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Whalen back in Mariners camp with new outlook

Righty prospect stepped away from game in '17 to battle depression
MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

PEORIA, Ariz. -- When you're living what is supposed to be your dream, but instead feels like a nightmare, something is wrong.

Which is why Rob Whalen walked away from baseball last year, risking his career to get a fresh start on life.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- When you're living what is supposed to be your dream, but instead feels like a nightmare, something is wrong.

Which is why Rob Whalen walked away from baseball last year, risking his career to get a fresh start on life.

It's not easy to talk about mental health issues like depression and anxiety, but the 24-year-old Mariners pitching prospect isn't worried about easy anymore. He's worried about young athletes like Tyler Hilinski, the quarterback at Washington State who committed suicide in January.

"I didn't know the kid, but I felt so bad for his family and all that because I felt like that for a time," Whalen said. "I felt alone. I just isolated myself. I was in that bubble for a while, and it sucks to see that. I was fortunate enough to escape it. I got help before it came that far down the road."

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Whalen stepped back from a world he said was closing in on him last July while he was pitching for Triple-A Tacoma, got help and now is attacking life -- and his baseball career -- with a new frame of mind.

And rather than hide from his personal challenges, Whalen wants to let anyone else who deals with depression or anxiety know they're not alone.

"If I touch one person, it's a win for me," he said. "I'm not trying to get pity from anybody. It's my story, and I just want to share it and help somebody else."

Whalen acknowledges he doesn't know the details of Hilinski's situation, but understands how hard it is for young men, particularly in the world of sports, to admit they need help and reach out due to pride or fear of being judged.

"We need to change the stigma that you're fragile if you talk about it, because that's not the case," he said. "We need to continue the conversation."

Whalen said finding the right counselor outside of baseball to open up to about his problems was the first step out of his darkness.

"It's almost like when you're an alcoholic, you have to admit you're an alcoholic," he said. "For me it was, 'OK, let me say these words out loud of how I've been feeling inside for so long,' feeling if I did say it, people would think I'm crazy.

"I was 23, I'd gotten to the big leagues and had a great life. There wasn't a lot to be upset about, but I was just miserable. So it was hard to understand it myself, let alone explain it to others."

Whalen, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the Mariners' No. 17 prospect, pitched two games for Seattle last year and started on May 27 at Fenway Park, throwing 5 1/3 innings in a 6-0 loss. But after being acquired from the Braves the previous offseason, he acknowledges now that his mental state wasn't good all year and he came to camp in poor physical condition.

"It's hard to get in shape and be motivated to drive yourself when you don't even want to get out of bed, let alone go work out for three hours," he said. "So I didn't put myself in good position to succeed last year. This year I did. I've dropped 20 pounds, I'm eating better, I feel great, I'm healthy and I think it's a good reset for me."

Whalen said he's dealt with anxiety and depression since his teen years in Florida, though he didn't really understand or confide in anyone about it until talking briefly to a psychologist while with the Mets in 2015.

But he soon was traded to the Braves, then again to the Mariners last winter, and he tried pushing the issues aside while climbing the baseball ladder. He started five games for Atlanta at age 22 and ignored the mounting internal pressures until his struggles reached a breaking point last year.

Whalen said he couldn't concentrate during games, at times feeling "the crowd closing in on me" and finally called it quits after he went back to his hotel following another rough outing in Reno.

"The start didn't go well, I felt like I couldn't breathe," he said. "I just packed my stuff and booked my flight. I was breaking down in my hotel room. I couldn't believe what I just did, but I had to do it."

The Mariners put Whalen on the restricted list, and once he acknowledged out loud the need for help, he found it. Now he says, regardless of whether he makes it back to the big leagues, he knows he can say he returned to the game and gave it his best shot.

And so far this spring, the Mariners have liked what they've seen from the young right-hander. General manager Jerry Dipoto said Whalen has been one of the pleasant surprises in the first week of camp, and manager Scott Servais pulled the youngster aside for some personal praise after his first throwing session.

"I'm probably as proud of him as I am of any of our players," Servais said. "Guys grow up. They mature. He looks different, he's lost some weight. He's had a life change. He stepped back and made some adjustments, not just physically, but mentally.

"It's nice to see the smile back on his face."

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.

Seattle Mariners, Rob Whalen