Former Royals prospect's struggle with anxiety a cautionary tale

It was the little things Ian Ferguson noticed during his first few days of spring training with the Kansas City Royals in 2003 that made his dream of pitching in the majors seem so close. First baseman Mike Sweeney welcomed him to the 40-man roster with a hug. Free food was everywhere at Surprise Stadium in Arizona, as well as all the sunflower seeds and bubble gum Ferguson could chew. Everything he ever wanted was right in front of him, and yet suddenly his life began to unwind and spiral out of control.

For Ferguson, who had gone 18-3 with a 2.48 ERA in the minors in 2002, spring training brought something else he had never dealt with before: anxiety and depression. Ferguson found himself facing a question few players and teams -- even today -- dare to ask: How can the simple act of playing baseball turn someone's mind into a minefield?

The Boston Red Sox have established a department of behavioral health this season, after previously employing former major leaguer Bob Tewksbury as a mental skills coach. The Washington Nationals have taken a similar step; former pitcher and outfielder Rick Ankiel will serve as a life skills coordinator and will mentor players in the franchise's minor league system. The St. Louis Cardinals hired former big leaguer Cal Eldred to work in a similar capacity.

Still, anxiety issues are somewhat of a taboo topic in baseball circles. In 2003, Ferguson didn't understand what was happening to him. With help from the Royals, he tried to find an answer to the question teams are just now beginning to address: How do you help developing players avoid the debilitating pressure to be perfect? Because, as Ferguson's story demonstrates, this pressure can force players to abandon who they are and how they got so far in the first place.

The Royals selected Ferguson, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-hander, in the 21st round of the 2000 draft out of Regis University in Denver. Ferguson's minor league career began in Spokane, Washington. The next year he moved on to Burlington, Iowa, and Wilmington, Delaware, where he went 10-3 with a 3.83 ERA in 2001. In Wilmington he enjoyed a close relationship with pitching coach Larry Carter.

"He was big, strong, really durable," Carter said. "He had strong legs and he pitched with a lot of grace. He had a lot of command of the strike zone. He could pitch to both sides of the plate, he could throw inside and he could throw outside. He really had a lot of quality to his pitches. He controlled his curveball really well. And a changeup, a slider."

Carter, now the Royals' minor league pitching coordinator, said Ferguson was a great teammate and an even better person.

"He didn’t voice his opinion a whole lot," Carter said. "But he was very coachable and he loved to work. He was very dedicated."

In 2002, while splitting time between Wilmington and Double-A Wichita, Ferguson led all minor leaguers in wins, with 18. He wasn't overpowering, but he led the Royals' organization in strikeouts -- and Baseball America named him the club's No. 17 prospect entering 2003. During the offseason, the Royals called to let him know that they had put him on the 40-man roster. He had an invitation to big league spring training.

"When I reported to spring training, I was in the major league locker room," Ferguson said. "I'm sitting next to Jeremy Affeldt, and a lot of guys with a lot of big league time."

He looked around at the huge wood lockers, saw his uniform hanging clean and pressed; the grandeur of it all amazed him. Surprise Stadium, which the Royals shared with the Rangers, had just opened. Every day he was surrounded by big names like Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Palmeiro. All of a sudden, Ferguson, the low-round draft pick, wasn't flying under the radar anymore. With a good start to the season, he was in line for a possible promotion to the majors.

"I started to put a lot of pressure on myself," he said. "Up to that point, I'd had no reason to put pressure on myself." After a few good bullpen sessions, Ferguson traveled to Tucson to pitch against the Rockies in a major league game.

"I remember being super nervous for that," Ferguson said. "I was sitting next to Carlos Beltran on the way down. I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, this is it.'" Ferguson entered the game and pitched a clean seventh inning, but the nerves that flared up that day became a continuing, constraining force on his psyche. After his next outing Ferguson would never be the same pitcher again.

"I remember throwing a slider that went 50 feet. I spiked it. It bounced like 10 feet in front of the plate," he said. "It was just an awful pitch, and at that point I was thinking, 'What was that?' This huge crowd and all the coaches watching me, maybe that triggered something -- because I got through the inning, I gave up maybe one run -- but I just started to dwell on those couple of bad pitches that I let go."

Ferguson had always prided himself on his control. "The next outing my catcher located a fastball on the outside to a right-handed hitter, and I ended up hitting the guy in the back," he said, recalling how he wondered how he could miss by that much.

