UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Anxiety not only in MLB, Bard not Rockies’ ‘first’

The news broke on the morning of the Rockies’ opener against the Padres in San Diego: “Bard takes time on IL to address anxiety.”

Anxiety. 

In baseball, it’s often called the yips, a term also commonly associated with a golfer’s difficulty making putts. It’s been called Steve Blass Disease and Steve Sax Syndrome, too.

Whatever the name, it’s serious. Career-threatening, in fact—whether that career is baseball or another profession; whether you’re trying to throw accurately, speaking to a group, or trying to make a good impression in a job interview.

Paraphrasing the Mayo Clinic online, anxiety disorders cause intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Generally speaking, these feelings . . . “interfere with daily activities, are difficult to control . . . and can last a long time.” 

Roughly one in six adults in the U.S. experience some form of problem anxiety, doctors say.

Performance anxiety—that inner voice that tells a pitcher he must throw a strike or get an out or prevent the tying or winning run from scoring—is but one type. Boos exacerbate it. These days, so do social media, analytics, saturation television coverage and roster turnover through the season.

One estimate is that between a quarter and a half of all athletes experience some degree of performance anxiety at some point. 

Most beat it, or at least muddle through. But some don’t.

The list of baseball players who’ve experienced breakdowns attributable to anxiety is long, including, most famously: 

Blass, the Pirates pitcher whose sudden and seemingly inexplicable loss of control ended his career in 1974; 

Sax, the 1982 NL Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers who, for a time, struggled to make even the short throw from second base to first;

St. Louis pitcher Rick Ankiel, 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA as a 20-year-old for the Cardinals in 2000, who fled to the outfield after six lost years, because he could hit, and played seven seasons for six teams—finishing with 76 home runs, including 25 in one season; 

Chuck Knoblach, like Sax a middle infielder for three teams over 12 seasons, who once fired into the dugout while running toward first base; and

Zack Greinke, a big-league pitcher for 20-plus seasons, who sat out virtually all of 2006 then won the 2009 American League Cy Young Award with Kansas City.

By now, Rockies fans should be familiar with this malady. It’s not the first time Daniel Bard has confronted it, and he’s not The Lone Ranger in Colorado’s first 30 seasons.

As most know, the Rockies’ current closer went from rising star with the Red Sox in 2010, to not pitching for seven years, to National League Comeback Player of the Year in 2020, to—at the age of 37—signing a two-year, $19 million contract last July.  

Part of that time when Bard was out of uniform—between 2016 and 2019—one of the Rockies’ most promising young lefthanders, Tyler Matzek, was also out of baseball for essentially the same reason.

In his final six starts of the 2014 season, Matzek, then 23, went 4-2 with a 1.55 ERA, including a three-hit shutout against the Padres at Coors Field—only the 11th shoutout at Coors Field by a Rockies pitcher in their first 20 seasons at 20th and Blake. He looked like a future staff ace.

But he struggled with anxiety and eventually left organized baseball. 

“Even when things were going the right way,” he told a reporter in 2015, “there was this overwhelming stress inside of me that just kept building and building and building.” When he could no longer handle that stress, he said, “my game collapsed.”

Matzek made it back to the Majors with the Braves in 2020 and was a key reliever in their postseason march to the 2022 World Series championship.

In the Rockies’ early days Bruce Ruffin, another lefthander and their closer at the time, was similarly plagued. 

Bob Gebhard, then general manager, recalls the time Colorado was playing in New York and, late in a game, Ruffin began throwing in the bullpen. But when manager Don Baylor changed pitchers, he passed on Ruffin for someone else, and wound up losing.

Afterward, Gebhard called him. “Don, why didn’t you bring in Ruffin?” 

“Warming up, he couldn’t even hit the catcher,” Baylor replied.

So, what’s the prognosis for Daniel Bard, this time around?

No one can say, for sure. But anyone who isn’t rooting for him doesn’t understand.  

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net