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Red Sox' Brock Holt, Brian Johnson open up about mental health struggles

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Red Sox' Brock Holt, Brian Johnson open up about mental health struggles

Warning: This article discusses sensitive material which may be triggering to some.

Brian Johnson is on the mound and he's locked in. It takes a tremendous amount of mental energy to throw in the majors. Who's at the plate? What's the count? Which pitch should he throw? When Johnson is locked in, he's in attack mode. Each ball he throws is done with confidence and conviction.

Behind Johnson, just a shade to the right on the mound and playing second base, is Brock Holt. Holt is a ball of boundless energy. The charismatic Red Sox infielder always seems to be smiling or cracking a joke. 

Which is why it may be impossible for the average fan to recognize that Holt suffers from an anxiety disorder and Johnson has suffered through bouts of anxiety and depression.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental-health issues and, according to Dr. Nicole Danforth of Newton-Wellesley Hospital, anxiety disorder is seen in up to 25 percent of the general population. 

Depression is also more prevalent than people may realize. Dr. Danforth estimates that 6-8 percent of American adults have a depressive disorder in a given two-week period. 

Athletes are just as likely to suffer as the rest of us. 

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Johnson now realizes everyone battles something. But, looking back, he sees that the pressure to perform was like a snowball gaining momentum down a steep hill.  

At first, he found himself experiencing panic attacks. 

“Very hard to catch my breath,” Johnson said, “Hard for me to have a train of thought.” 

Johnson was able to keep things under control early. But as the pressure mounted to perform, the anxiety continued to build.

“You start to let the outside things bother you,” Johnson said, “You start thinking about the future. It was one thing after another.”

Soon it wasn’t just anxiety for Johnson. The left-hander was also experiencing a depressive episode.

“I would wake up at noon after going to bed at 10, exhausted, tired. Waking up in cold sweats. Not sleeping," Johnson said. “I would not eat for half day and then basically shove food down my face. My appetite was all messed up. I’d be shaking on the mound because I didn’t eat all day.”

Johnson quickly learned a lesson. “You just didn’t realize how one thing could play dominoes with everything else.”

* * * * *

It's normal to experience some anxiety and sadness. Emotions are a part of life. However, there's a significant difference between experiencing anxiety or feeling sad and having anxiety or a depressive disorder.

Dr. Danforth stressed that a diagnosis isn’t made by symptoms alone, but more by the level of distress and impairment a patient is feeling. 

She explained that anxiety disorder includes feelings of worry, fear, or anxiety that are strong enough to interfere with a person’s daily activities. 

A depressive episode “is very different than feeling sad,” Dr. Danforth said.

She went on to define a depressed person as someone who will feel a wide range of symptoms “which last beyond a two-week period.”

(Those symptoms include: a pervasive sense of sadness or depression, excessive crying or tearfulness, a loss of interest in activities, social isolation, difficulty falling asleep or waking very early in the morning and not being able to fall back asleep, a lack of energy or motivation, difficulty feeling joy or pleasure, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, a change in weight or appetite [can be a loss of appetite or excessive eating], agitation or restlessness or even slowed thinking or speaking, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation.)

“Sometimes,” Dr. Danforth said, “a depressed person may feel ‘numb’ and will talk about feeling nothing at all.”

* * * * *

Brock Holt now admits he’s always had a little bit of anxiety.

But the Red Sox utility player says he didn’t recognize or give it a name until a trifecta of life-altering events: The birth in December 2016 of his son Griffin, who spent the early hours of his life in the NICU; the sudden death of his uncle, and a concussion which cost him most of the 2016 and 2017 seasons. 

Holt coped with his anxiety by making jokes and trying to let things go because he didn’t want to cause any problems. But on the inside, he was reeling.

Holt worried about his future on the field.

“I was wondering if I was going to be able to play, continue to play,” he said. “Wondering if I was ever going to get better.”

