It’s mere minutes before Michael Saunders has to be on the field for his first official batting practice since returning to the Seattle Mariners, and he is struggling to speak.
There’s a baseball-sized lump in his throat, and he’s fighting off tears.
What has sapped the pregame adrenaline rush of being back in the big leagues and reduced him to a state of near melancholy?
He was talking about his mom, Jane, and her long off-and-on battle with cancer. It began with breast cancer when Saunders was much younger and now has returned in her lower back.
“This is my mom’s fourth stint now,” he said. “Just when you think it’s over, it comes back. She’s still fighting it. She’s a really strong woman, but my heart and my mind can’t help but go out to her.”
And at the moment, Saunders isn’t so much a 6-foot-4, 225-pound man-child of a baseball player who can run, throw, hit and someday permanently patrol a spot in the Mariners’ outfield. No, he’s simply a young man trying to find a way to balance the demands of work and family, career and life, and all the curveballs and heartaches that come along the way.
“You have to try to isolate your personal life from your performance on the field,” Saunders said. “I try to. But it’s hard.”
His mom’s battle with cancer wasn’t common knowledge. General manager Jack Zduriencik was asked about Saunders’ meager hitting to start the season with Tacoma. He mentioned the continued tweaking of Saunders’ swing mechanics and new approach, but Zduriencik also mentioned what the young outfielder has been dealing with off the field.
“I’m not saying that’s the entire reason for his struggles,” Zduriencik said. “But there are some other issues that you may not know about.”
Most people who were in the room when Zduriencik said it did not know those other circumstances.
Should they matter? Heck, yes, they matter.
When it comes to professional athletes, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that they live and operate in an athletic vacuum, where their life revolves solely around competition and performance.
But in the past week with Seattle Mariners, we’ve come to realize that life outside baseball can often leak into the game.
No one is quite sure what the “personal issues” are that forced Milton Bradley to ask for off-the-field help from Zduriencik and manager Don Wakamatsu. But for someone who is as prideful as Bradley is to ask for help, it speaks of something relatively serious.
Saunders, who was called up to replace Bradley on the roster, empathized with him without even knowing for certain why Bradley was gone.
“My heart goes out to him,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but as soon as you hear the words ‘personal reasons,’ it’s never good.”
It’s another reminder that baseball players aren’t robots, even if we tend to measure their on-the-field production like they are. Sure, with the type of salaries players are paid for basically playing a game, we’d like them to be closer to robots and role models. But “real life” is going to find a way to creep in.
Ideally, we’d like players to block it out and go about their business, but it isn’t quite so simple.
Do a simple self-examination of your last personal crises and think about how many times you’d dwell on it during your work day. Now imagine trying to shrug off those thoughts and perform at the highest of levels of competition in a setting against other people of the same talent – all with people paying to watch.
Mariners pitcher Ian Snell had a lackluster outing April 11 against the Texas Rangers, and after the game it was revealed that Snell had been dealing with some personal issues. Three days later he was headed home for a funeral of a family member.
“In the back of your mind, you’re thinking, ‘Are they going to make it today?’ ” he said. “They could go in an hour or the next five minutes, and you have to go out there and block that out. It’s tough, especially when it’s someone close to your family.”
To most any person, even major leaguers, family trumps all else.
“Baseball is not going to last forever, but your family is going to be there for you with or without it,” Snell said. “And you have to try and be there for them.”
These aren’t isolated incidents. Last season, Rob Johnson left the team after his wife’s mother was killed in a car crash in Texas. In 2008, first baseman Casey Kotchman, who was then with the Atlanta Braves, left the team for two weeks to be with his mother, Sue, who suffered a brain hemorrhage.
Only in baseball, it’s not always that easy. Distance and demands take their toll.
“I’ve missed funerals in the past because my old team wouldn’t let me go,” Snell said.
Saunders was told about his mom’s cancer returning right before spring training. And now that she’s going through chemotherapy again, he can’t exactly leave work early to go visit.
“We’re lucky to be able to do what we do, but when we’re away from the park, everyone has their own personal issues; sometimes good, sometimes bad,” Saunders said.
But in the demand for results, wins and numbers, it can get lost. Passionate baseball fans sometimes need to a gentle reminder.
“I think some people don’t realize that we deal with real life like everybody else does” former M’s outfielder Eric Byrnes said earlier this season. “This isn’t a fairy tale world that we live in. We all deal with tragedy and loss at some point in our life, and like everybody, it hurts.”
“Don’t get me wrong, we are all very thankful to play this game for a career. But outside of the game, real life still exists.”
The players aren’t making excuses or looking for sympathy.
They are looking for empathy.
“We have the same issues they have,” Snell said. “But we have to deal with it in a different way. Sometimes you wish they can feel what we feel.”
Believe me, we do. Sometimes we just needed to be reminded of it.