He didn’t want to look in the mirror that morning. He’d been floating by mirrors for some time now, his reflection a shadowy distortion. He didn’t like the face he saw, either. He didn’t like what he was becoming.
He reached for the stubble on his chin as he dragged his feet across the natty hotel room rug that morning, eyelids half-mast and not too eager to begin a new day with a hot shower. He hated the dark place where he was; only he didn’t know he was in a dark place. Maybe today will be different, he tried to convince himself. Maybe I’ll look forward to going to the ballpark and throwing again, he thought.
That’s when Taylor Buchholz hit his nadir.
He had no idea what was coursing through his body. But something gripped him. Clutched him hard. His joints locked. He couldn’t stand. Buchholz remembers bracing himself up against the bathroom tile of the shower stall and realizing the water falling from his face wasn’t coming from the showerhead. They were his tears.
He pounded his fist against the wall in frustration, wondering where this overflow of emotion, where the uncontrollable sobbing originated.
What Buchholz, a graduate, experienced that day in May 2010 was typical, though very frightening to him at the time. The scene took place in a Modesto, California hotel when Buchholz was on a minor league rehab assignment then with the Colorado Rockies Class A affiliate Modesto Nuts. It seemed appropriate. Buchholz feared he was losing control and going nuts himself.
What the New York Mets relief pitcher discovered was that he suffers from depression, a diagnosis that carried a certain stigma decades ago though it’s actually a physical disease that requires medication, psychological counseling and other treatment. Close to 19 million American adults, or 9.5 percent of the U.S. population 18 years or older, endure a depressive disorder each year, studies show.
Depression doesn’t discriminate. Even Major League Baseball pitchers enjoying a career resurgence can fall victim.
Players like the gregarious Buchholz, someone who would normally whistle through a clubhouse and constantly wear a beaming smile. A major league clubhouse can often be filled with malcontents, but Buchholz was never one of them. He was the go-to guy the media always found accessible, the kind of player the club could put out in front as a good, positive representative for public appearances or to speak with school children.
That’s the guy Taylor Buchholz is.
This season in New York, he wasn’t. He was the anti-Taylor, more of a recluse. On May 30, the Mets placed Buchholz on the 15-day disabled list and came out publicly with what was ailing the right-handed reliever, who had posted a 3.12 ERA in 26 innings and a 1-1 record. Signed by the Mets as a free agent after three seasons with Colorado, Buchholz made 23 appearances and was one of the bright spots in New York’s bullpen, beating Philadelphia with two innings of shutout relief in a 2-1 Mets’ victory on May 1.
He made his last appearance on May 29, again against Philadelphia, and that was it for the 29-year-old Buchholz.
It all stems back to that day in Modesto. When someone who’s been a rock to everyone around him throughout his life began to crumble and wonder why.
“I really didn’t know what was going on,” said Buchholz, a five-year Major Leaguer, originally drafted by the Phillies in the sixth round in 2000. “But when I think back on it, maybe it was a sign that the team psychologist [Ron Svetich] was there in Modesto when I broke down. I saw Svetich the day before in the clubhouse and I remember him asking me how I felt. I told him I was great. I lied to him. Then the next morning, I was showering, and I broke out into this crying fit. When I went back to the clubhouse later that day, I pulled Svetich aside.”
Buchholz then proceeded to explain to Svetich what was going on, the pangs of anxiety, the heart palpitations, the nervous twitches, and wild muscle spasms he was experiencing. It was just Buchholz and Svetich speaking to each other alone in an empty dugout, hours before game time, when Buchholz was struck again …
“I literally broke down right then and let him know everything,” Taylor recalled. “It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I’m there crying to another man. But Svetich recognized there was a problem. He was fantastic and someone that helped me get through this. At that point, I didn’t want anything to come out, because I was totally embarrassed about it. I’m a man’s man who’s supposed to be tough and not breaking down into tears for no reason. I didn’t feel like a man, I’ve been the one that’s been the rock in my relationships.”
Someone else was about to step to the fore and take that mantle over for Buchholz, his wife, Ashley. The two had met when Taylor was pitching for Houston. He just had signed her autograph, and she was about to return to her seat, when a security guard playfully insisted she wasn’t getting away without writing down her number for the Astros’ reliever. The two spoke almost constantly on the phone before they began dating, and now they’re inseparable.
