Rob Whalen knew he was making the right decision. He knew that walking away from the game he loved was necessary. Never mind his passion for baseball, the former prospect needed to get his life back on track.
What Whalen didn't expect was how easy the decision had been. That was what scared him most.
Now, 12 months later, it seems Whalen's choice to temporarily halt his baseball career might end up being the reason it continues. Such was the extent to which anxiety and depression had gripped him.
It not only had paralyzed his baseball career, it had paralyzed his life.
"I was all set to head to Spring Training [with the Mariners in 2019]. I had my bags packed and I was set to leave that morning," Whalen said. "My sister was going to take me to the airport, and I just couldn't do it. I broke down and I couldn't go. I didn't want to go to camp and face everyone. The next thing I know, I'm calling Seattle to tell them I was retiring."
'A perfect storm'
Whalen's transformation from rising star to big leaguer to anxiety-riddled retiree grew roots in 2015. Selected in the 12th round of the 2012 Draft out of Haines City High School in Florida, Whalen was riding high. Not only had his dream of becoming a professional baseball player come to fruition but it happened to be with the Mets, the team he grew up rooting for.
His parents grew up in Queens, New York, and though Whalen was born and spent his youth in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, he bled orange and blue. His family moved to Florida after his sisters graduated high school to give him a better opportunity to pursue his baseball career. Whalen had also committed to Florida Atlantic University, but when New York came calling, the allure of turning pro with his favorite team won out.
Whalen has appeared in eight Major League games with Atlanta and Seattle. (Getty Images)
The right-hander appeared to have made the right decision, putting together a 1.87 ERA in 12 starts with Rookie Advanced Kingsport in 2013. He followed that up by going 9-2 with a 1.94 ERA in 14 appearances (12 starts) the next year, spent mostly with Class A Savannah in the South Atlantic League. Whalen was in the midst of another strong campaign with Class A Advanced St. Lucie in 2015 when the unexpected happened.
"I had enjoyed some success to start my career but the trade to the Braves came out of nowhere," Whalen said of the July 24, 2015 deal that sent veterans Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson to New York. "I continued to pitch well after the trade, but it was a shock to my system. The Mets were the team that I rooted for as a kid and who drafted me. I didn't see it coming."
He finished 2015 with a 3.35 ERA in 18 appearances and continued to excel in 2016 despite undergoing surgery on both knees the previous offseason.
"That year  was sort of a perfect storm when things started to unravel," Whalen said. "Even though I hit the ground running that season and had a very good year [7-6 with a 2.40 ERA between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett], I never felt the same as I did before the surgeries. I pitched a career-high  innings and I was gassed. My leg strength was an issue and my shoulder was fatigued, but the Braves called me up and I wasn't about to say anything at that point. I left it all out there until it became too much."
Whalen won his Major League debut against the Pirates on Aug. 3, 2016 and posted a 6.57 ERA in five starts before his shoulder woes forced him to the disabled list. A second trade in 16 months, this time to the Mariners in November, proved to be the ignitor for Whalen's issues.
"That was a tough offseason for me," he said. "My fears started creeping up and I went to Spring Training with the mindset that I needed to be a complete package and great all the time. No matter what I did, it wasn't good enough. I was with a new organization and it was my first big league camp. To top it off, my shoulder was still bothering me, I was starting to have panic attacks and I was depressed."
Whalen began 2017 on the shelf with right shoulder soreness. It proved to be a harbinger of things to come. He struggled on the field for the first time, going winless in 10 starts for Triple-A Tacoma while struggling to a 6.58 ERA. He made two appearances for the Mariners three weeks apart, but the die was cast.
"I was having an awful time. There were a lot of days I couldn't even get out of bed, and that created more anxiety because I knew what was happening was all on me. I finally went to the Mariners and told them I needed to take a step back and see someone for my issues."
Admittedly an introverted personality, Whalen began talking with Mariners mental skills coach Derin McMains. He recommended Whalen seek professional treatment beyond what the team provided. Nothing was working.
"Trying to deal with my situation and play baseball wasn't ideal," he said. "I was losing control of my personal life and my baseball career. It was scary. I eventually asked the Mariners if I could head home to clear my head. I wasn't enjoying playing and I was doing no one any good. I needed to focus my attention on dealing with that and push baseball to the side."
Seattle put Whalen on the restricted list on July 8. He missed the rest of the year.
Up, down and down again
Entering his sixth professional season in 2018, Whalen felt as good as he had going back to his time with the Mets. He had seen a therapist near his home in Florida, lost weight, was in great physical shape and seemed to be on the right path mentally. The positive vibes carried over into the spring and he enjoyed a strong Cactus League. Ironically, his short-term success during Spring Training is what ultimately set him back on a dark path.
"As things got better for me on the field and in my personal life, I tripped up in the routine I used to get myself back to that point in the first place," Whalen said. "There was a lot of trial and error to find ways to cope with the anxiety and depression I was feeling. As things improved, I lost that focus. Baseball came back into the picture and, soon after, the negative thoughts returned."
