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Giants’ Drew Robinson spreads the word about mental health

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Sacramento River Cats outfielder Drew Robinson walks onto the field before a game at Sutter Health Park on Sunday, July 18, 2021. Robinson, who lost an eye after a suicide attempt in April 2020, announced the Friday that he will retire from baseball and become a mental health advocate with the San Francisco Giants.

dkim@sacbee.com

It’s a bright San Francisco morning at Channel Street Dog Park. Drew Robinson calmly talks about some of the darkest things a person can go through. And all her 5-year-old golden service dog, Ellie, wants is for Robinson to throw that green rubber ball into her hands.

Robinson, a 30-year-old mental health consultant for the San Francisco Giants, played parts of three seasons with the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals between 2017 and 2019.

In February 2021, in a widely read article by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Robinson revealed an incredible story: He survived an April 2020 suicide attempt that cost him the use of his right eye and wanted to play baseball again.

His comeback fell short, with Robinson hitting .115 in 111 plate appearances in Sacramento with the River Cats in 2021 before announcing his retirement. But it led him down another path, one that helps Robinson play a vital role in the Giants organization’s burgeoning mental health work.

“What I notice is that players listen to Drew in a different way than they listen to a professional,” said Shana Alexander of Folsom, the Giants’ director of mental health.

They pay attention to him and the dog next to him everywhere he goes.

find the will to live

At the start of an interview with The Bee at the dog park, a 10-minute walk from Oracle Park, where Robinson and Ellie recently spent several days, Robinson explained that there was no problem talking at length about the life-changing incident.

“I realized that it would not be beneficial to share it, but then also to hold back,” Robinson said. “So I feel comfortable speaking as in depth as necessary.”

First, he answered questions about how he got Ellie as a puppy, surprising his partner, Daiana Anguelova, at Christmas 2016. The two already shared a dog, Brodi, and a small apartment. But, short of a Christmas present for Anguelova, Robinson couldn’t resist. “It was the best impulsive decision ever,” Robinson said.

In 2019, however, life began to change when Robinson experienced what he called his “three ingredients to the recipe for disaster.” First came a season-ending injury, then a firing from the Cardinals, and finally the decision to cancel a planned wedding to Anguelova. He left, taking Brodi and Ellie with him.

When Robinson went to spring training with the Giants organization in early 2020, he had already begun planning to end his life.

“It was on my mind,” Robinson said. “So very often, which was really hard to think about because I was still my … normal, funny goofball on the field because I enjoyed the baseball lifestyle. But at the same time, if there was downtime in the day during practice or during a game, I’d be sitting there thinking about it.”

There is a long history of suicides in Major League Baseball, with 91 players dying by suicide, according to Baseball-Almanac.com, most recently former A’s outfielder Jeremy Giambi on Feb. 9.

At about the time of his planning, Robinson saw a therapist for two or three months, although he was not seriously committed. “I said it like he was looking for help, but he wasn’t asking for help,” Robinson said.

His suicide attempt occurred at his Las Vegas home around 8 p.m. on April 16, 2020, about a month after the COVID-19 pandemic brought the season to a halt. In an unlikely course of events, Robinson shot himself in the head but remained conscious, eventually going to bed, waking up early the next morning, and struggling through the day to make another attempt.

“I remember thinking, man, I’m not going to be able to play baseball again,” Robinson said. “And that’s when I really got caught up. For example, if you’re thinking about baseball, you have to be thinking about the future.”

He called 911 at 3:48 p.m.

get ellie back

Robinson spent a week and a half in the hospital, followed by five days in a psychiatric hospital.

Anguelova, who had remained in Robinson’s life, went into support mode. With Robinson barred from receiving visitors, Anguelova would drive to the hospital parking lot with her dogs and talk to him on the phone while he lay in bed, unable to leave. She was looking up at the hospital windows, wondering aloud which one was hers.

Anguelova continued to visit Robinson after he was released from the psychiatric hospital, sometimes leaving Ellie with him and taking Brodi home with her. Slowly, Anguelova and Robinson rekindled their romantic relationship, with the two boyfriends today and taking things slow, Robinson said.

