River deep, mountain high, and often still denied

Jean Ramirez

Jean Ramirez, here pitching batting practise—suffering too silently.

My former Call to the Pen colleague/editor Manuel Gómez was emphatic enough about it last Friday, writing of the suicide of Rays bullpen catcher Jean Ramirez. He thinks appropriately that Ramirez should never have had to let his inner despair drive him to death by his own hand.

“In this world, it’s seemingly not acceptable to feel depressed or anxious,” Gómez wrote for Our Esquina. “To feel this way is interpreted as a sign of weakness, a lack of intestinal fortitude. We need to forcefully change that cultural mindset.”

He wrote of both our world as a whole and Latino worlds in particular, worlds he said compelled Ramirez to suffer silently, “smiling on the outside while terribly sad on the inside.”

Unfortunately, this is how we have conditioned ourselves in the Latino community. Pair that with the machismo often found within sports organizations, and it’s a recipe for disaster at times.

Ramirez died about a month before former major league outfielder Jeremy Giambi shot himself to death. Those who knew him in the game remembered Giambi much the way those around the Rays spoke of Ramirez, a fun-loving fellow who gave you the best of his ability and his personality alike.

Giambi “was an incredibly loving human being with a very soft heart and it was evident to us as his teammates that he had some deeper battles going on,” texted former Athletics  pitcher Barry Zito to San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser. “I hope this can be a wake up call for people out there to not go at it alone and for families and friends to trust their intuition [w]hen they feel somebody close to them needs help. God bless Jeremy and his family in this difficult time.”

Not to go it alone. Easier said than done.

“The loss of our son has been the most excruciating experience we have lived,” Ramirez’s family said in a statement upon their son’s death. “Unfortunately, we sometimes don’t see the signs. Struggling in silence is not OK . . . We are very grateful to the Tampa Bay Rays organization, whom we consider our family, for their love and support. Our son felt loved by all of you.”

You can feel loved by everyone except your own self under the incessant lash of mental illness. But in professional sports you can also feel as though what lashes you is seen by those who profess to love you as evidence that you’re gutless, that you can’t handle yourself playing “a kid’s game,” that you’re even stealing the large money you’re paid to play it.

You can turn it on in the batter’s box, in the field, on the mound, in front of thousands in the ballpark and millions in front of their television sets or computers or tablets. But when you step back into the dugout or the clubhouse, or head for home, you can’t just snap your fingers and turn off whatever lashes you inside your heart, soul, and mind.

The slightest act, the slightest incident, can spin someone into the morass of mental illness without any prior hint, though much of that depends on things such as age, overall maturity, time and place, and the acts of those with powerful influence in a sufferer’s life.

Some such victims can make themselves professionally productive but internally paralysed. Some can’t compartmentalise themselves that way. Even today, knowing and acknowledging more about mental illness that we could and did fifty years ago, knowing or facing it in a loved one, a friend, an admired professional is no simpler than turning on a fastball out-racing a sports car and driving it to the back of the park.

Phil Spector (in sunglasses) with former Beatle George Harrison at a 1972 recording session. Discovering the lie about his father’s death may have triggered Spector’s destructive mental morass.

Fabled music songwriter/producer Phil Spector faced his father’s death during his boyhood, learning only later that what his abusive mother and his family told him of his father’s “accidental” death turned out to have been suicide. His mother often blamed him to his face violently for his father’s death as well; in due course he titled his first hit record (as a late teenager, yet) with the epitaph on his father’s tombstone.

“The most vile word in the language,” Spector once said, having suffered his father’s plus a few friends’ and one child’s deaths, “is dead.”

Who’s to say that grotesque original familial lie didn’t spin the ambitious but too-sensitive Spector into the mental morass that enabled both his monumental music achievements (especially his “Wall of Sound” production style) and his monumental deficiencies as a man, a husband, a father, a collaborator, whose recklessness finally got him convicted of killing a young woman named Lana Clarkson at his home? (Too late in life, Spector may actually have undergone treatment for mental illness.)

While Spector grew up both haunted and driven in the Bronx, its baseball team discovered a prospect with outsize talent and an inability to harness it or himself. John Malangone was found by the same scout (Paul Krichell) who’d previously discovered Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig and Whitey Ford, and the Yankees engaged two Hall of Fame catchers (Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey) to groom him as Yogi Berra’s heir apparent. Even Yogi himself pitched in.

