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Throwing the ball back to the pitching mound may be the simplest part of a catcher’s job but when former Red Sox player Jarrod Saltalamacchia became suddenly unable to throw the ball to the mound, Salty — as the catcher is often called – says the throwing issue also became a mental problem.
In today’s #RedSoxFundFeature, Salty sits down with Home Base’s Dr. Patrick Downes to discuss how his will to fight and not running away from his anxiety and seeking help helped him overcome mental blocks in baseball and life.
Hi, everyone. We are here with the 2013 World Series champion Jarrod Saltalamacchia, otherwise known as Salty. Everyone around Boston just knows you as Salty. Thanks so much for joining us today and for your time. If we were at Fenway right now and you were making your way to home plate, what entrance song would you want to rock?
No, thanks for having me. This is great. To be honest with you, I kind of stuck with the one year I had Rock Me Amadeus was fun. I tend to put a country song on and no one ever really gets into it. So in ’13 I had Boys ‘Round Here by Blake Shelton. That has a lot of meaning to me since that was the year that we won and everything that happened in Boston. It has a little bit more meaning to me.
All right, we’ll see if we can get that queued up in post-production. You’ve been very open about in 2009, 2010, kind of struggling as you came back from surgery and recognizing that you were having a hard time throwing the ball back to the pitcher and realizing at some point that that was in some ways a psychological process for you. Can you kind of give us a sense of what that time was like when you recognized that perhaps psychology was to play in some way and how you went about asking for help?
Absolutely. I’ve never had any kind of adversity in my career, really in my life. And so that was like the first time I actually faced some adversity and I didn’t know how to deal with it. And being a man and an athlete, we kind of always get in that fight or flight mode. And obviously we choose to fight. And being a husband and a father, I knew that I had to do something and it started with not being able to feel my arm. And I knew there was something physically wrong with me so I just assumed once we get that taken care of it was going to be fine. So we had the thoracic outlet surgery, fixed that, took the rib out so I could feel my arm, the nerve, the blood vessels and everything we’re able to run without any constriction.
So once I got that fixed, I’m like, okay, we’re good. Dealt with a lot of issues with the organization trying to rush me back, not doing a full rehab. I kind of allowed that to happen. Looking back, I wish I didn’t, but it all happens for a reason. So once I did make it back, I started to realize pretty quickly that it wasn’t a physical issue anymore. It was more of a mental issue. Something was blocking it. I didn’t know what. It just seemed like every time I was picking up a baseball, the anxiety just was in my chest and it moved to my shoulders, to my neck, and into my head. And I began not to like playing baseball anymore and forgetting why I was doing it. So I just had to get help from somewhere.
And like I said, fight or flight, and I decided to fight and get some help. At the time I worked with Harvey Dorfman who passed away a few years back, but he was the best sports psychologist there was in the game. And he gave me a lot of helpful hints and tips to do. One of them was focusing on myself as opposed to what’s going on around me. His biggest thing was, “Hey, you throw a ball back to the pitcher, it doesn’t make it to him. You think everyone’s watching you, but really there’s so much going on in the game. They’re watching the base runner, they’re watching the guy on deck, the hitter, they’re not really focusing on you.”
But when you’re going through it, you hear everything around you. So that one person in the stands out of the 40,000 that says, “Aah, you can’t throw up, blah, blah, blah,” you hear that. So you have to find a way to block it out. So he gave me some tips of focusing on, say, his button on his shirt. If I aim for the button on his shirt and I miss, I only missed by this much. If I am at his body and I miss, I missed by that much. So I did that, but it was something that I had to do on my own. It was not something that, hey, this guy gives me a magic pill and I’m healed.
So mentally I had to deal. I still deal with it today. It’s something I don’t think ever is going to go away, but I think not running away from it is what helped me the most. I realized that the more I did it, I know I can get through it now. So that was kind of a mental, I guess, hump that I had to get over, and there were some steps where I’d take a step forward and mess up and take two steps back. But the fact that I was willing to continue to fight, I think, ultimately helped me.
I’m struck by how you are so aware of the way that anxiety, you could really feel it in your body and the way it moves through your body and then influenced your behavior, throwing the ball back to the pitcher, and then really got in your head as to whether or not it felt as if you made that mistake, that all of Fenway would be watching. And we talk sometimes with people we work with about how that can be catastrophizing. You can think that it’s all going to be bad now that you’ve made perhaps this one mistake.
Yeah, 100%. And for me, I was kind of embarrassed at times because I was worried that my teammates, my coaches, and the Red Sox weren’t going to trust me again. It was kind of going to be one of those things where they’d be like, “Okay, we’ll help you.” But then it’s kind of like, “Hey, we need to get this guy out of here because how is he going to perform the level of Boston? It’s not anybody, it’s the Boston Red Sox and we need you to perform.” But I was totally wrong. And I think over time, I think I’ve realized that I think you can play things out in your head and make them seem much worse than they really are. And don’t believe all the thoughts you think. So, for me, it was huge.
