This weekend, we learned of 22-year-old stud closer Roberto Osuna’s anxiety and how it’s keeping him from taking the field. Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports stepped back and humanized the concept of a quality professional not feeling suitable for work because of something like this. It’s a thought that too often feels foreign because of the status we give pro athletes.
Dominant on the field, Osuna appeared to be overwhelmed in his quotes about his well-being. From Brown’s piece (emphasis mine):
“I really don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “I just feel anxious. I feel like I’m lost a little bit right now. I’m just a little bit lost.
“This has nothing to do with me being on the field. I feel great out there. It’s just when I’m out of baseball, when I’m not on the field that I feel just weird and a little bit lost.
“I wish I knew how to get out of this, but we’re working on it, trying to find ways to see what can make me feel better. But, to be honest, I just don’t know.”
In a single sitting, Osuna says “just” five times. And it might be the most dangerous word that could be used in this context.
Though we’ve made strides in accepting anxiety as a legitimate medical concern, there is still a stigma that surrounds it. But because it doesn’t inherently come with a fever or cast it’s often looked at as something that someone just needs to deal with. Meanwhile, symptoms can mimic a heart attack.
It’s not even strictly a mental obstacle. It’s chemical. Anxiety is tied to cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is regarded as the stress hormone and is critical to our natural fight-or-flight instincts. It is adrenaline’s tag-team partner. It’s triggered by high-leverage situations with a lot on the line, which happen to be the kind from which Osuna makes a living. So when he says his current state has nothing to do with him being on the field, it’s probably fair to say that’s actually highly unlikely.
The body doesn’t release these chemicals like a faucet. There is no convenient handle to portion out the amounts one might receive at any given moment. It’s possible that Osuna gets into games and simply can’t turn off the very thing that makes him so damn good on the mound once the game is over; that cortisol floods through his system unchecked.
And why would he know how to turn it off? What background might he have to keep it in check? We’re generally not a culture that prepares for the come-down. At 22, he’s already got two-plus years experience in the bigs. But dealing with anxiety? That’s probably not a focus through the developmental process in baseball operations, even though there are well-vetted methods that can easily be implemented.
The brain loves patterns and automation. For the most part, it wants you to be able to go about your day without having to stress too much. But danger may arise quickly when the stress response it’s equipped with for protection gets folded into patterns of automation that are designed for comfort. That’s why “just” can be an alarming word to pair with statements about feeling “weird” and “a little bit lost.”
How Osuna and the Jays handle this is ultimately their business, and only their business. But I fear an announcement in the coming days saying he’s fine. He’s already been back on the mound. Osuna may not be out of the woods for some time, though, and if it’s stopped him from entering games, it could be severe for him. It can take years of practice and strategy to appropriately address anxiety. I only hope that he and the team comes to that conclusion on their own. If they don’t, the situation could get much worse.