How baseball helped this writer manage her mental health

“Sports is a mental health powder keg.”

Toronto Blue Jays’ Darrell Ceciliani, right, celebrates with teammates after hitting a grand slam home run against the Philadelphia Phillies in the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game, Friday, March 17, 2017, in Clearwater, Fla. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Raoux
Toronto Blue Jays’ Darrell Ceciliani, right, celebrates with teammates after hitting a grand slam home run against the Philadelphia Phillies in the fifth inning of a spring training baseball game, Friday, March 17, 2017, in Clearwater, Fla. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Raoux

When sportswriters in today’s polarized society veer outside of the confines of the points and plays, winners and losers, and fields and courts they cover, they’re often met with a firm retort from sports fans: “Stick to sports.”

It’s a tired command that is rooted in the misconception that sports are walled off completely from the personal and political and social happenings of the rest of the universe.

Toronto-based sportswriter Stacey May Fowles has a new book of essays, Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game that Saved Me, that proves once and for all that this type of separation is not even possible.

N.Maxwell LanderStacey May Fowles CREDIT: N.Maxwell Lander
N.Maxwell LanderStacey May Fowles CREDIT: N.Maxwell Lander

Fowles seamlessly weaves together stories of crushing baseball losses, her recovery from sexual assault, the power of having a favorite players (a “gateway player,” as she calls it), the agony of her infertility struggles, and the joy of bat flips without ever missing a beat.

The love that Fowles has for baseball, especially her Toronto Blue Jays, is contagious (trust me, you can’t miss it), but she’s also not afraid to address the imperfections of the sport — how unwelcome she often feels as a woman sportswriter and fan in baseball; how poorly Major League Baseball (MLB) has historically dealt with mental illness and sexual violence; and how a lack of racial diversity is holding back the game.

This book is about the intimacy of fandom, and how baseball provided a structure and a portal for Fowles to deal with anxiety, depression, fertility struggles, and PTSD.

Fowles talked to ThinkProgress about why baseball is such a useful tool for dealing with the tough things in life, the huge problem the sport still has with sexism, and why there’s nothing wrong with admitting a player is attractive.

There are a lot of places we could begin this interview, but I’d like to start with the forward, which is a powerful piece of writing written by R.A. Dickey [a former Toronto Blue Jay who has been incredibly outspoken about the sexual abuse he experienced as a child].

How did that forward come about, and what was your reaction when you read his words?

I’d interviewed R.A. a couple of times over the course of writing about baseball, and he’s an incredibly open, warm, forthcoming person. A lot of the interviews with him were incredibly human and unlike other interviews I’ve done before. It was just a matter of asking him.

He agreed to read some of the essays in the book, and a few months later he sent me the forward, and I’m not afraid to admit that I cried when I read it. It was an emotional moment.

I’ll admit that I’m not a diehard baseball fan, but I still deeply related to the way you talked about what the sport meant to you. It reminded me of my love for tennis. Did you expect this book to be something that non-baseball fans could appreciate as well?

A lot of the feedback I got early on early on when I was writing the newsletter was from people who used baseball to get through the darker times in our lives. [Editors note: Fowles has a weekly newsletter, Baseball Life Advice, which she started in 2015. Many of the essays in the book are adapted from this newsletter.] They talked about getting through grief or illness, and how the game kept them company gave and them a way not only to escape the things that were hard for them, but also to better understand how they were feeling and what was going on.

But since the book came out, there have been people who have said, “I don’t even love baseball that much, but I understand this idea of loving something wholeheartedly, unabashedly, even irrationally is a way to help you through the darker times of your life.”

You talk so candidly about your personal issues in this book — particularly about your trouble conceiving, which is often a taboo topic. What is it about baseball that made you feel safe addressing such intimate topics?

I’ve always noticed that being at a sporting event with another person provides a space to talk about things that are hard. There’s something about the environment of sports where we feel that we’re meeting in a place where we can talk and share things.