And that’s such an important point. We do that all the time in therapy is to help people realize when their thoughts can be really negative and undermine their wellbeing, undermine their confidence in themselves. That can really snowball into that doubt. And it sounds like you were able to recognize that and then almost turn it into a strength, realizing that that was true for you then allowed you to tune into it and then do something about it.
And then the advice you got to really sort of hone in on that one focal point, to really stay focused on that, to not get so caught up in all the things going on around you and how that really helped you to stay focused and give you some of that confidence back. And you make such a great point about how you could be given all this advice, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you practice it and really put it action. Was that an easy process for you? Did that take a while? How do you think you started to integrate it into your routine?
Well, I think that, and someone told me this one time, that if you look at a baseball player, an athlete, we’re almost designed the way we’re brought up as kids playing sports and then we start going as our job, we’re designed to be like a blue-collar type workforce. We take direction, we work hard, we want to finish, we want to do a great job. So, we’re kind of bred that way. So in my mind, I’m thinking, all right, I’ve got to get this fixed. Otherwise, I’m not going to be able to survive. What do I have to do?
And I think studies have shown that most men, if not all men, carry their stress in their shoulders in their traps. So I was always trying to find ways to relax my shoulders, breathe, do something to take the physical aspect out of it so I can focus on my job because your mind wants to play tricks on you and say, okay, well, your shoulders are tensing up so you’re definitely got anxiety and that’s what you’re going through. Well, now I got to say, okay, how do I trick my mind to realizing, okay, you’re not dealing with this right now. You’re focused on your job. So little tricks like that helped me, breathing, getting the stress out of my shoulders, and focusing on my job, just little stuff like that was definitely helpful.
That’s helpful to hear because we talk a lot in therapy with people about how things like breathing can be so helpful. And it sounds kind of silly and simple at the time, but it can really do wonders particularly in the midst of anxiety in helping us kind of recenter ourselves so that we can perform at these high levels, levels that a lot of the people we work within the military community are familiar with. They, too, have been kind of bred to be these kinds of workers, to learn these skills, to perform at really high levels, perform on teams. So I have a feeling that your experience will resonate with them in that way.
Yeah. And like you said, whether you’re a baseball player, you’re in the military, you have to learn your craft. You have to be the best at your job. You have to learn your craft. So if an instructor or a coach tells you to do something because he feels it’s going to help you because he’s got those life experiences and you don’t listen to them, then what benefit are you giving to anyone, let alone yourself? If you do have an issue as I had, you have to find a way to fix it. Otherwise, you’re just going to be spinning around in circles and not getting anywhere.
Right. In addition to the advice that you got about focusing on the button on the pitcher’s shirt, you’ve also talked about this grounding technique that involves tapping. And I wonder if you could give us a little sense of what that practice is like and how it was helpful for you in the managing of anxiety.
Yeah. It’s a tapping routine and when I was going through, I was in a dark place so I didn’t really understand a lot of it. I just was looking for an answer like a lot of us are. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not, whatever it is, I just want to fix it. So I don’t know the psychology part of it, but I know that he gave me some pressure points or some spots on my hands and my forehead, nose, my lip, underneath my lip, and then on my shoulder. And I guess the theory behind it is if you’re tapping those pressure points it engages your brain and the fluids that go through there and it kind of helps you focus on something other than what’s going on.
Don’t get me wrong, I felt silly as all hell when I’m sitting in my room and my kids and wife are in there and I’m sitting here tapping, closing my eyes. And then he had me hum Happy Birthday out loud. And I’m doing a phone call with this guy doing this. And I’m like, man, I feel really, really silly. But at that time I felt so silly I wasn’t focused on what’s going on. And I think that it kind of tricked my brain to thinking, “Hey, everything’s okay.”
So it did help me. And there are times where I’ll be sitting in the dugout before a game and I start doing the tapping process and I think it helped me breathe and it helped me kind of relax and I ended up playing well. It’s like anything else. We’re human, so if you have success in something you’re going to buy in and believe in it. And I had success with it so I just kept doing it. Whether it did anything for me or not, I think the proof is that it helped me even a little bit.
Right. I haven’t done the tapping before, but to me, it sounds so much like a mindfulness practice. And we teach that all the time in therapy about how to really be present in this one moment. And sometimes that’s progressive muscle relaxation. Perhaps sometimes it’s focusing just on what you see or what you smell, but it has the power to really sort of turn down whatever emotions we’re feeling, whether it’s anxiety or depressive thoughts, and really stay focused in the here and now. And that can bring about it a lot of peace or not getting ahead of ourselves and overwhelmed. We can really stay grounded to this moment. And it sounds like it was helpful for you in that way to be able to kind of turn down some of those feelings and thoughts and be able to get back into a performance place.
