Aug. 27, 2019- I’ve had a weird life. In my younger years, I trained for the Olympics in gymnastics, until injuries ended my career early. From there I transitioned to acting, and even toured Broadway until – as a man of Indian descent – I decided I didn’t want to spend 40 years as “Ambiguously Brown, Ensemble Cast Member #17.” (Had I known “Hamilton” was going to exist, I may have kept going). When I was 19, I landed my dream job, as a producer with ESPN. By the time I was 21, I owned my own sports magazine.
I’ve also almost died six times, including one suicide attempt.
I experienced a mental health crisis at the age of 24, which led to five years of living in near isolation in my 160 square foot apartment in New York City. During those five years, I cut sports – something I cared about deeply – completely out of my life. My magazine had failed, and it was too depressing for me to watch anything related to a world I felt I should be part of.
By 29, I had lost every friend I had ever made, and stopped communicating with my family altogether. I call this stretch my five years of nonsense — dismissive hyperbole helps sometimes.
After a difficult experience at my sister’s wedding anniversary in the fall of 2012, I flew home to New York, and retreated back into my self-imposed exile. I turned on my television in an attempt to block out the steady stream of self-loathing coursing through my mind, and a baseball game happened to be on.
Over the course of nine innings, I found I was engaged with something that existed outside of my own head. For three wonderful hours, I wasn’t filled with the thoughts of shame, guilt, regret and self-loathing I had for so long been experiencing.
I was still alone on my couch, but I was smiling.
One important thing you should know about me is that I’m an addict – now 11 years sober – and my rekindled relationship to baseball was no exception. I began watching ballgames non-stop, 24 hours a day. I remembered a silly dream I’d had when I was a kid: one of those things you tell people you’re going to do one day, but never actually come true.
Well, I decided to actually do it. In 2013, I drove 17,000 miles in 95 days to see a ballgame in-person at all 30 major league stadiums. Every 48 hours, I was in a new city. The impulse wasn’t just about baseball. It was about engaging with people.
Every stadium I went to, I talked to as many people as I could: ushers, vendors, ticket takers, grounds crew members, and everyone around me. By the end of each game, I had spoken to every person sitting in my section.
The secret was, I wasn’t just there to talk to strangers about baseball.
Baseball is a game built for conversation. The slow pace of the game makes the experience feel similar to a three-hour picnic, surrounded by 40,000 of your closest friends. I found that starting up a conversation at a ballgame was as easy as, “Do you come to this park often?” (Yup. That was my line. It’s a terrible cliché, but it works every time).
As the summer progressed, I found that these conversations – which began with our common language of baseball – always turned to something deeper. Each baseball story seemed to contain the seed of something more personal, whether it was a vivid memory of the person’s mother, father, boss, cousin, partner, child, or even their mortal enemy. Their baseball memories and opinions often led to a topic I was, at heart, more interested in than baseball: mental health.
Part of what made these #RealConvos so authentic and so free, I think, was the fact that these people knew that at the end of the game, when the final out was recorded, they were probably never going to see me again. They could tell me anything without fear of judgement of any kind. Every single person had a story to tell, and I wanted to hear them all.
I’ve spoken to people about addiction, racial insecurity, sexuality, and everything else you can think of. The common thread in all of it was mental health. It’s all connected.
When the tour was over, I came back to New York feeling like a completely different human being. I had used the tour not just to connect with strangers, but to reconnect with friends and family, now scattered across the country, whom I hadn’t spoken to in five, ten, and in some cases, 15 years.
It had been the greatest three months of my life, but I still wasn’t truly happy. I still felt lost, and missed the opportunity to meet and talk with thousands of people from wildly different backgrounds at the ballpark. I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life. But I knew baseball had to be a part of it.
Today, I spend my summers traveling from stadium to stadium, chatting with baseball fans about every topic imaginable, from the deeply personal to the incredibly mundane — but it all starts with a little baseball. I try to bring a friend, old or new, to each game with me. If I can’t bring a friend I’ll go alone, and by the end of the game will have spoken with dozens of my seatmates about anything you can imagine.
I’ve realized that for me, my mental health is tied to making connections with others.
For the first time in 35 years, I can say that I am actually happy. That is not a sentence I thought I was ever going to be able to write, let alone truly mean it. It is all thanks to baseball, and the fans I have met along the way.
It’s not all perfect and of course, I still get depressed from time to time. I’m okay with that, because I know deep down that I’m always going to get through it. I have an ever-expanding group of amazing people in my life, from my friends and my family — with a special shout-out to my little niece and twin nephews, who are my entire world — to the millions of strangers at ballparks who I’ve met, and the ones who I haven’t met quite yet.
If I’m lucky enough to meet you at a game one day, please stop and say hello. I can’t wait to hear your story, too.
Muneesh continues his travels each baseball season, as well as helping fellow fans plan tours to visit each of the 30 ballparks in the major leagues. Follow Muneesh and his exploits having #RealConvos at the ballgame on his Instagram and Twitter!
Check out AFSP’s #RealConvo Guides! Arranged in an easy-to-read, step-by-step format, these #RealConvo Guides cover the following topics:
- tips for starting and continuing a conversation about mental health
- how to respond if someone tells you they’re thinking about suicide
- strategies for reaching out for help when you need it
- how to talk to someone who’s lost a loved one to suicide
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