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.

Jeremy Giambi, RIP: What broke him?

The Flip

Jeremy Giambi’s brief major league career was defined too powerfully by The Flip, but he was an on-base machine in Oakland until he was traded under dubious circimstances.

Sad enough that Jeremy Giambi was reported dead at 47 two days ago. Sadder still was the Los Angeles County coroner affirming what Giambi’s former Athletics teammate Barry Zito hinted in a text message to San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser.

Giambi, Zito texted, “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. 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.”

At his best, Giambi was an on-base machine with a little power and a preternatural ability to wear pitchers out comparable to his brother, Jason. He wasn’t particularly swift afoot and he was defensively challenged, but in two and a third full seasons in Oakland he posted a .369 on-base percentage, including .391 in 2001, his seond and last full season there.

The bad news was that year’s American League division series and Giambi getting nailed at the plate famously, when the Yankees’ Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter executed The Flip, running down from his cutoff position and across the lower infield, over the foul line, to grab an errant throw toward the plate and back-flip to catcher Jorge Posada to get Giambi a second before his foot hit the plate.

Giambi would have tied the game at one each if he’d scored. Depending upon the angle you see, there are those who argue he might actually have been safe on the play. But the play cemented Jeter’s image as a game-changer and thwarted the A’s from tying the game at one each at minimum. (The Yankees went on to win, 1-0.)

For years to follow Giambi was questioned over going home standing up instead of sliding on the play. (A’s catcher Ramon Hernandez could be seen raising and lowering his hands adjacent to the play, the signal for urging a runner to slide.) Most likely he—and maybe everybody else in the Oakland Coliseum—didn’t see Jeter coming at all, never mind having a prayer of getting him out.

As I write I’ve seen no published indication that the play, the aftermath, and even the questioning affected Giambi in any negative way. The 2001 A’s manager, Art Howe, told Slusser on Wednesday, “I know how hard Jeremy played every single day. I know our fans remember him for that non-slide, but I think it’s a shame anyone even thinks about that. He was a good kid, he was well liked, and he gave me everything.”

A’s GM-turned-president Billy Beane now remembers Giambi as “a fun guy, a good guy, and an underrated player, particularly an underrated hitter. He was quite frankly an important piece of probably the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here, that 2001 team.”

This is now, but that was then, as Michael Lewis recorded in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game: Beane sent three-eighths of his starting lineup “and a passel of pitchers” out of town by 23 May 2002, including Giambi, after Beane became “erratic” in his behaviour and steaming mad with his front office and the team’s coaches following a mid-month sweep by the Blue Jays in Toronto.

Just before the Toronto series the team had been in Boston, where Jeremy Giambi had made the mistake of being spotted by a newspaper reporter at a strip club. Jeremy, it should be said, already had a bit of a reputation. Before spring training he’d been caught with marijuana by the Las Vegas police. Reports from coaches trickled in that Jeremy drank too much on team flights. When the reports from Boston reached Billy Beane, Jeremy ceased to be an on-base machine and efficient offensive weapon. He became a twenty-seven-year-old professional baseball player having too much fun on a losing team. In a silent rage, Billy called around the league to see who would take Jeremy off his hands. He didn’t care what he got in return. Actually, that wasn’t quite true: what he needed in return was something to tell the press. “We traded Jeremy for X because we think X will give us help on defense,” or some such nonsense. The Phillies offered John Mabry. Billy hardly knew who Mabry was.

. . . After he’d done the deal, he told reporters that he traded Jeremy Giambi because he was “concerned he was too one-dimensional” and that John Mabry would supply help on defense. He then leaned on Art Howe to keep Mabry out of the lineup. And Art, occasionally, ignored him. And Mabry started to swat home runs and game-winning hits at a rate he had never before swatted them in his entire professional career. And the Oakland A’s began to win.

The 2002 A’s were 20-25 before the Giambi-for-Mabry trade, including losing fourteen out of their prior seventeen games. Giambi was hardly to blame; at the time of the trade, he was hitting .274 with a .390 on-base percentage and a .471 slugging percentage. Two months after the trade, the A’s stood at 60-46.

Maybe Beane really wanted to send the message that even a .390 on-base percentage was expendable if he was the same fellow in losing as he was in winning.

Maybe Giambi didn’t go into black-band mourning after losses often enough for Beane’s taste. Maybe Beane didn’t grok that it doesn’t always do any favours to insist you must sink into a vale of tears following a loss. Maybe he forgot it’s often best to just shake off the loss because you get to play another day, another season, after all.

“Everyone,” Lewis noted, called Beane a genius for seeing Mabry’s heretofore hidden abilities, never mind that the deal was anything but comparable to a lab experiment: “It felt more as if the scientist, infuriated that the results of his careful experiment weren’t coming out as they were meant to, waded into his lab and began busting test tubes.”

Giambi with the 2002 Phillies hit a mere .244 but posted a .435 on-base percentage and—with twelve homers and ten doubles among his 38 hits—a .538 slugging percentage. Mabry’s line with the 2002 A’s: .275/.322/.523, with eleven home runs and thirteen doubles among his 53 hits. But Mabry went 0-for-2 in the 2002 postseason while Giambi and the Phillies didn’t quite make it there.

Both men moved on after that season, the Phillies trading Giambi to the Red Sox and Mabry signing with the Mariners as a free agent. Giambi incurred injuries and was finished as a major leaguer after 2003. He was the first incumbent or former major leaguer to cop to using actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances, but 52 homers in six major league seasons (17 per 162 games, average) doesn’t exactly make a case for their doing him any favours.

(That Vegas pot bust—at a McCarran Airport checkpoint while he was traveling to Phoenix —ended up a big nothingburger: Giambi’s pot was confiscated, he was issued a simple citation, and released to continue his travel.)

Who knows whether some heretofore undetected combination of criticism over The Flip and the true reason behind his trade out of Oakland didn’t start puncturing part of the younger Giambi’s psyche?

The former’s easily discarded; Giambi wasn’t the 2001 division series goat, and Jeter was a division series hero coming from nowhere to make an unlikely play. Giambi said in a 2020 interview that “maybe I should have slid” but he didn’t necessarily commit to that thought even two decades later.

Those are things we can’t analyze. Obviously, I think about it. I don’t dwell on it, but I think about it. I think that’s part of our competitive nature. I mean, we were going to win a World Series. I know that was the first round, but we always felt like we had to go through the Yankees, and if you got through the Yankees, you had a pretty good chance, at that time. They were the team to beat.

The trade issue may or not be discarded or defined so easily just yet.

Who knows, either, whether it was too difficult not being able to post anything close to his older brother’s major league numbers and compensation? (Tainted or not, Jason Giambi per 162 games hit almost twice as many homers, and finished his career with 388 more home runs and $130 million more career earnings.)

We don’t, yet. Nor do we know what in his post baseball life piled onto the issues his former teammate Barry Zito—himself a haunted man as a pitcher in both grand success and bewildering failure—referenced.

For now, we know only that an apparently likeable, fun-loving fellow with an apparent heart of gold saw fit to end his life with a gunshot into his chest. Whatever drove Jeremy Giambi to end his life, may the Lord have mercy upon his apparently haunted soul and grant him peace.