So did his struggles on the mound. Whalen was pitching to an ERA north of five through the first two months of 2018. He was better in early June and was rewarded with a promotion back to the bigs, where he turned in arguably the finest outing of his brief Major League career.
Pitching in relief on June 15, Whalen limited the Red Sox to one hit over four scoreless innings. But what should have been a turning point instead veered into the nadir of his troubles. He was sent down to Tacoma three days later. It was his last Major League appearance.
"Seattle turned around and sent me down. It crushed me and I fell into that hole again, focusing on things I had no control over," he said. "That sort of thing happens to every player at some point. We try to focus on what we do on the field, but I couldn't keep it there. All those feelings were trickling back in.
"I couldn't throw the ball where I wanted to. I was struggling mentally, and everyone was constantly asking me how I was doing. I know they meant well, but it was draining."
After returning to the Minors and having some success, Whalen left a road trip early to return to Tacoma to try to deal with his increasing anxiety. He was ultimately demoted to Double-A Arkansas for the remainder of 2018, a move he said "blindsided" him. To some, it could have been the result of a pitcher who had posted a 5.16 ERA in 20 Triple-A starts. To Whalen, it seemed more personal, thanks in large part to his condition.
'I can't do this right now'
Last offseason provided little in the way of solutions for Whalen. He was planning on reporting to Spring Training last February ... only he really didn't want to. When the day finally arrived, he made his choice. Whalen needed baseball, but to have it in his life he needed to break away from it. So he formally retired March 5, 2019.
Although not without second thoughts, Whalen couldn't believe how easy the decision seemed overall. He felt an immediate weight lift off his shoulders.
"I said to myself, 'I can't do this right now.' I knew if I was going to play again, I needed to get my anxiety under control. I needed to focus on myself. The fact I had no problem leaving scared me. If it was so easy for me to walk away from something that had been my entire life since I was a kid, what was I going to do now?" he recalled thinking. "I put so much time and effort into being the best baseball player I could be, but I began to lose my love for the game. I needed to fix myself first.
"I was a baseball fan growing up. I know how athletes are viewed, but we're human beings who have real-life issues. I think people forget that sometimes."
Part of the recovery process was to simply experience normal parts of life he had missed out on. By his estimation, last summer was his first without baseball since he was 13 or 14 years old. Whalen was able to enjoy things most people take for granted. He went to the beach; he went to music festivals and he enjoyed a freedom he hadn't experienced in more than a decade.
"The first month or so [of retirement] was tough," he said. "I knew that walking away could have been career suicide, but I was doing it for me. I kept telling myself, 'This is what you need to do.' Baseball had been my identity for so long. I began playing on travel teams when I was a teenager and there was little time for anything else after that. When you become a professional, it adds a whole new dimension to it. It's your job and you're playing for your livelihood while chasing a dream. I was able to deal with it for a while, but for whatever reason, it got the best of me."
Whalen had turned into a baseball player -- and nothing more.
"If I [stunk] on the mound that day, I felt I [stunk] in life. I didn't know who I was off the field anymore. I needed to get away, to get out of my house and experience life again," he said. "Stepping away while continuing therapy afforded me the opportunity to find a routine that works for me. I'm able to keep those negative thoughts from overtaking me."
Meet the Mets ... again
Retirement was never meant to be permanent. If he found the means to deal with his anxiety and depression, Whalen had every intention of returning. The year away from baseball allowed the now 26-year-old to mature and find himself. He stayed in shape by throwing on the side and made some calls around the game when the time felt right early last month. The Mets called back.
"Coming to the [St. Lucie] complex for the first time in several years ... it felt like I never left. I'm so excited to be back with the Mets," Whalen said. "I wanted to get my foot back in the door, and they were willing to give me the chance to throw for them. Now it's up to me to go back out there and show them what I can do. I'm genuinely not worried about what the future holds. I'm just excited to be back playing."
Being on the diamond is something Whalen had little appetite for this time last year. Among the many things he learned during his season away from the game is to not look too far ahead.
"I think I've matured a lot over the last year. I've done a good job building a foundation in my life and have surrounded myself with people who care about me and will help me if I need it," he said. "I've learned that how you react to failure -- and there will be plenty of it -- is the key. Not everything is going to go my way, and that's OK. I'm going to focus on whatever task is in front of me one pitch at a time."
There's no guarantee Whalen's story has a Hollywood ending. There is no promise of a direct path back to the Majors. If he doesn't make it, though, it won't be for a lack of trying. Whalen is excited to compete again and if he's going to go out, it will be on his terms.
"I made a promise to myself that if I came back, I would not let my anxiety define me," he said. "I owe it to myself. I've worked too long and too hard up to this point to see my career cut short at 24 or 25. I've got too much left in my tank. I reached the top of the mountain in 2016, and within two years it was all gone. I'm determined to see that doesn't happen again.
"Whatever comes my way ... I'm ready for it."