Yeah. And it’s funny, it’s like, as Harvey Dorfman told me, it’s the first time I ever said it. He goes, “Listen, before you can even begin to heal someone else or have a relationship with someone else, you have to be right with yourself.” And when he said that, I’m like, you know what, that’s so right. Because I’m sitting here trying to have a relationship with my wife and my kids and meanwhile, I’m focused on myself and I got so much else going on. So until you’re right with yourself and you can be happy with yourself, you’re not going to be happy with anyone else around you.
Absolutely. Did you recognize that once you made that investment in yourself, it also translated to an investment in your wife and kids and family and teammates?
Oh, without a doubt because the mindful side of things, and it’s funny because you say mindfulness and my brain kind of goes to, okay, I’m mindful of things that are going on around me and making this person feel good and this person happy and this and that. And it’s frustrating because you see some of the best athletes are more of a selfish kind of temperament. They don’t care about anybody else but themselves. And you’re like, man, here I am caring about everyone and my teammates and all this stuff. And I’m the one going through this horrible event. And it all comes from being mindful. But if you’re not mindful, then you kind of get lost in your own world and you end up being alone and the people around you disappear because you’re so set in your own way. So it helped me tremendously to be able to fix myself and be happy. That way I can be happy around my family.
Absolutely. One thing I’ve been thinking about with regard to the 2013 team was how you all at some point recognized that you were a part of something much bigger than yourselves and how in the midst of coronavirus, we all realize that we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves. And in 2013 it was in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. And it seemed like you as a team at some point, perhaps pretty early on, recognized that, yes, you might still be playing baseball, you’re in the course of a season, but that you were also part of the spirit of the city. And I wonder what that was like for you, what that was like in the clubhouse, and how you all responded to being a part of something bigger than yourselves?
I think the biggest thing for me and our team is that we had a grasp on reality and we understood that there’s more to life than just playing baseball. Most of us had families. So we understood, we get caught up in the media saying, okay, well, there was a bombing and this person was injured, this person hurt. They put a number on something. We’re human, we’re not numbers, so they don’t put out there… They might put a story out that this happened, but they don’t put the story of how it affected those people and the effect it had on their lives. Do you know what I mean? I think you obviously know that, that you can’t wake up in the morning like you did seven, eight years ago. There’s a lot of routines that you had to change up to be able to get through your day-to-day life.
And people forget about that. They just hear the news and then move on. We knew that it affected people in a matter that was way bigger than us and way bigger than this world. So we thought it was important to get out into the community and show those people we understand what they’re going through. We can’t even understand it, but we’re to listen and hopefully help you get through it. And in doing that, it actually helped us more than I think it helped the people of Boston, just the love they showed us and the support. We truly felt like that we were going to win this, not for ourselves, because we’ve been wanting to win a World Series since we were three years old. It wasn’t for us anymore. It was for the city and I’m forever connected to that city because of it.
It certainly felt that way. It felt like you guys were on a mission much greater than yourselves. And I think there was no organization better at making their presence known in the wake of the bombings than the Sox, that you all were in the hospitals, the way you welcomed people, the Fenway Park, the way you marked different anniversaries. And that play off from when it was re-airing on [inaudible 00:15:40] recently, it’s like all was right in the world because you just got to watch you guys on your march to the championship. It was really cool to see.
And that’s how we’ve done. We made sure that we didn’t want to parade this around and make it a big spectacle. The only way you can get to know somebody is actually truly being in there with them and having that one-on-one or the team with you. It wasn’t about the media. We didn’t want any kind of recognition for it. We wanted to let the people know that we’re there with them through this.
You led with your action. And that was very clear on and off the field.
In the midst of this coronavirus, what’s the one big thing that you’re missing right now, and what’s the one thing that you find yourself being very grateful for?
I think I’m missing being an athlete. We have a routine. So the normality of being able to wake up, take the kids to school, bring them home, go to the store or whatever, get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors has been very, very tough. But at the same time, I’ve been able to spend more time with my kids than I’ve ever imagined would happen. My oldest is 13, so I’ve got 13 years of catching up to do. And I’ve been able to do that in a matter of five months. So that is what I’m very thankful for. I’ve had the opportunity to do stuff like this that normally I might not be able to because I’m running around like crazy. So the connection I’ve been able to have with people has been a blessing.
That’s great. Salty, thanks so much for your time today. You’ll always hold a special place in the heart of Boston.
If you or someone you know are feeling overpowering feelings of stress, worry, and panic commonly associated with anxiety, please reach out to us. At Home Base, our experts in psychiatry and psychology services use a team approach to support you through a care plan and offer support along the way.
Visit www.homebase.org/connect2care or call our clinic at 617-724-5202 to learn more about our services.