'A lot of us are f***ed up': Reliever Ryan Buchter opens up about mental health in baseball

Ryan Buchter is a baseball journeyman, a relief pitcher who has been traded four times, released three times, switched organizations 10 times and pitched for teams in 22 cities. He's never spent a full season in the major league without a demotion or release. 

The 34-year-old lefty now understands the business side of baseball that he never once considered as a kid with a dream. A large part of that was dealing with "what seemed to be eternal debt from not seeing a comma in my check until year eight," he said. It also came with depression, alcoholism and mental health challenges. 

Buchter, currently pitching with the Arizona Diamondbacks Triple-A team in Reno, detailed it all to Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci for Monday's "Daily Cover." His story follows similar ones from players around the major and minor leagues, including Drew Robinson surviving a suicide attempt.

“I really think it’s important to share my story [because] of how common it is,” Buchter told Sports Illustrated. “Truly I want guys to be more open about receiving help.

“This is something I’m extremely passionate about … I want guys to know it’s O.K. as a man, [a] baseball player, to know we are not alone. A lot of us are f***ed up. Either from childhood, high school and college years, or the years that followed.”

He is working to change how baseball deals with mental health issues in the game. May is Mental Health Awareness month. 

Buchter: Baseball 'brought out all the ugly'

Buchter detailed how he became an alcoholic and the depression he dealt with while succeeding on the mound, but ping-ponging around major and minor league teams. 

“This game is failure,” Buchter said, via Sports Illustrated. “Failure surrounds us. It engulfs us. We’re reminded of it by fans, scoreboards, websites, coaches, talent evaluators and seemingly everyone else. Even when we’re really good. We’re failing more than succeeding.“

"I spent years beating myself up. I’ve spent years drowning myself in booze and running from failure. Like Drew Robinson, this game brought out all the ugly and accentuated my biggest flaws. I pretended like I wasn’t a drunk. Like I wasn’t mentally unstable. I was torturing the ones I loved the most and made them go crazy because of the way I was left untreated.”

He said he began drinking socially at around 19 or 20 years old. By the age of 28, he had started drinking mostly alone while pitching in Triple-A ball, convinced he was a better player while drinking. He was a "depressed alcoholic" by the 2016-17 season, he said. 

His story is more important now when clubs are using more pitchers in a year than ever before. It's not uncommon to bring pitchers up to a major league team for a specific game, with multiple pitchers sharing a roster spot. Sports Illustrated and Verducci dub it "gig economy" jobs, not full-time work. 

How Buchter works to change mental illness resources in baseball

Buchter told Sports Illustrated he's reached out to Billy Bean, MLB vice president and special assistant to the commissioner, and the players association attorney to talk about a peer-to-peer mental health task force. 

“We are all people,” he said, via Sports Illustrated. “We should all be equal. I’ve reached out to the union and [am] still waiting for a call back. We pay the same amount of union dues no matter how much we make. It feels to me that there’s more value on the next guy up than the guy that was just taken off the roster.”

He told SI he wants to change the stigma and reaches out to players who are sent down to the minors so they can talk about things not baseball-related. It's important to let a player know he's valued, Buchter said, and he's concerned what a work stoppage will do for the "gig economy" players' mental health. 

MLB offers mental health resources for players, staff and employees, but the drawback is that they don't always connect in ways that work. Buchter said he didn't connect well with the mental skills coaches available to him by teams because they "are not qualified to deal with what our problems are."

"They can help us breathe through our eyelids and be ‘confident’ on the mound or at the plate," he said, via SI. "But they can’t help us with clinical depression. They can’t help with my endless anxiety."

That these professional work for the team also creates a "trust factor," he said. 

But last year, he told SI, he admitted he needed help and sought out a doctor for his mental health. He hopes that stories like his and Robinson's will help others, in baseball and out. 

Mental health in sports 

Professional athletes are speaking out more often about mental health and their challenges. Kevin Love is a leading voice in the NBA for mental health advocacy after being open about his anxiety and depression. Other NBA players have shared their own stories, and the league implemented new guidelines for the 2019-20 season.

Players have taken time off for their mental health, including WNBA star Liz Cambage in 2019. Following the bubble seasons by the NBA and WNBA, players spoke of how difficult it was to be in an environment like that surrounded by only basketball.  

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has led the way in the NFL and was more than willing to answer questions about it late last month.  

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