Each Journey is Different

 

“We all have demons. We all have things we struggle with…at least at some point in their life.” Those were the words of Major League Baseball (MLB) catcher Mike Marjama nearly five months ago in an interview with Mariners All Access, the Seattle-based team’s insider TV program.

Few people knew of Marjama prior to him being penciled into the lineup card as the Mariners’ Opening Day starting catcher. Likely even fewer within the international audience that MLB garners on an annual basis. While not a relative unknown, Marjama had been a solid catcher throughout his playing career with the Chicago White Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners organizations earning him the respect of his peers and coaches alike. Slowly making his way up the minor league organizational ladder, Marjama encountered numerous hurdles. At 28 years old, having proven his resilience across five minor league campaigns, he made his Major League debut at the end of the Mariners’ 2017 season.

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Mike Marjama stares out towards the baseball diamond during the Mariner’s home opener on the 29th of April, 2018. Credit: By Stephen Brashear / Getty Images

 

What he did the following year could be considered uncharacteristic and puzzling by many who did not know him, let alone his story. To many of us the idea of passing up on the earning power of elite athletes in their prime by voluntarily going into retirement seems ludicrous. Yet Marjama had his reasons and they proved to be long-standing causes that he was passionate enough to pursue in a selfless effort to improve the lives of others, all while sharing the story that makes him so unique in today’s sporting landscape.

In Joon Lee’s recent Bleacher Report featurette, Marjama recounts the eating disorders and accompanying body-image issues that were his pitfall as a young teenager moving through high school. Typical of many active American teens, Marjama was a multi-sport athlete who at first tried his hand in basketball only to then be cut by his high school program. Wrestling proved to be the next sport that Marjama chose to pursue. When I write “pursue”, it should be said that in a number of interviews he has given Marjama stated he viewed wrestling, and more generally sports, as an outlet for his drive to achieve perfection, both personally as a man and professionally as an athlete. His uncompromising resolve to do whatever it took would eventually raise the alarm bell for his parents as he dropped to 55 kilos (~121 pounds) entering his second year in high school.

At his lowest, Marjama was contemplating why he had ended up in an emergency clinic after continuing to struggle with his all-consuming, yet ‘non-consuming’ diet. His recovery story isn’t as simple as “brought to a hospital and saved”, though he remembers the painstaking therapy sessions that helped him reshape his relationship with food and looking after his overall well-being.

His work ethic very much intact and his passion for achievement diverted into new trails, Marjama’s decision to take his talents off-field is inspiring to say the least. While many of us enjoy baseball, as the former-MLB catcher noted, “We all have our demons.” I share that sentiment, both as a baseball player and whose own struggles with mental health have left me searching, both for others like me and those in need.

Through it all, Marjama has proven that paths to a sport’s highest competitive level can be unconventional at best. That all journeys are not created equal. And he would be right.

 

 

By comparison, David Wright’s odyssey through the ranks of affiliated baseball seems to embody everything that is public knowledge about him: his calm, yet intense demeanor, impeccable work ethic and leadership.

The same David Wright, nicknamed “The Captain” by teammates and fans alike, is adored throughout the organization that first signed him to a professional contract; the Big Apple’s ‘other team’, yet nonetheless important, the New York Mets.

 

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David Wright recognizing the fans that attended his final game as a player of the New York Mets on September 29th, 2018. By Jim McIsaac / Getty Images

 

These same Mets called for an afternoon press conference to be held at Citi Field, their home stadium in the downtown suburb of Queens. An unassuming event that at first glance might not have drawn much more attention than the odd Tweet from the wider American sports audience. And so shuffling into the media room spotlight on that Tuesday afternoon, Wright shared some insight into his recent life with the wider public.

Many statements, whether by the Mets executives flanking him, or in his own words, were complementary of his performance and achievements, while also including praises to those that had helped him along his journey. Inconspicuously mixed into one of his Q&A responses, Wright opened up to the reporter in saying that at the beginning of his injury rehab “the goal was to come back as the player I expected myself to be”. For context, Wright was holding back tears and holding his head throughout much of his preceding speech, the weight of his words clearly affecting him in what is a highly public affair, cameras rolling and reporters undoubtedly noting his every utterance. This whole scenario – emotions on display – reminds of another public retirement announcement (starting at 1:06) of one Prince Fielder, which came as a shock to many in the sporting world.

Many will ask, “Why are you choosing to highlight clips of athletes when they seem sad?” And to you I say, because we see something we, as spectators, are largely unfamiliar with. We see that they are humans too. That they suffer, often in silence or behind closed doors. They fight through the “demons”, thoughts or troubles that are tearing at them. Many of us – athlete or not – believe that is the only way; the ‘right’ way. And yet, when these athletes lose, they may seem all the more human for breaking their silence and showing emotion.

The rare insight into lives that are seen as “blessed”, beyond human or even freakish in their nature, our preconceptions of who these people are may find themselves transformed. There is something deeply satisfying, whether for you or for me, in knowing that these elite athletes are people too.

With every word that we athletes say, share and write on such experiences of struggle, we open up a bit of ourselves to the world. We share our journey, regardless of full recovery or not.

And so, David Wright awaited the climax of his ‘road to recovery’ that he embarked upon over three years after the words “spinal stenosis” were first mentioned to him. The result, an orchestrated symphony of family, comradery and booming applause coming all together, can be seen here.

For coming to the realization that his journey is nearing its end, that the game and organization he has been devoted to for 17 years has now said goodbye, has left Wright in a unique position. With the culmination of his sporting journey, perhaps another position awaits him as a coach or executive. Yet one has to wonder, with all that he has endured, might he turn to health and well-being advocacy the way Mike Marjama has embraced his newly found role with the National Eating Disorder Association?

Only time will tell where both of their journeys take them.

 

 

This content is published under exclusive rights by Athlete's Voice.

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