Commentary

Mind games: the Dontrelle Willis case

Baseball and other sports have yet to address their inability to deal with mental issues

Updated: April 12, 2010, 9:25 AM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Torn rotator cuff? No problem. We can fix that.

[+] EnlargeDontrelle Willis
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesDontrelle Willis has struggled to live up to high expectations in Detroit.

Injured knee or ankle? Got it. We have Dr. James Andrews on speed dial.

Back issues? Tougher but fixable.

Brain lock? Or some other mental or psychological matter? (Crickets. Crickets. Crickets.)

Something was wrong with Dontrelle Willis. Something big. Something that transformed the most exciting and dominant young pitcher in the game -- a feel-good story, the son of a single mom who worked as a welder -- into Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn.

But no one knew what it was. No one knew why the kid who high-kicked like Juan Marichal and won 22 games in 2005 suddenly couldn't find home plate even if Monk, the quirky TV detective, were standing alongside him on the mound. Willis was a phenom in the flesh -- going 68-54 in five seasons for the Florida Marlins before being traded to Detroit, whereupon he went 0-2 (9.38 ERA) and 1-4 (7.49) in 2008 and 2009.

Willis walked nine White Sox batters in his first two outings with the Tigers, then hyperextended his left knee, an injury that was partially blamed for his subsequent struggles.

When later appearances produced similarly numbing results, well, no one knew why. In March 2009, Willis was placed on the 15-day disabled list with an anxiety disorder. He was activated in May and made seven abysmal starts before returning to the DL, again with anxiety disorder, for the rest of the season.

[+] EnlargeZach Greinke
G. Newman Lowrance/Getty ImagesAfter nearly quitting baseball, Zack Greinke returned to win the Cy Young. Why do some players recover from mental blocks while others don't?

Funny thing, though: Willis displayed none of the typical symptoms. Going to the mound didn't cause him to freak out. The thought of perhaps hitting a batter didn't paralyze him. The anxiety didn't prevent him from pitching. He just couldn't throw strikes to save his life. Instead, the Tigers said an abnormality was discovered in his blood that prompted the diagnosis. Willis told The Detroit News: It is "not something where I'm too amped up, I don't know where I'm at, and I'm running sprints up and down the parking lot."

Sports is a daily testament to the miracle of science, physical science. New procedures and therapies have transformed many of what were once career-ending injuries into a DL "vacation." Sports medicine has broken down every action and reaction, every motion and movement, and devised NASA-like surgeries and special forces-like rehab programs to "fix" an athlete when his body breaks down.

But what about when his mind breaks down, when it's the brain, not the body, that suddenly can't function? Some athletes have been treated successfully and returned to form, but just as often sports shows that, in this area, it still can appear stuck in the Paleolithic Era.

Sure, a plethora of sports psychologists hover around stadiums and arenas, but no one with the gravitas of a Dr. Andrews. Perhaps because sports executives -- like much of the nation -- haven't fully embraced the "fuzzy" notion of psychological disorders, let alone how to treat them. They understand a busted shoulder. A busted brain? Not so much.

So otherwise smart men and women too often scratch their heads and say, well, generally nothing.

Willis is Exhibit A in sports' inability to deal with the body's most vital organ and the impact that any tweak in its function may have on performance. But he's certainly not the only baseball player to suffer an emotional failing.

• In 2009, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto endured debilitating panic attacks and depression after the death of his father. "They were overwhelming me to the point where I needed to go to the hospital on two separate occasions," he told the Toronto Star. "I would go on the field and do my best, [but] the stuff I was dealing with off the field finally seeped its way into the game, and I just couldn't get out there." Votto saw several doctors and underwent treatment that included therapy.

[+] EnlargeRick Ankiel
Peter Newcomb/AFP/Getty ImagesRick Ankiel got an out on this wild pitch in 2000, but his baseball legacy will be one of unrealized piching talent.

Kansas City Royals kid pitching sensation Zack Greinke started last season 5-0 with a 0.50 ERA (not a misprint) and 44 K's, and he went on to win the Cy Young. Just four seasons ago, depression and social anxiety nearly caused him to quit baseball. A sports psychologist and anti-depressants helped him recover, as did the Royals. "We've been able to create an environment that has clear direction and a consistent way of doing things where Zack feels comfortable," GM Dayton Moore told USA Today.

• In 2000, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel, then just 21 years old, was unexpectedly thrust into starting Game 1 of the NL Division Series against future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux and the Atlanta Braves. After two solid innings, Ankiel cracked, walking four hitters in the third. More critically, he threw five wild pitches in the third inning alone -- becoming the first major leaguer to do that in more than a century. He later joked about it, but he never pitched well again. Ankiel is now an outfielder with the Royals. In the book "Three Nights in August," written with the blessing of Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, author Buzz Bissinger wrote that the manager's decision to start Ankiel in that NLDS game "perhaps haunts him more than any he has ever made."

Willis is now pitching for his career. A solid spring (and the Nate Robertson trade to the Florida Marlins) earned him the starter job at the end of the Tigers' rotation -- far from the role they thought he would play when they signed him to a three-year, $29 million shortly after his arrival.

It's not certain whether the Tigers did much more than wring their hands and hope Willis regained the magic that made him one of baseball's brightest young stars. Oh, they tightened his delivery to facilitate more control. Baseball stuff.

Perhaps the best remedy came not from a doctor but from Willis' grandmother, Naomi. Her counsel: Enjoy the game again. Remember the joy.

Willis took one leg-kick toward happiness in his first start of 2010 on Thursday at Kansas City. He pitched six innings, and struck out four while awarding only two free passes and two runs, along with seven scattered hits. He left trailing 2-1 but didn't factor in the decision as the Tigers rallied for a 7-3 win.

People are rooting for him, but it may be too late for Willis to shed the label as baseball's biggest enigma.

For the sake of future stars, baseball and other sports must learn to do as good a job of diagnosing and treating "mind" injuries as they do when the body breaks down.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com