Why mental challenges for Cubs as big as physical during baseball shutdown


John Baker, the former Cubs catcher, saw a version of it in Iraq.

While playing for the Marlins in 2010, he was part of a team contingent that visited soldiers, many on consecutive tours.

Now the Cubs’ applied mental skills coach, Baker flashes back to that trip when he considers some of the mental and emotional issues that might face baseball players if Major League Baseball finds a way to start its season this summer — in what would almost certainly be limited locations under quarantine-like conditions, possibly without families allowed.

RELATED: Cubs would welcome 2020 season full of experiments, asterisks

“It starts to sound a whole lot like military deployment,” said Baker, who recalls soldiers well into their second years in the field, a continent away from family, subsisting on meals of bologna and cheese sandwiches.

“I can say they survived that,” he said of the long-term separation issue. “They got back to their families.

“This stuff is survivable.”

Baker certainly is not comparing baseball to war, he said. And he’s not trying to suggest any part of the more extreme plans being discussed for squeezing in a season during a pandemic are good if players are separated from families for the duration — “that’s heartbreaking,” said the father of two young daughters.

“At the same time, when circumstances grow dire, people tend to stick together and make sacrifices that tend to help other people.”

Baseball is a long way from acquiring the means to even predict when a 2020 season might be possible from a physical safety standpoint, as COVID-19 remains a crisis-level threat to national health; the testing capacity alone does not appear close to being available.

Never mind the non-physical challenges associated with lengthy shelter-in-place periods, potential biosphere-like conditions of a restart and the anxiety of constant uncertainty in between.

That mental and emotional factor is something that often gets lost in the discussions surrounding what it might take for players to prepare and perform, much less at a high level — or even what many might be enduring as they enter the second month of the industry shutdown.

“There are a lot of unique challenges right now because the tools that are normally available to offseason athletes are not available,” said Dr. Michele Kerulis, professor of counseling and sport psychology at Northwestern University, talking about mental challenges beyond general-population anxieties during the pandemic. 

“People are used to having downtime, but they can fill that downtime with activities,” she added of things like joining others to throw, hit or condition. “The fact that we can’t do that right now and that’s completely out of our control is extremely difficult for people.

"So not only do you have this sense of ‘what do I do now,’ but you have a sense of collective loss and grief, confusion, anger and such a roller coaster of emotions that people aren’t used to experiencing or aren’t used to understanding how to deal with during times like this.”

Baker wouldn’t discuss specifically how much he’s working with Cubs players through this unique time for pro and college athletes in all sports or examples of what is being talked through.

But more broadly, he said, baseball operations staff across multiple departments are in constant contact with players — and players with each other — during a shutdown fraught with speculation, guesswork training regimens, in many cases financial concerns and isolation, and all in the midst of rising numbers of infections and deaths globally.

“Playing at the highest level of sports mentally, it’s just not a light switch,” Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg said, citing the sudden lack of all normal mental timetables and rhythms of the calendar, from winter through spring training and throughout a six-month season.

“This sitting around [with uncertainty], even I feel a little bit stagnant from it and — not lazy, but I just feel like I really don’t know what I’m preparing for. Let alone a major league player.”

RELATED: Cubs great Ryne Sandberg: Jim Frey's influence 'took me to the Hall of Fame'

Not even the two-month strike of 1981 or the strike/lockout that wiped out the 1994 World Series and pushed the 1995 season into late April offer precedents for some of the mental well-being issues that might impact players the longer they’re at home — and if they restart in 2020 as the country still battles the pandemic.

One big difference is that players had a seat at the table and the power to negotiate conditions and timetables for returns.

Baker talked about the “self-determination theory” of human motivation as it relates to high-performance athletes.

“It’s important to understand that people function best when they’re autonomous [or personally control what they can], when they feel competent and feel relatedness,” said Baker, emphasizing he was not talking about his team specifically.

But with no games, no timeline and no way to assimilate team constructs?

“As a result, we don’t have an avenue to display our competence, and no one feels related; we’re not getting that normal human contact we’re used to.

“These are the concerns I think about.”

Players are doing their best to stay physically prepared at home while team facilities and gyms are closed to them, as evidenced by countless examples on social media:

Cubs second baseman Jason Kipnis at his own batting cage in the Chicago area; third baseman Kris Bryant at his cage in Las Vegas; pitcher Adbert Alzolay building his own Astroturf-covered ramp/mound to use at home in Arizona; and Arizona roomies Ian Happ, Nico Hoerner, Zack Short and Dakota Mekkes working out in a homemade garage gym equipped with whatever they could borrow from the spring complex before it shut down.

