Skip to main content

When he arrived at his first spring training 2 1/2 years ago, Roberto Osuna was one of those talents who stand out before you've ever seen him play.

It wasn't his physicality. Osuna is an unprepossessing man of average size. Rather, it was something about the way he carried himself. In a room full of people who had far better reason than he to feel comfortable, Osuna looked perfectly at home. Before anybody knew what he could do at the major-league level, he was one of those rare players who already had no doubt.

A great deal of that was down to a profound self-belief. "When I was growing up, everyone was against me," he said.

Story continues below advertisement

Osuna was raised poor in rural Mexico. He quit school at 12 to work as a farm labourer. For several years, baseball was his second job. He became a professional in the Mexican leagues at 16. The Toronto Blue Jays acquired him a few months later with a $1.5-million (U.S.) signing bonus.

Did that change your life?

"Completely," Osuna said archly in 2015. "New life. New friends. A lot of people show up to praise the work you've done."

He bought his mother a house. He put his younger siblings in the "best school" in his hometown, Los Mochis. He invested the rest.

Someone put it to him that, at 20, he was now the father.

"Yes," he said. "All the responsibility is on me."

We don't often think about how much pressure that is – even for players who are not a financial ecosystem for an entire extended family.

Story continues below advertisement

Former Blue Jays outfielder Reed Johnson was once asked what he did before he came to the ballpark each day. Johnson said he often went to a shopping mall near his home and walked the hallways by himself for hours. It seemed like an unusual form of relaxation for a 30-year-old rock star with several million dollars in the bank.

What do you think about while you're walking?

"Anything but baseball," he said.

There was an odd plaintiveness in the way he said it.

Whatever Johnson felt, perhaps Osuna feels it as well.

After three years spent working at the most minutely observed profession of the modern age – pro athlete – Osuna has fallen into some sort of mental trough.

Story continues below advertisement

On Friday, though physically healthy, he was removed from the bullpen. He skipped what would have been an obvious slot to close a game. No explanation was given.

The next day, he tried to express whatever it is that is going on, smiling uncomfortably throughout.

"I just feel a little bit anxious, a little bit weird," he said through a translator (a service he rarely makes use of these days).

"I feel like I'm not myself right now." His arm is fine. His performances have been, to this point, up to his own high standard. Whatever it is, he can't put his finger on it. He said he'd never felt anything like it before.

"This has nothing to do with me being on the field. I feel great out there. It's just when I'm out of baseball, when I'm not on the field, I feel just weird, a little bit lost."

Osuna did not play again until Sunday. He went to the Blue Jays bullpen only after the team had assumed a commanding lead. He came out to pitch in the ninth in what was not a save situation. He struck out the side. Toronto beat the Royals 8-2. Afterward, he told reporters in Kansas City that he felt "better than yesterday and the day before."

Story continues below advertisement

The ability to handle the strain of performing in public is clearly just as key to athletic greatness as the ability to throw a ball, but it is rarely talked about.

An exception was former Blue Jay great Roy Halladay.

Halladay famously imploded early in his career after a crisis of confidence and had to be rebuilt as a pitcher.

In his prime, he had a long list of mental exercises designed to help him block out the noise in his own mind.

In one instance, he would sit in hotel rooms on the road disassembling the details of paintings on the wall in order to centre himself. He came to believe that if he could project an image of his cutter landing in the right spot, it would.

"Sometimes, almost for a split second, you'll see [a pitch] going where you want it to go," he said.

Story continues below advertisement

It was very close to mystical.

Of course, this was more about anxiety – what he once called "the negative things in my head." I've never met an athlete more afraid of failure than Halladay. His physical gifts were apparent. But he was a hall-of-fame-calibre player because he'd spent his entire career grappling with that fear.

One cannot know exactly, or even generally, what Roberto Osuna is dealing with right now, but it does sound like a species of Halladay's problem. That the pressure of a baseball life, if not baseball itself, has begun to get on top of him. He certainly has had more challenges than the typical middle-class pro coming out of high school in Florida or California.

One hopes that the Jays are approaching Osuna's issue as they would a physical setback – with treatment and patience.

We are long past believing athletes can be told to suck it up – partly because we've grown less cruel as a society and partly because pro teams are financially incentivized to protect every aspect of the health of their best talents.

In the Jays' case, they have Halladay's history as an example. That worked out pretty well for all concerned.

Story continues below advertisement

However it turns out for Osuna, it's a good reminder that not everyone deals with stress the same way. But at some point, especially in the hothouse of pro sports, everyone feels it.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter