Lots of words have already been written about Aubrey Huff and his anxiety issues. Henry Schulman wrote a fantastic blog post discussing his experience with depression. The Bay Area Sports Guy discussed how little we actually know. Andrew Baggarly actually broke the news to some people in the clubhouse. Lots of people talked about it on Twitter and comment boards. As I’m writing this, it’s been about seven hours since the news was released, and I’m already wondering if there’s any more to say on it.
But of course there’s always more to say. Since Aubrey Huff joined the Giants, there’s always been a lot to say about him. It feels so far away, but over the course of 2010 Huff slowly developed into perhaps one of the most beloved players in San Francisco, and certainly one of the most entertaining. He played goofy pranks, gave great quotes, and anchored an offense who badly needed an “anchor” in any sense other than baserunning speed. He nearly killed himself stretching an inside the park home run. He reached down his pants and gave himself a thermonuclear wedgie with literally millions of people watching. It was extraordinary.
The thing that got my attention was a story by Baggs that mentioned Huff’s tattoos. His Transformers tattoos. The Autobot and Decepticon symbols. That is pretty much the opposite of “cool,” one of the last things you’d expect from a stereotypical MLB slugger (especially an apparent grown-up frat boy like Huff). And it was awesome. More about his life story unfolded over the season, and it made him a very easy player for an unabashed nerd like me to root for. (The fact that he was absolutely murdering the hell out of the ball helped, of course.)
So when I read about the anxiety diagnosis today, it did not take me long to start thinking “Huh…that makes sense.” There’s a narrative, isn’t there? A young boy’s father is killed in a senseless act of violence; he grows up shy and awkward, given to some traditionally nerdy pastimes, but also dedicates himself to a sport that will eventually make him a millionaire. He grows into an outgoing and gregarious man, a husband and father succeeding at the highest levels of baseball, but the fears and worries of his youth never really go away…etc. You get the point.
And I stopped myself after a bit, because that neat and tied-up narrative package is kind of a load of nonsense. The trouble with an anxiety disorder, as discussed in my links above, is that there doesn’t have to be anything rational about it. Anxiety can just be a hiccup of brain chemistry, a wrong turn down a neural pathway. It makes as much sense that it happened to Aubrey Huff, former shy Transformers fanboy, as it did that it happened to Zack Greinke or Joey Votto; as it would happening to Pat Burrell, Juan Pierre, or Eric Byrnes.
I’m wandering worryingly close to armchair psychologist territory, and I’m strictly an armchair bullpen manager. As BASG said so well, I don’t know exactly what’s behind Aubrey Huff’s anxiety concerns, and I don’t really need or deserve to. What I do know is this: I, and a high percentage of the people reading this, don’t really grasp the day-to-day struggles of a baseball player. I’ve never wrestled with a difference of an eighth of an inch on my grip on a baseball’s seam that might be the key to my livelihood. I haven’t had to rebuild the strength in my surgically reconstructed ankle so I can get back and revisit the frightening circumstances that led to that exact surgery. I’ve never had to catch up to a 98 MPH thrown object with a wooden stick, knowing that if I fail complete strangers will wish ill on me and my family.
But I have worried over things I can’t control, and things I can control but don’t know how to, and been anxious and frightened and nervous at the worst possible time to be any of those things. And I’m fortunate enough not to be afflicted with any diagnosable brain chemistry issues; that’s just my mind doing what minds do at any given time. Aubrey Huff has it way worse in that regard; in the small hours of the night, with your brain working overdrive and your alarm clock looming, your job and income and public life are irrelevant.
In short, this is something that just about every baseball fan can relate to; that’s a valuable thing to contemplate when one starts losing perspective on the game, as we all do. The particulars aren’t tremendously important, though of course we’d like to know them – hopefully in part because of compassion, but also because Aubrey Huff is just so damn interesting as a player and as a person. It’s easy, as a fan, to get over-invested in the things that help us identify with players – that guy has Transformers tattoos, he must be a huge nerd like me! That dude called out homophobia on Twitter, he must be a raging lefty like me! And so forth. But this is universal enough that it does lead to a great deal of empathy; I can only hope that there’s some consolation for Huff in that, when he has the liberty to care about things like fan reaction.
It’s fortunate that the culture of baseball seems to have adapted a bit, with the similar struggles of Votto, Greinke, and many others, and this kind of issue isn’t just laughed off as mental weakness or lollygagging. It’s a basic human concern that’s been brought to attention on an outsized stage, and I can only hope that confronting it publicly is helpful for Huff and not harmful. It’d be nice to root for him on the diamond again. Until I get that opportunity, I’ll be rooting for him to make it out the other side.