Wearing a beard that hadn't been trimmed in a couple of days and blue sneakers he guessed he's owned for a few years, Long Island Ducks reliever Ian Snell said he's no longer overly concerned about what people think of him.
The former major-leaguer, 31, once so troubled that he said he considered suicide, now says he is happy. That's something he repeated often as he sat in the home dugout at Bethpage Ballpark, hours before the Ducks hosted a recent game against the Camden Riversharks.
Snell is determined to make it clear that he's not the same guy who once said "the world was crumbling down on me."
Pressure was just too much
Four years ago, Snell said, he was so disenchanted, so dejected about his struggles as a pitcher, then with the Pirates, that he seriously pondered taking his own life.
Snell held an impromptu news conference in 2009 and talked about feeling depressed and suicidal. He also requested to be reassigned to Triple-A, quite a fall from the player once crowned the Pirates' Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Snell, who was projected to be the staff ace of a desperate franchise, was 9-12 with a respectable 3.76 earned run average in 2007. But his ERA ballooned to 5.42 in 2008 and was only slightly better (5.36 in 15 starts) the following year.
Even though he pitched for a losing team, he said there were the pressures -- concocted by himself more than anyone else, he said -- to triumph every fifth day. There was the constant ridicule from Pirates fans. There was the media showcasing his acts of anger both on and off the field. There were family relationships that he said became stressful. And they were all too much for him to handle at the time.
Snell saw his world and found it wanting.
"People think it's so easy to play baseball," he said. "And all they say is these guys have money and these guys are having a good life, but what people don't understand is that there are other people on the other side, like the families that are not here with the players, and we are struggling in ways just as much. We're struggling more on the inside, but we don't show it."
Mets pitcher David Aardsma was Snell's teammate in Seattle and remembers a troubled ballplayer. "It was hard for him to do his job every single day," Aardsma said. "He did [have] a little bit of a hard time fitting in. You could tell he was probably just dealing with a lot of personal stuff. Personally, I don't know if he was completely 100 percent on the field. He was just dealing with a lot of things. I don't know what it was . . . I know he was struggling. I don't want to say distracted, but you could just tell that his heart wasn't quite into it. You could tell that he was holding back a little bit, or he wasn't quite letting himself be a part of us."
Dr. Donald Malone of the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Neurological Restoration and someone who has worked with numerous professional athletes, said they are as susceptible to stress as anyone.
"People often look at pro athletes and say, 'Well, what do they have to be worried about, what do they have to be stressed out about?' But the reality is that everybody has stress in their lives," Malone said.
Snell said he never was diagnosed as clinically depressed and never took antidepressant medication.
Instead, he said, he rediscovered his faith, reconnected with family and realized how foolish he looked at times, such as when he accused the Rockies of stealing signs in 2007 and ranted about getting even.
"It was more of me finding myself and getting away from the stress that I was putting myself through," Snell said. "I think I put too many expectations on myself to do too good at one time and that put hard times on me. But I'm past that now.''
It took him some time to figure out and overcome his issues. Along the way, after failing with the team that drafted him, Snell pitched for the Mariners for parts of two seasons and posted a 5.12 ERA in 110-plus innings.
He signed a minor-league deal with the Cardinals in 2011, didn't make the major-league team after spring training and retired that March. He reconsidered the decision a month later and signed a minor-league contract with the Dodgers but never made a major-league appearance for them.
The point of rash decision-making was described as "stressful times," but these days, according to Snell, things are different. He's no longer the young guy from Delaware who received a ton of cash -- he has earned more than $8 million in his career -- let it go to his head and admittedly overcompensated for a lack of a college experience.
Snell often was outspoken and candid with his remarks to the media while playing in the majors. "It's just the way I am. I have to be honest," he said.
Yet he also was quiet and reserved. "I don't have a phone number of anyone I played with," he said.
Thriving on Long Island
With the Ducks, however, Snell is described by teammates and coaches as "pleasant," "fun," and "happy."
"He's been great and I haven't seen anything negative," Ducks manager Kevin Baez said.
"Everything has changed," Snell said. "The anger is gone. I mean, I get angry, yeah, like when I do something stupid like make an error. But I'm not going to come in the dugout and be like I used to be and slam my glove or kick a trash can."
The righthander signed with the Ducks in March because he believed he was over the troubles that plagued him earlier in his career.
"There's no stress here," he said. "It's a lot more fun. And I'm enjoying my time here with everyone, like this clown."
Snell jokingly referred to Ducks pitcher Bill Murphy as he entered the dugout sweating heavily, sarcastically asking him if it felt hot on the field.
Once damned by his own standards ("I had to pitch at least a quality start," he said), Snell has no goals after 1 1/2 years away from baseball, mostly spent at his home in Florida.
Snell has learned to appreciate the game for what it is and simply have fun, which is why he returned to a sport that once put him through much agony.
"Ian was one of the first people I met in 2000 when I signed. He was one of the guys I really got to know over the years from moving through the minor leagues," said former Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth, now with the Orioles. "I know he had some personal problems, things guys like to keep private. Sometimes people have things going on inside of them and they don't let other people see and I'm glad to know he's been able to deal with that."
Through Thursday, Snell had pitched 22 innings out of the bullpen with a 4.50 ERA. He's not too worried about that, though.
"It's a game that we're playing," Snell said. "It's not a life- or-death situation."
With Marc Carig