He was also consumed with thoughts about the meaning of life and his greater purpose.

“I was looking at my uncle’s passing and thinking, ‘Why should I get excited about this if tomorrow . . . I could get a phone call and my dad could pass away,” he said. “Or I could pass. So why am I getting excited about this stuff if it can all be taken away like that?

"I put on a front, that’s how I realized these things have really affected me and I just haven’t talked about it. I haven’t admitted to myself that something is going on and that these things that have happened in my life have really affected me.”

An explanation like this doesn’t surprise Dr. Danforth, who has worked with athletes. 

“Athletes often have a negative perception of help-seeking and are often trained to accept pain,” she said.

“Professional and elite athletes are trained from an early age to focus on the positive, to minimize self-doubt or negative thoughts, and to move forward. So often issues around stress or anxiety or depression are pushed to the back of their minds.”

For Holt, what Dr. Danforth describes was all-too familiar.

“[I was] thinking the negative always,” he said. “Which would turn good moments, happy moments, into things I wasn’t happy about or proud of.”

* * * * *

Both Johnson and Holt finally reached out for help and both players now take medication to minimize their symptoms.

This may not seem like a big deal, but for many people suffering from a mental health issue taking medication is a scary step. People worry about the stigma of “being medicated” and the side effects. 

But for Holt, taking medicine was necessary.

“I needed something," he said. "I was in a bad place and I didn’t know it and I needed something to help calm me down. I feel like what I’m taking now. I take it every night before bed. It helps.”

It also helped both players to know they weren’t alone. Both have family members who had also dealt with mental-health issues and used medication. Johnson lost a relative to suicide, but also saw the successful treatment of others in his family.

“I saw it work for them, so why wouldn’t it work for me?” Johnson said. “And if it didn’t work, then at least I can say I tried.”

Dr. Danforth is quick to point out that while medication is an option, it is only part of an important overall treatment plan. 

“Such an intervention is just part of the solution,” Dr. Danforth said. “And talk therapy is an important part of recovery.”

* * * * *

It's one thing to talk to a therapist in the privacy of their office. It's entirely different to go public with such a personal battle. Yet both Johnson and Holt do so willingly. 

“I know that talking about it and talking to people about what I was feeling and what the issues were that were bothering me, it helped me,” Holt said. “It helped me get from the point where I was holding everything in.”

Johnson agrees that being open about the subject helps him as much as it helps others. It has also allowed the pitcher to be true to himself. 

“If someone wants to judge me for having depression and anxiety, you can do that,” Johnson said. “I’m going to go out there and do what I can do every five days or out of the bullpen and I’m going to get dinner with my family. If you want to judge me for that, I don’t care.”

Johnson’s advice for someone who is living in silence? Break it.

“The moment you do, you’ll question why you took so long.”

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing suicidal thoughts or depression, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can access the National Alliance on Mental Illness here.

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MLB rumors: Red Sox interested in this Padres prospect in Mookie Betts trade talks

MLB rumors: Red Sox interested in this Padres prospect in Mookie Betts trade talks

The San Diego Padres have one of Major League Baseball's best farm systems, which makes them an ideal trade partner for the Boston Red Sox in any potential deal involving All-Star outfielder Mookie Betts.

The Red Sox and Padres have discussed a Betts trade, The Athletic's Dennis Lin reported Thursday. Lin wrote "recent talks between the teams have focused on sending a significant amount of prospect talent and outfielder Wil Myers to Boston, according to sources."

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The Padres have six players on Baseball America's latest ranking of MLB's top 100 prospects, and that's tied for the third-most of any team. One of those top 100 prospects the Red Sox have interest in acquiring from the Padres is catcher Luis Campusano, per Lin.

The Red Sox don't have a long-term solution at catcher, so it makes sense to covet a player of Campusano's caliber.

