In the 1992 movie “A League Of Their Own,” based on the true story of a long-ago women’s professional baseball league, Tom Hanks pronounced the most memorable words of his accomplished acting career.
“There’s no crying in baseball!” bellowed Hanks, portraying a manager more familiar with batting swings than mood swings.
It’s a classic scene, simultaneously funny and sad and profound, but the manager’s rant is a falsehood. As Rainiers starter Rob Whalen can verify, there’s crying in baseball.
Among the dozens of pitchers who shuttled between Tacoma and Seattle last season, Whalen got called into the office of manager Scott Servais for a conversation no competitive athlete wants to hear.
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Servais told Whalen of the club’s plans to send him down to Double-A. It was a humiliating demotion – Whalen had been a fast-track Braves prospect in 2016 – but there were other issues clouding the horizon.
“I started crying and broke down,” Whalen recalled Tuesday after a Rainiers workout at Cheney Stadium. “I told Scott, ‘I’ve got stuff going on, I think I need to go home. I need a break. I don’t want to quit but something is affecting me personally and I’ve to get my head right.’”
Whalen was suffering from depression, a curious disorder for a pitcher talented enough to have made his 2016 big-league debut at age 22. Whalen realized he was supposed to be on a dream-life cruise – a pro ballplayer poised for a lucrative career – but the dreams were haunted. He was miserable “every day last year, every day. It didn’t matter whether I pitched good or bad.
“I remember sitting at my locker, thinking that I want to be somewhere else, and then remembering there’s no where else I’d rather be. This is the best place in the world. This is what I’ve always wanted to do my whole life. But I needed to get away. I couldn’t breathe.”
The Mariners organization takes a progressive approach about the mental side of the game. Cynics might shrug it off as psychobabble, but a strong arm means nothing without a clear head and a happy heart.
Whalen’s cry for help put him in touch with a counselor who knew nothing about the pitcher’s history and, for that matter, nothing about baseball. In other words, the perfect fit.
Whalen believes his comeback was further enhanced by a pastor’s sermon he heard in Orlando over the winter.
“When I was 7-8 years old, I kind of got out of church for a number of reasons,” he said. “Playing travel ball on Sundays, I didn’t have time for church.
“But as I got older, I realized I was missing things in my life. The pastor talked about how your soul feels. About how a person can have everything – money, women, wealth, whatever – and still feel miserable.
“That’s how I felt. I got to big leagues at 22, the day I had always yearned for. But how was my soul that day? How is my soul right now?”
Only Whalen knows that. The rest of us, on the outside looking in, are left to evaluate the right-hander’s potential as a cog in a Seattle rotation.
His 2017 numbers were grim: A 6.14 ERA off two appearances in the big leagues, a 6.58 ERA off 10 stars with the Rainiers. He finished 0-7 in Tacoma.
There were mitigating circumstances beyond his mental health. Surgeries on both knees stressed Whalen’s arm. Pitchers are human thouroughbreds, vulnerable to the slightest of ailments. He didn’t feel right.
Whalen showed up at Mariners’ camp 20 pounds lighter than he was a year ago, thanks to a health-food diet supplemented by arduous training drills. The curveball, a pitch he mastered in grade school, was snapping.
“He had a great spring,” said Rainiers manager Pat Listach. “One troubling start, but for the most part, he was impressive. He threw four different pitches for strikes and his fastball was moving really well. I expect to see a different Rob than we saw last year.”
Whalen is 24, poised to deliver on an unlimited future. The arm is strong, the head is balanced. He’s no longer the kid who cried in the manager’s office, but the history can’t be denied. He cried in the manager’s office.
“Not something I want to hide from, or run away from,” Whalen said. “It happened. It was the beginning of the next chapter of my life.”
The chapter starts with the most essential of comeback-season themes.
A breath of fresh air.