But staying in shape for exactly what kind of season? Exactly when?

As Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber said: “You have to figure out what [the extent of] this is and then be able to figure out if families are going to be safe and things like that before you can even focus on a season.”

He said that during the final week players were allowed — with latex gloves and distancing precautions — to use the Cubs’ spring workout and practice facilities.

That was a month ago.

Since then, Major League Baseball and the players union have agreed to short-term pay for players during the shutdown and discussed multiple scenarios for an abbreviated season that would involve televised games at spring training ballparks, without fans allowed, and quarantine-like restrictions that might involve prohibiting families.

Players including Anthony Rizzo, Steve Cishek and Mike Trout have publicly pushed back on such extreme conditions. But others, such as White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, have said they’re willing if it means being able to have a season.

RELATED: Anthony Rizzo points to Kris Bryant's newborn as issue with Arizona proposal

Dr. Kerulis, the Northwestern professor, who also has a private practice, talked about how difficult that might be for players and families used to traveling together.

“In addition, you have a member of the household leaving, even though it’s for work. So then you have the remaining members of the household still dealing with the stress of this pandemic, kids not being in school,” she said.

But even beyond that, she said, “I think a lot of the stress that we see in our essential workers right now we’ll continue to see in the athletic population when they return to play. So think about the mental toughness and focus and different terms people use to describe sports psychology skills. But if you have an individual who is concerned about their family, and their mindset is focused on home that can make it difficult to return to play.”

On the other hand, if there’s a group of athletes in any sport equipped to handle the mental adversity of unstable conditions, lengthy stretches of isolation and even time away from family, Baker thinks it might be baseball players — who in the vast majority of cases endure modest-to-poor living conditions in the minor leagues before making significant salaries and who in all cases endure lengthy slumps even during the best seasons.

“I believe baseball players in particular are very resilient and very tough,” Baker said. “Nobody in any other sport deals with as much failure as baseball players. As a result, you can learn a lot watching how people play the game, obviously. But to come back from this as well, I expect players to bounce back resiliently.”

Of course, nobody under the age of 101 has seen pandemic in this country anything like this one for its scope and mortality rate.

And no baseball player ever has seen one shut down a season for even this long.

“It’s unprecedented,” Cubs infielder David Bote said.

Even as Baker measures the unique challenges major league athletes are dealing with, he remains acutely aware of the stress and anxieties that are shared by all of us during the crisis.

A former minor-league manager, Webster Garrison, spent weeks on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19 until recovering enough to breathe on his own in recent days. Another friend and her son “had it bad” before fighting through and recovering, Baker said.

“I recommend everybody prepare for a new reality,” he said. “We have never faced something like this before. And trying to run away from how you feel is not the best solution either. If you feel like you can’t stop thinking about something like this, I recommend people seek help. Find a clinical psychologist. This stuff works. If you have the resources to seek help, I would do that sooner than later, too.”

In the weeks since “non-essential” businesses closed, shelter-in-place orders became widespread and job losses soared, suicide hotlines have reported spikes in calls nationwide — one Los Angeles clinic along going from 20 COVID-related calls in February to more than 1,800 in March, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Mental health professionals such as Dr. Kerulis have experienced increased workloads.

“The things that are important are the things we need to focus on in these moments,” Baker said. “I think that all major league players are doing that now, focusing on their family and when baseball comes back how they can provide quality entertainment for when people are stuck at home.”

That kind of constructive thinking is key during this uncertainty, said Baker, who mentioned the personal benefits of some of the community outreach and relief work players are doing — including Rizzo, Hoerner, Schwarber, Happ and Jason Heyward.

RELATED: Cubs' Jason Heyward to donate $200K to coronavirus relief in Chicago

And if the time comes to start playing again before the country’s health and economy are stabilized, that larger-purpose mindset might serve the players well.

“A lot of people are feeling like they need to do something, and our professional athletes have such intense and amazing physical abilities and skills,” Dr. Kerulis said. “That’s their talent that they choose to share with the world and bring joy to people so they might also feel that sense of doing something. Most people feel like they want to do something so that might be their contribution to society, to alleviate some of the stress people are experiencing and to provide sports as a way to bring people together.”

When Baker imagines what a “new normal” might look like on the other side of this pandemic, for everybody, he brings up the book Tribe, which explores the dynamics of soldiers returning home, and “that in the toughest times for different populations how close people tend to bond.

“I’m hoping that happens [for us] as well,” he said. “When we can all go back and hug, I hope it happens more often. Even if it’s air hugs, or fist bumps or elbow taps.”

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.
Contact Us