fondness for soccer, karate and video games. And when the schedule brings them together, they cherish their trips to the zoo or the amusement park or Chuck E. Cheese. Four short months ago, Justin Duchscherer was paralyzed at an airport gate and barely knew where to turn. Now he's content with his life's direction and comfortable in his own skin. It's amazing how far a man can travel when he's willing to take that first step. Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.
You're going to have the same emotions whether you have a million dollars or five dollars in the bank. Sure, it makes it easier to pay your rent. But when you're divorced and separated from your son, having money doesn't make it feel any better.” --Justin Duchscherer