Campusano, 21, was a second-round draft pick by the Padres in 2017. He batted a California League-leading .325, along with 15 home runs and 81 RBI in 110 games during the 2019 season. Campusano also was ranked No. 4 on MLB.com's top 10 catching prospects list entering the 2020 season.

It's difficult to get equal value in return for a superstar like Betts, especially when he's able to become an unrestricted free agent after the upcoming season. He's one of the five-best position players in the sport and already has a World Series title and an AL MVP on his résumé. The Red Sox absolutely should ask for elite prospects in return, and Campusano is a great option when it comes to the Padres. He would help replenish a Boston farm system that ranks among the weakest in baseball.

Tomase: Pros and cons of a Mookie Betts trade with Padres

Pros (prospects!) and cons (Wil Myers?) of potential Mookie Betts trade to Padres

Pros (prospects!) and cons (Wil Myers?) of potential Mookie Betts trade to Padres

With multiple reports revealing that the Padres and Red Sox have discussed a Mookie Betts trade, here are some thoughts on what it all means ...

MONEY MATTERS

The money doesn't really work for me. In swapping Betts for outfielder/first baseman Wil Myers, the Red Sox would save $13 million in 2020, which gets them roughly two-thirds of the way towards their goal of dropping below the $208 million luxury tax threshold. Maybe San Diego kicks in some cash to increase that number.

Boston would then be assuming the final three years and $68.5 million remaining on Myers' contract (including a $1 million buyout in 2023), though for luxury tax purposes, he'd only count for just under $14 million annually.

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If the Red Sox are intent on slashing $21 million in payroll, jettisoning Betts and still coming up well short of that goal feels suboptimal.

Put another way: if the Red Sox carry Betts into the season and then trade him at the deadline, they'd save about $9 million. Is that $4 million difference worth four months of Betts to see if the Red Sox can contend?

From this view, that's a yes.

L.A. STORY

I'd still rather move David Price and the $32 million he's owed in 2020 to find the savings the Red Sox need, and that's why the Dodgers remain their most logical trade partners.

L.A. has the need for the five-tool outfielder after two World Series losses and one shocking NLDS ouster, it has the financial and prospect resources to acquire both Betts and Price, and it could actually use another starter, to boot.

Add Andrew Friedman's familiarity with Price from their Tampa days, and these Padres discussions feel more like a way to goose the Dodgers to the table rather than watch a star player join a division rival.

WHERE THERE'S A WIL ...

Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom knows Myers well from Tampa, where the slugger was one of the centerpieces of the 2012 trade that sent James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City.

Myers won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2013 in what was a remarkably weak class — former Red Sox infielder Jose Iglesias finished second — and made an All-Star team in 2016 with the Padres, but has trended noticeably downward since. Injuries limited him to 83 games in 2018, and last year he hit only .239 with 18 homers while striking out 168 times.

If the Red Sox are going to take Myers, they absolutely need the Padres to pick up some of his salary, because there's a real possibility he has reached the JAG portion of his career.

BUYER BEWARE

Granted, this little bit of egregiousness happened on Dave Dombrowski's watch, but how quickly the Red Sox forget the pitfalls of dealing with A.J. Preller.

The Padres GM was suspended by MLB for withholding medical information that would've revealed more extensive damage to the elbow of left-hander Drew Pomeranz before the Red Sox acquired him in 2016.

The Red Sox surrendered their top pitching prospect, right-hander Anderson Espinoza, and by the time San Diego's malfeasance was revealed, the Red Sox decided it was too late to undo the deal.

Espinoza has since needed a pair of Tommy John surgeries, leaving his career very much in doubt, but the Red Sox shouldn't forget how badly Preller burned them.

FARM FRESH

If there's one plus to a potential San Diego deal, it's that the Red Sox would be choosing players from one of baseball's most loaded farm systems, as we laid out here.

A couple of names to watch: imposing Cuban right-hander Michel Baez, a 6-foot-8 behemoth who is a potential future closer, and catcher Luis Campusano, who is considered one of the best young backstops in the minors.