When I originally wrote that piece on infertility, the reaction to it was that a lot of people connected to the sport of baseball have struggled with infertility, especially men who had struggled through it with their partners. To use the lens of baseball to look at something so personal and so difficult, it was refreshing and helpful.

So many people have talked to me about the difficult things, and their entry point its baseball.

“It’s incredibly inspiring to see how a pitcher can fail so incredibly one day and then come back and do it again and try again.”

As someone who has also dealt with mental illness and anxiety, I was moved by your discussions of how baseball players — and pitchers in particular — have helped you improve your mental health and resiliency. Has that always been the case?

When I was younger and I was a baseball fan, all I wanted to do was see my guy hit the ball. It wasn’t until I was older and I was diagnosed with anxiety that I started to become fascinated and develop so much more respect for the role of the pitcher in the game.

To go out there and be at the center of this match-up and be emotionally resilient enough at the prospect of failure on a grand scale. It’s inspiring to watch. It’s incredibly inspiring to see how a pitcher can fail so incredibly one day and then come back and do it again and try again. It’s such a simple, almost juvenile lesson, but I think it’s something we forget as we get older — come back and fight another day. I think with experiencing my own mental health struggles and maturing as a fan I have so much more affinity for what pitchers must go through, even as a non-athlete.

Sports is a mental health powder keg — to be constantly exposed and to perform with so much pressure, so many people watching, and very often people being abusive towards you. It’s so interesting that mainstream sports conversations don’t touch on that very much. It’s incredibly rare in the MLB that you have a player, especially while he’s a player, talking about his mental health issues.

For obvious reasons, I loved how directly you addressed sexism in the sport — from being harassed as a fan at games by drunken men, to being questioned about your credentials as a sports reporter because of your gender. I often find myself wondering, how is this still such a big issue in 2017?

Sports media seems to lag behind other genres of writing. For whatever reason it has been acceptable for all sportswriters to all look the same, and for women in this realm to get pushback. I feel like a lot of the writing in this book is trying to work through why exactly that is.

Why is it still so acceptable for this culture to be dominated by a majority of white men? Why is there no concern about what that is portraying? I feel it in the ballpark as a fan, and I feel it when I’m writing, and I’m trying to start a conversation about why it’s so acceptable for only men to be talking about this game.

“So much of this book is about how hard it is to find joy, and how sports offers us this place to just feel exuberantly and love unabashedly and be our most open and vulnerable selves.”

I felt very liberated reading your manifesto on hot baseball players. Why do you think there’s still the notion that you can’t be a serious baseball fan if you also point out that a player is attractive?

It’s this strange idea that used to prevent women from being considered “real fans.” It’s funny, because when I talked to women for that piece, the thing that struck me was none of them were being exploitative or objectifying the men — there was an appreciation in their tone.

Like you say in the book, when it comes to male athletes, “their sexual attraction isn’t systematically oppressing them” in the same way it does for women.

Yeah, I think that’s an interesting contrast to the way we treat female athletes, or the way we treat player’s wives. There is a line between appreciation and objectification, but I don’t think admiring how good a player looks precludes you from fandom.

To conclude, as a casual baseball fan, I would just like to thank you for defending baseball fans — nothing infuriates me more than the outrage over bat flips.

Honestly, I love a good bat flip. I love baseball so much that even though I’m loyal to my team, I love the entire broad spectacle of baseball. I’ve cheered for the bat flips of my mortal enemies. It’s just such a beautiful thing, and as I say in the book, I like this idea and this model of people celebrating their accomplishments.

From a mental health standpoint, I think it’s so important that we all learn to celebrate when we do something good.

The experience of joy. So much of this book is about how hard it is to find joy, and how sports offers us this place to just feel exuberantly and love unabashedly and be our most open and vulnerable selves, and the idea that we’re trying to stop players from showing the emotions that we all have in the moment is just silly to me.

We need to feel good things.

This interview has been edited and condensed for editorial purposes.