Three weeks into his first Royals spring training camp, Danny Duffy spent an early morning shagging fly balls, carrying equipment to the bullpen and fulfilling other rookie obligations.
Anything to get out of the clubhouse.
A group of veterans on the team’s pitching staff had been treating his locker as a garbage can, wrapping food in aluminum foil and stuffing it into his bag. With daily stunts stretching beyond typical rookie hazing, the group of five targeted Duffy, a fast-rising pitching prospect on the verge of taking their jobs. They told him to shut up when he spoke. They called him stuck-up when he ignored them.
Duffy had grown to dread coming to the ballpark, anxious for what might await him.
“I went in with the mindset that I was going to make some new friends,” he says. “And I left with the mindset that I didn’t have any.”
For years, Duffy had suffered from anxiety. He never felt like he quite fit in. In high school, baseball helped bridge that gap, though not entirely — even as he emerged as a star in Lompoc, California, he usually felt more comfortable on his own than with teammates.
But approaching his first spring training in early 2010, Duffy told his parents he’d never been more excited. At 21 years old, he didn’t expect to make the team, but this would be his first taste of Major League Baseball, a chance to meet some of his idols.
Within three days, however, he felt mentally broken. Teammates needled his every move. His every word. Each night, during hours-long phone conversations with his mother, Duffy told her he wasn’t cut out for this. He wanted to come home.
On this particular day, he had hurried to the park in Surprise, Arizona before 6 a.m., hoping to dress and take the field before the veteran pitchers arrived. And he had successfully done so. But when he returned to his locker afterward, his clothes were covered in red splatter.
Someone had doused his T-shirt with ketchup.
He hadn’t packed an extra set of clothes, leaving him no alternative but to pull the soiled shirt over his head before walking alone back to the team hotel.
A few days later, Duffy, who was named the Royals’ Class A pitcher of the year in his first full season and later represented the team in the All-Star Futures Game, would walk into the office of general manager Dayton Moore.
“I’m out, bro,” he said. “This ain’t for me.”
Confronting the stigma
Before a game earlier this month, Duffy purposely leaned forward in a recliner in front of his locker inside the Royals’ clubhouse. As the conversation delved into anxiety and depression, teammates only faintly in his vicinity, his voice turned to a literal whisper.
During a time in which mental health challenges are garnering more and more empathy and acceptance across the country, the conversation still stays mostly out of clubhouses, out of locker rooms and altogether out of sports.
With such few exceptions.
After years of ignoring his anxiety, NBA All-Star Kevin Love said he thought he “was going to die” on the basketball court, later learning he was having a panic attack. “Everyone is going through something that we can’t see,” he wrote for the Players’ Tribune in 2018.
Former Royals Cy Young winner Zack Greinke famously quit baseball before the 2006 season, expecting to never return. Once he did, he ultimately revealed a social anxiety disorder diagnosis.
Former Kansas basketball stars Markieff and Marcus Morris publicized their battles with depression stemming from a childhood spent merely trying to survive on the streets in Philadelphia, though as author Jackie MacMullan wrote, Markieff later became too uncomfortable to be quoted on the topic.
“Most athletes don’t come forward at all, and the reason is simple: fear,” says Bill Cole, a leading sports psychology expert and mental health coach to Olympic and professional athletes all over the world. “Sports is a culture where you’re supposed to be mentally tough — be a big boy; be a big girl; nothing should bother you. There are cases where an athlete loses their starting spot or their coaches’ trust or feels like they let their teammates down. So what happens? They stay quiet.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates one in every five adults in the United States experiences mental illness. So in a locker room of 53 Kansas City Chiefs football players, that would be 10. In a clubhouse of 25 Royals players, that’s five.
Not only are athletes not exempt from mental illness, they’re actually more susceptible to facing monumental challenges — even if you hear of them less frequently, says Natalie Durand-Bush, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Ottawa.
“They’re required to have a strong identity; they have a grueling schedule, and there is a lot of evidence of toxic environments (in sports) — bullying, abuse, intimidation,” she says.
Last November, Durand-Bush co-founded the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport (CCMHS). Athletes can contact the organization and reveal their struggles.
Many college and professional teams now offer a behavioral specialist on staff, as the Royals do. But from fear of their employers, universities or co-workers learning of their visits, they instead choose to pay out of their own pocket to attend the CCMHS.
They share their stories with varying candidness. Some are open. Some are still reserved, even after voluntarily signing up for the sessions. When approached by The Star for this story, Greinke politely declined to speak about his tribulations. He gives only a handful of interviews about any topic over the course of a season.
“People are shocked to hear that some of the most successful athletes in the world can struggle with mental health,” Durand-Bush says. “But they do.”
Duffy won a 2015 World Series championship with the Royals. He led Kansas City’s 2014 American League pennant-winning rotation in earned-run average. When his five-year contract expires after the 2021 season, he will have earned more than $70 million playing baseball.
Through all of it, he kept the severity of his challenges private. Today, only a handful of teammates are aware of what Duffy has endured. Most don’t know that he regularly sees a therapist in Kansas City. That he has been clinically diagnosed with depression and anxiety.
That just this summer, before a game, he suffered a panic attack in the Kauffman Stadium concourse.
“I’m only telling you this because I want someone else who has gone through it to understand it’s not just them,” Duffy says. “I’m not trying to give you a sob story. I’m just trying to tell you this is a real thing, and some of us out here are dealing with it, man.”
Where it began
Duffy lay on the floor of a bowling alley bathroom, short of breath and sobbing.
Minutes earlier, he had gone for it with his first crush. At his request, the bowling alley played one of his favorite songs and announced that Duffy had dedicated it to a girl.
She turned him down.
Immediately, Duffy couldn’t get air. He felt his heart pounding in his chest. The men’s restroom provided the nearest escape, and after pushing the door open, Duffy collapsed on the floor.
He was having a panic attack.
He was 13.
It was his first. And only the beginning.
“I kinda just hoped that everything would eventually level out and I could go live a normal life,” Duffy says. “But that’s just never happened.”
It grew to be exhausting, Duffy expending much of his energy avoiding anything that might prompt his peers’ ridicule. At almost every turn, he avoided large gatherings. He attended only two high school dances in four years, and he spent those nights sitting far from the dance floor.
His classmates could sense his social awkwardness, like blood in the water, and the so-called popular clique made fun of him daily for it. Eventually, the mockery turned physical.
“I got the shit kicked out of me in high school,” he says.
Prior to his junior year, the Cabrillo High School baseball coach told Duffy he would make varsity. Soon after, the baseball team had a float in the homecoming parade, and Duffy embraced an assignment to pass out candy to kids along the route. “I’m finally kinda feeling like I’m part of it, you know?” he says, “And I’m like, ‘Man, this is awesome.’”
Away from school, during summers in California, baseball had helped Duffy finally blend in. Travel teams recruited him for his talent on the field.
The promotion to varsity, he hoped, would begin to spark a similar setting at school. But deep into the parade, as Duffy reached into his bag, he heard footsteps closing in behind him.
On the run, a senior teammate slapped him across the back. The force of the strike knocked Duffy over. It left a hand print indented into his skin — the kids bragged about that being a “five-star.” Lying on the pavement, Duffy turned to see who had witnessed it. Kids stared back at him, laughing.
The same teammate pummeled him on multiple occasions, Duffy says. At school. In the bullpen at baseball practice. In the parking lot. Years later, he would apologize.
Duffy left the parade that day. Practically sprinted home. Behind his house, he dug up the dividers separating the flowers in the garden from the blades of grass in the backyard.
He stacked them together, crammed one after another into a backpack, and threw one strap over each shoulder.
Then he took off down the street.
“Just wanted to feel like Rocky, bro,” he says.
He began on Sirius Avenue. Darted up the hill on Aldebaran. Turned on Galaxy. Circled back to Titan. And finished on Constellation.
Night after night after night, Duffy ran, alone. He waited until after sunset, the streetlights guiding his steps.
The trail became his therapy, he says.
Until it was no longer enough.
Lompoc to the minors
Radar guns lined the backstop each time Duffy took the mound during his senior season of high school. His fastball routinely topped 90 mph. In 2007, the Kansas City Royals used their third-round pick to select him in baseball’s amateur draft. He bypassed college — a case of “senioritis” would’ve required him to attend summer school to qualify — and immediately reported to the minors.
Duffy grew up in Lompoc, something of a farming community with a small-town feel. He had been surrounded by people culturally similar to him.
The minor leagues were in stark contrast. Some of his best friends were the Latin American players — current Royals teammate Salvador Perez, the catcher from Venezuela, was one of the first players he met. That adjustment came easy. But Duffy was 18 years old. Many prospects had been drafted out of college at 22 or 23. That adjustment became difficult.
“I was kind of a loner in the minors,” he says.
The college signees frequented bars after games. They scoffed at Duffy refusing to join them. He waited for his paycheck every two weeks, took the money to Best Buy and purchased music and video games.
“I don’t want to paint a bad picture of minor-league baseball. There’s adversity in every walk of life,” he says now. “There’s some salty dudes that think they should be playing at a higher level or that they should’ve signed for more (money). You can’t take it out on each other. But it’s inevitable. Those bus rides are long. Those summers are hot. It’s tough. It’s not all sandy beaches and puka shells.”
The end goal kept Duffy hanging around. When he was as young as 11, a Los Angeles Dodgers jacket hanging in his closet, he had talked about playing in the major leagues. And as he inched closer to this becoming his reality, the conversation glamorized the dream.
“I always thought everything would change once I got to the big leagues,” he says.
Finally, a diagnosis
Back at the team hotel, as Duffy met with the highest-ranking members of the Royals’ front office, his bags were already jammed full of his belongings. He had packed everything in haste.
For years, Duffy has cited private matters as his reasoning for quitting the game in 2010. It was easier that way. He even used that excuse with Moore and Royals’ management, fearful of the response from the veteran pitchers if he told the truth. Which is this: Although there were some external relationships outside of baseball that demanded his attention, if not for his experiences in the clubhouse, “there’s not a chance I would’ve quit baseball.”
While leaving the Royals’ training complex in Surprise, he bumped into three of his favorite teammates in the parking lot — Perez, Eric Hosmer and Jarrod Dyson. He told them he planned to study meteorology. Maybe he’d take up rec basketball. They begged him to stay. But they knew only a portion of his story.
He needed help.
Duffy refused to name the players who tormented him daily — a crew of five with one ringleader, is how he described it — but emphasized their lack of prominence with the Royals. Three days before he quit, Duffy stood up to them. You guys aren’t my coaches; you aren’t my father; leave me the (bleep) alone.
“It only grew worse from there,” he says.
As he returned to Lompoc to live with his parents, Duffy left that problem behind.
He could no longer ignore another.
Shortly after moving home, he sought professional therapy. In a one-on-one setting, Duffy hides little. His experiences from the previous few weeks took a back seat to those from the past decade. Finally, he realized they were all intertwined.
A therapist diagnosed him with anxiety, depression and panic disorder.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned in therapy, and it sounds cliche, is you can’t go wrong by being yourself,” Duffy says. “It’s a deeper statement than it sounds. You never ever fail yourself if you act as who you are. We were made this way for a reason. It takes a certain level of confidence to do that. I didn’t have that confidence.”
The Royals checked in often. Duffy had concealed the clubhouse torment from them. Moore called regularly. He never talked baseball. Assistant general manager J.J. Picollo visited him in person, which Duffy calls a “pivotal day” for his personal growth. He thanks the Royals profusely when telling this part of the story. He believes most teams would have cut bait on him. He was only 21. He’d never thrown a major-league pitch.
“At the time, what we knew about him was he had a great heart,” Moore says. “If he felt like he couldn’t give his best at that time for whatever reason, it was best for us to let him find his way and support him along the way. All these guys are genetically gifted to play here. It’s the other stuff you have to work out.”
About a month after he quit baseball, Duffy sat on the couch one evening and scrolled through the channels of his TV. He stopped on ESPN, which was showing an episode of Baseball Tonight. The lead story: 20-year-old Jason Heyward had homered off Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano in his first major-league appearance.
A year earlier, Duffy had faced Heyward in a minor-league game. He struck him out.
“I felt the competitive juices going again,” Duffy says. “I said, ‘Man, let’s go.’”
He knew he needed more time. Walking into that clubhouse remained a concern. But therapy had slowly begun to turn his life around, he says. For the first time, he possessed confidence. Rather than trying so hard to fit in, he accepted that maybe it was OK to be different.
Weeks later, he called Moore. The Royals’ general manager asked him to wait another two weeks. He wanted Duffy to be sure of his decision.
Exactly 14 days later, Moore’s phone rang again.
‘I finally feel comfortable’
At 4 p.m. one afternoon, days after he had returned to baseball, Duffy abruptly left his hotel room. He didn’t tell anyone where he was headed, not even roommate Kelvin Herrera, and frankly, he didn’t know anyway.
He just left.
In the days and weeks before he rejoined the Royals organization, this was the plan he devised, a therapist-approved coping method. He had opted for natural treatment for his depression and anxiety. Pills made him jittery. The late-night walks had soothed his nerves in high school, and he believed they could again.
On this evening, Duffy traveled back roads from Tempe, Arizona, to Surprise. He carried only a hotel card, his wallet and a T-Mobile sidekick cellphone. The Garmin watch on his wrist displayed 26.8 miles. He watched the sun set. He saw the moon come and go.
When he arrived at the ballpark, the conclusion of his trip, he checked the clock:
He’d been out more than 14 hours.
“I was really stressed out, especially the first couple days (after rejoining the team),” he says. “I knew what this would entail. I knew that if I was going to get to where I wanted to go, it was going to be a real challenge off the field.”
On a 95-degree afternoon last summer, Duffy walked from downtown Kansas City to Kauffman Stadium in flip-flops. When The Star called him last week, he answered his phone while on a 7-mile walk to Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago.
The strolls are more habitual than curative now. Through ongoing therapy, along with support from his wife and parents, he has learned to accept who he is, “quirks and all.”
On the surface, it’s hard to imagine Duffy uncomfortable in a clubhouse setting. He’s among the most welcoming inside it. Few are more engaging with teammates, clubhouse attendants, media, whomever.
It’s been that way since 2013, when pitcher and fellow California native James Shields arrived in a trade from the Tampa Bay Rays, turned to Duffy and said, “You ready to be nasty, bro?” Moore has prioritized clubhouse culture during his tenure, and Duffy says it’s resulted in a “night and day” difference from his experience at big-league camp in 2010.
“I finally feel comfortable in my own skin,” he says. “Thank God, dude.”
But it’s a daily grind, a reality he knows might never cease. He suffers from insomnia and often sleeps less than a few hours during the night. Anxiety will always be part of him. Always lurking.
In 2017, he was arrested for driving under the influence in Overland Park. “I had a brutal set of coping skills,” he says. “I think having to feel certain things with clarity has made me get through them better. I think not running away from mental pain, I developed a habit of being able to absorb the adversity in my life, which everyone deals with.”
He’s had three panic attacks this year. “Only three,” he says. At a department store in Kansas City, he feared he had been rude to someone trying to sneak a picture of him. As alarm set in, Duffy fell to the floor, physically unable to stand.
This summer, he experienced another at Kauffman Stadium, handing out a free giveaway to fans in the concourse. Duffy turned the corner and, surprised by the size of the crowd, nervously cussed in front of TV cameras. He worried it would be broadcast on the news and cussed again. His hands went numb. That’s always the first indicator of what’s coming. He rushed back to the tunnel on a golf cart.
He’s wary of putting all of this out there. Vulnerability remains a trigger for his anxiety. He believes his candor has come back to bite him before.
But after 74 minutes of sharing his story with The Star on a recent Saturday inside the Kauffman Stadium home dugout, as the iPhone recording clicked off, Duffy paused and then offered one final thought.
“This is totally fine for you to record,” he began.
“I prayed on this, man, because having this talk makes me vulnerable. But if one person out there is feeling like I did, and they can read whatever you put out there and feel better about where they are in life, I’m good with doing this, 100 percent.
“I want people to know that I was lost, too. I want them to know that there’s a healthy way out. Sometimes you just gotta search hard enough and grind through it.”