There was just one issue Taylor needed to confront—Ashley didn’t know what was going on. The Rockies gave Buchholz a checklist of symptoms for depression—all of which he fit the description. He suffered from extreme irritability, snapping at anything on anyone in an instant over trivial things. He’d watch a comedy and couldn’t laugh. It was as if someone had taken possession of his soul.
“You become very good at lying with depression, and the biggest lie is to yourself,” Buchholz said. “This has been an ongoing thing for two-and-a-half, three years and I had no idea what was going on. I was totally irritable, but I was able to fake it around people. I would normally be the guy whistling and singing and smiling around the clubhouse. But with total anxiety, I had this tightness all of the time. I was constantly on edge and I’d come home to Ashley, and I hate to say it, I’d take it out on her. She’s my angel; I give her so much credit for putting up with me. Just that it wasn’t me. I shut off people, and I became a hermit. I wouldn’t go out in public.
“So when the Rockies gave me this paperwork, I came back to Denver from Modesto, gave Ashley a hug and a kiss, and I remember throwing the paperwork at her, like ‘Can you believe this!” I had to be the man and be tough. I’m the husband, a major league baseball player. I kept thinking major league players don’t go through this.”
Yet the signs persisted. Taylor kept feeling as if he had bugs running through his body. Ashley recalls going down the checklist: spasms and jerks, check; convulsions in the middle of the night, check; heart palpitations, check; irritability, double-check.
“I read it and it all sounded like Taylor,” Ashley said. “He’d have such strong convulsions in the middle of the night that I used to think they were seizures. We’d watch a movie on the couch, or be lying up in bed, and he’d start crying. We like going out to eat, and he never went out. The times he did, he’d go out in sweatpants and really didn’t care what anyone thought. I know Taylor. He’s the most giving, caring person I ever met. This person wasn’t my husband. He was that different.”
Buchholz attributes the depression to a perfect storm of circumstances. He underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2009, scuttling that season after experiencing his best year in the majors in 2008, when he appeared in 63 games, posting a 2.17 ERA in going 6-6, after helping the Rockies reach the World Series in 2007.
Another gaping hole in his life was the time he was absent from his young son Jayden, who was living with his mother in Havertown, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, a leafy suburb just west of Philadelphia where Taylor is originally from and where he still calls home.
“I couldn’t hang out with my son Jayden, and that hurt, plus I was coming back from Tommy John, and I just remember being miserable all of the time,” Buchholz said. “I was going to the field miserable and I had to go there and fake it, put on the face for everyone like I was happy to be there. Just going out there and playing catch was a constant battle. I’d sleep for 12 hours and lay in bed all day and still feel tired. I used to be the kind of player that would be the first guy to the field and the last one to leave. My body was breaking down and I shut off people. I turned into the guy that was last to arrive to the park, and the first one out.”
Buchholz gradually began to feel better after 2010, when the Rockies narrowed down the cause of his behavior. But he appeared in only seven games for the Rockies in 2010. He was released by Colorado late last season and picked up briefly by the Toronto Blue Jays, and then became a free agent. Prior to this season, Toronto and Boston offered minor league contracts, and rumors began to swirl in major league corners about Buchholz’ condition.
Still, Mets’ general manager Sandy Alderson took a chance knowing Buchholz past and offered him a major league contract for $600,000, plus a $400,000 bonus if he made the club. Buchholz signed with the Mets on January 3, 2011. A great spring was followed by some strong performances this season, and then Buchholz began experiencing shoulder fatigue.
“That’s very real, my shoulder began bothering me, and then all of the anxiety started building back up again,” Buchholz said. “The signs were there. I struggle with being perfect. In 2008, I had a great year with the Rockies; in 2009, I got to the point where I pushed myself so hard with perfectionism that it reached a point where it became too much and I got hurt. With the Mets, it reached a point where I’d throw a bullpen and I’d throw 40 pitches, maybe throw 30 pitches for strikes and the 10 pitches I missed I’d dwell on. I’d carry those pitches to the clubhouse, back to my home. I started hiding in the clubhouse, going away from people. But this time I knew what was going on. This time I knew what I had to do.
“The Mets have been amazing to me and they even hid it for a while. I kept getting questions and I started lying to people what was happening to me. I felt bad about that. I didn’t want them to lie about my situation anymore; I needed to let everyone know. That felt good to get it off my chest. I felt like I was letting people down and everyone has been so supportive, especially Alderson.”
If there was someone who shined throughout this process it was Alderson. Dave Pasti, who’s been Buchholz’ agent throughout his 12-year pro career, had shopped his client around to a number of teams.
“Sandy actually called me and I had to let him know what was going on with Taylor when the Mets first thought about signing him,” Pasti said. “We wanted to be honest and put it out there that Taylor was feeling better. When the Mets put Taylor on the DL, Alderson was a real prince in this whole thing. I dealt with a lot of different GMs, but Sandy is a man full of integrity, and he really handled this thing the best way you could. He really treated Taylor great.”
Which hit Buchholz.
“I had to apologize to him,” Taylor said. “Alderson gave me a shot when a lot of teams passed up on me. He gave me the chance and I kind of felt like I let him down. I remember meeting up in his office and having a five-, 10-minute conversation about it. I was upset and I apologized to him about it. I felt I like let him down, and the team down. He just wanted me to get better. I have so much respect for him.”
RETURNING TO TAYLOR
He’s lost about 20, 25 pounds, dropping to around 205. But Taylor Buchholz is able to smile. He’s back home in Springfield with his wife and son Jayden. It’s the first summer he’s had back home in 12 years, and he often fills the nights taking walks with Ashley, holding hands down the block, playing with Jayden and catching up to his family and three sisters.
A month ago, Buchholz believed the New York media was out to get him. Now he doesn’t think about baseball hardly at all. Now his mind is on getting better. He’s taking medication and receiving treatment. His sisters, Kristin, Michelle, Tamara, all say that their brother, the one who one time they snuck up on and died his hair pink while he was sleeping, has returned. The same brother who shows up each winter to speak to Tamara’s second-grade class, and the one who would come home each winter to work out with the area kids, who look at the local major leaguer as someone who walks on water.
“I haven’t been this happy in a long time; I’m getting back to being myself again,” Taylor said. “I can laugh, I can smile at things that are funny. I’m being proactive about my situation; it’s still a work in progress and it’s something that you can’t force. But things are certainly going in the right direction, with the support of my family and my friends, and without Ashley, who knows where I’d be.
“I never had the issue of suicidal thoughts. It never reached that point. I dreaded going to the park each day at 3:15. Imagine that. I couldn’t bear being without my family and friends and being without my son. I’m much more aware of everything. I feel like I’m a better person because of what’s happened. The ignorance is gone. I feel stronger because of this, and I suppose it’s why it’s important for me to tell my story. If my story helps just one person, that’s all that counts.”
Which, to anyone who knows him, is typical Taylor.
As for baseball, Buchholz is not completely shutting out the possibility of returning. He’s battled many personal demons and he’s won. Pasti, who feels Taylor is more like a son than his client, still considers Buchholz a major league pitcher and more importantly, he’s become more communicative.
“Taylor was always accountable; he doesn’t make excuses and those are good qualities to have,” Pasti said. “At some point, whether he’s open to it or not, I’d like to see him take those steps to try and come back. Not that he needs to do it or has to do it, but to try and do it. I want to encourage him when he gets to a place where he’s able to talk about it.
“He’s still a major league quality pitcher, there’s no doubt about that. He has one of the best curveballs among relievers in the majors. And for everything Sandy Alderson and the Mets have done, I’d like to see him back with the Mets. I understand Taylor is standing in a certain place right now; he could be standing in a different place later. Let’s see where it goes. It’s refreshing to hear the good things going on in his life. I don’t want to tell him to come back, he has to do that on his own.”
And it is something that Buchholz is pondering.
“I’m not closing a door on baseball by any means, but I can’t say where things are right now; I don’t want to rush back,” Buchholz said. “I didn’t want to let people down, people in my community, my family. I put my heart and soul into baseball for 12 years. Two months ago, I would have said ‘Yes,’ I let myself down. Now, no. I’m letting things go. I don’t always have to be perfect. I’m still not out of the woods and I still have a lot of work to do. Baseball has been part of my whole life. But happiness is much more important than any job in the world. The most important things in my life are Ashley, Jayden and my family. That’s what makes me most happy; I’m in a very good place right now.”