Robinson eventually got the idea to take Ellie places with him as well.

“I just took her out in public once just to see how she was doing,” Robinson said. “And she did amazing. And I was like, ‘You know, it would be cool to bring her, like take her everywhere.'”

He got Ellie certified as a service dog and took her to Sacramento last season, where her teammates would lift her up in the air. Manager Dave Brundage even wanted Ellie to travel with the club, Alexander said. “She just brings a lot of joy and energy wherever she is, even if there is a loss,” Alexander said.

With Ellie trained as a service dog, she can pretty much go wherever Robinson goes, though she’s not always with him when they’re at the stadium. The Giants staff don’t seem to care that Ellie is hanging around. Giants infielder David Villar, whose family dog, Toledo, had to be euthanized in January, said everyone likes having a dog in the clubhouse.

“Dogs bring a sense of joy to humans, especially when you see Ellie and how sweet she is,” Villar said. “And everyone really gets along with her.”

Fernando Pérez, director of video coaching for the Giants and a former MLB player, said he had perhaps never seen a more impressive dog at catching balls. “I juggle the ball with my feet, like a soccer ball and she catches it every time,” Perez said.

Perez is not alone.

“I think we’ve all at one time or another had problems with Ellie on that ball,” said Giants third baseman Jason Vosler, whose grandmother runs a home-based grooming business.

As Robinson spoke with The Bee, Ellie sat mostly attentively and patiently, only occasionally trying to get Robinson or her interviewer to play and toss her favorite green ball into the air.

End the stigma of mental health

Alexander, who trained as a clinical psychologist and is in her third year with the Giants, noticed something when she went to Sacramento last year to help with the players.

“Eight different guys came up to me and I was like, ‘Oh man, what’s going on with Sacramento?’” Alexander said. “And everyone shared, ‘Well, Drew shared that he works with you. So we thought, if Drew works with you, it might be worth working with you.’”

When Alexander learned of Robinson’s retirement, he thought it would be awesome if the team created a role for him “so he could support mental health needs.” Robinson now works full time for the team, speaking with community groups and traveling throughout the Giants’ farm system to interact with players.

Meanwhile, in March 2021, Alexander hired a longtime colleague and fellow clinical psychologist, Scottsdale-based Emily Payette, to serve as the team’s minor league mental health coordinator. Payette agreed that Robinson has been helpful in getting players to use her and Alexander’s services.

“Players have a lot of respect for him, based just on who he is as a person, his history, his time in baseball, and he advocates all the time for players not to hold things back but to use services,” Payette. he said. “He normalizes it.”

Payette is also the guardian of a 10-month-old golden pup, Willie (by Willie Mays), who the Giants are testing in the minors as a therapy dog. Ellie tolerates it.

“Poor Willie, he just doesn’t understand social cues very well,” Payette said. “Ellie loves to fetch and as you know she is very focused on that ball and playing fetch. A lot of times Willie just wants to play and will come up to her and try to engage her in the game and sniff her out. … She’s like, ‘Stay away from me.’”

In September, the Giants will hold suicide awareness nights in both San Francisco and Sacramento. Ellie and Willie will be at the local event. Robinson will too.

Two years after his recovery, Robinson, statistically speaking, is still at some risk. The Harvard School of Public Health points to studies showing that of people who attempt suicide, 30 percent will make another attempt, and about a quarter of that number will do so fatally.

Robinson remains active in his work and recovery, meeting weekly with a psychiatrist. On August 1, he announced the arrival of his mental health nonprofit organization, the Better U Foundation.

As his interview ended, Robinson mentioned a quote close to his heart: “People would rather hear from you than hear from you.”

And then it was time for Robinson and Ellie to head to their next destination.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides confidential assistance to anyone in crisis and their loved ones through live chat and a toll-free 24-hour hotline: 988. WellSpace Health operates the region’s 24-hour hotline. Sacramento: 916-368-3111 or text HOPE to 916-668-4226.

This story was originally published August 7, 2022 5:00 a.m.

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