Ferguson started dwelling on the mistakes, and anxiety engulfed him. "I've always been a nervous person who has worried a lot, but it just started to become overwhelming," he said. "It really started to take over. I lost a lot of my competitiveness because all of my focus was on my nervous energy and my anxiety."

Ferguson broke camp in 2003 with the Triple-A team, but as he drove from Arizona to Omaha, Nebraska, he knew something wasn’t right.

"I was so close to my dream, and yet there was something -- just a cloud, a dark cloud -- over me that wasn't letting me get excited about the opportunity," he said.

Ferguson pitched a few times in Omaha, but it was evident he wasn't the same pitcher. He walked 13 batters in 12.2 innings and his velocity dropped drastically. He was sent back to Wichita.

"I was put on some social anxiety medicine to see if that would help," said Ferguson, who noted that the medicine didn't help. "It was all so heavy to me at the time. So many people were so concerned with me."

His parents and his girlfriend, Shannon, came to visit in the hopes of helping him.

"So many people don't understand. It's hard for me to explain," he says. "It was such a mental block. All of my energy was put on, 'How do I get myself out of this?’ I would dream about it. I still have dreams about it, like I can't pick up a ball and throw it straight. It started slow, but then was like an avalanche of emotions that eventually became too much."

In Wichita, Ferguson would have a good outing and then a terrible one. He knew he was really in trouble when he started to feel numb whenever he so much as picked up a baseball.

"I was so nervous and so anxious, thinking so negatively, my arm felt as if I were throwing a pingpong ball," Ferguson said. "My arm felt tingly, and I couldn't control where the ball was going to go, and that is not a good thought process when you are standing on the mound."

The Royals sent him to see a sports psychologist in Indianapolis. "I got phone calls from the GM [Allard Baird], from Tony Pena [the Royals' manager in 2003]," Ferguson said. They’d ask him how he was doing.

"They understood the fact that I was struggling on the mound, but they also understood I was struggling as an individual," Ferguson said. "This was my dream. This was so important to me, and they recognized I wasn't doing all that well off the field too, and they paid attention to that. I will always be thankful and grateful to the Royals' organization."

Baird, now a senior VP for the Red Sox, declined comment for this story other than to say he wanted Ferguson to be able to tell his own story. While mental struggles can manifest differently for every player, Carter says that what happened to Ferguson happens to a lot of players.

"We always talk about how 10 percent of the game is physical and 90 percent of the game is mental," Carter said. "But we spend 90 percent of the time working on the physical, rather than 90 percent of the time working on the mental.

"There’s a lot of pressure to succeed, because we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, because when we were kids that's all we ever wanted to do. You’d think it would just come natural, and be the easiest thing there is, but there are so many levels you have to overcome and so many other players you have to compete against."

After posting a 7.52 ERA for Wichita in 2003, Ferguson ended up back in the rookie-level Arizona League. The Royals never cut him, but he decided to retire, ending his dream. Convinced that he would never hurdle the mental block, Ferguson thought it was time to say goodbye to baseball and to the pressure that accompanied it. He did attempt a comeback with the Rockies in 2005 but still couldn't get past the psychological struggles.

"I remember something happening, and he was gone and he never came back," Carter said. "I always wondered where he was."

In the 10 years since he left the pro game for good, time has afforded Ferguson the one thing he needed most: perspective. It took leaving baseball for him to realize life isn’t all about baseball.

On Dec. 18, 2004, Ferguson married Shannon and they now have two daughters. He says of his wife, "She saw me at my worst and never gave up on me and my dream. ... She is the most caring and understanding person I have ever met and I owe her so much."

Ferguson coached baseball part-time at colleges around Denver for several years. He enjoyed being in the dugout again and being around the guys. Now he is a project manager for Denver Parks and Recreation and says he feels blessed to have a healthy family and a job he enjoys.

"I think it's really just a matter of understanding and putting life in perspective, and realizing that there are people who care about you," Ferguson said. "No matter what you do, it's not about baseball sometimes. It's about being healthy and enjoying your life. I think I needed some of that perspective when I was playing."

Ferguson's baseball career ended abruptly, with more questions than answers. Now, hopefully, more teams are paying attention to mental health issues so that one day, when another player walks into the clubhouse at spring training for the first time and finds himself overwhelmed, reality won't hit him so hard.

"I will always live with the what-ifs," Ferguson said. "I don’t even know if I would have got a shot at the big leagues. I'll never know. I'm not one to think that I would have, but I'll always wonder how far I could have gotten if this roadblock wouldn’t have hit me."