Malangone clowned and crashed his way out of a Yankee spring training game without seeing a single major league plate appearance. Only later did anyone learn he’d haunted himself into mental paralysis after the childhood death of his best friend/biological uncle, killed by an infection after being hit inadvertently by Malangone’s own homemade javelin—a tragic accident for which his family demanded silence but he insisted inwardly that there could be no punishment sufficient enough.

It took a friend’s urging decades later for Malangone to see the coroner’s report at last and understand the death was purely an accident for which he held no malicious responsibility. (Gary Smith once wrote deeply, eloquently, and compassionately about Malangone’s dilemna and eventual self-redemption in Sports Illustrated, “Damned Yankee,” republished in his splendid anthology Beyond the Game.)

John Malangone

John Malangone (center) with Hall of Fame catchers Mickey Cochrane (left) and Bill DIckey—a live prospect who punished himself mentally for decades over a childhood death for which he had no true guilt.

He’d worked for both New York City and Sears for decades before finally finding a cautious peace, even pitching well in local baseball leagues populated by older players, and was the subject of 2006’s Long Road Home, before he died last year at 89. What would he have been if he’d been reached decades earlier? We’ll never know.

This week, the Dodgers surprised just about everyone in baseball when they re-signed outfielder Andrew Toles—a diagnosed schizophrenic, who hasn’t played since 2018, whose tortured life includes being in and out of mental facilities, being found asleep behind an airport terminal, and numerous police confrontations. They don’t expect him to play, USA Today says, but “the renewal of his contract will allow him to have access to mental health services and health insurance.”

The Dodgers both surprised and pleased a public often jaded by the shadier sides of baseball as a business. It was both a compassionate and decent thing for the team to do.

Toles—who posted a 1.082 OPS in the 2016 National League Championship Series—is the son of a former New Orleans Saints linebacker who has said he wants nothing more than his son back to live as “normal” a life as possible. “I just want him to have a chance in life,’’ Alvin Toles told USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightengale last year. “That’s all. Just to be healthy, live a normal life. I’d do anything for my son and my kids, and I know their mother cares a great deal, too.”

Andrew Toles

Andrew Toles—the Dodgers re-signed him compassionately so the outfielder diagnosed a schizophrenic could have access to health care.

“Mental illness is just now getting the attention of people now when it should have been a long time ago,” said his goddaughter Gwendolyn Boyd-Willis. “I can’t imagine what Alvin is going through as a parent. He’s been a phenomenal father.”

Alvin Toles is one parent who sees his son’s despair and tackles it as head on as possible. Black communities and families often fostered their own machismo and struggled to terms when discovering such illness in their children. So did Italian cultures such as those from which Malangone sprang, and Jewish ones such as that from which Spector did.

Yet the elder Toles comes from playing one of the most machismo-drenched of sports and faces, not fudges his son’s disease. For generations prior, such families as those of Malangone and Spector either rejected or denied mental destruction. Ramirez’s and Giambi’s families neither rejected nor denied, they merely couldn’t see their sons’ sufferings, and their sons seemingly couldn’t express them beyond their haunted selves.

“It’s a travesty many Latino families suffer through being unable to properly identify and treat issues of mental health,” wrote my friend Gómez. “Issues with mental health are viewed as signs of weakness. Many folks are shamed into silence, labeled as crazy and forgotten.”

Shamed, or self-driven into an isolation that can and often does end in living death if not premature, self-inflicted death. Don’t waste your time telling such victims to look on the bright side. Those who suffer so would trade any temporal success for a real path to the bright side. And don’t tell them how many people have things worse. It only tells a mental illness victim that he or she doesn’t really matter.

You can insert too many other ethnicities in place of “Latino” and find Gómez’s words applying just as acutely. You can also find—whether speaking of a mental illness victim or of a victim of a mentally ill person—too many other such lives compromised, wasted, and ended needlessly because of it.

“It’s all in your head,” say too many still when a loved one suffers such a paralysing condition.

Little do they truly know. Mental illness for anyone who suffers but, perhaps, athletes and other performers in particular, could be described by the title of the swollen production that drove Spector out of the music business for a spell, once upon a time. River deep, mountain high.

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