Detroit Tigers’ Austin Meadows describes ‘anxiety monster’ last year, his ‘huge step forward’

Detroit Free Press

Five months ago, Austin Meadows told the world what was happening in a 192-word statement. The former All-Star revealed on social media he would step away from baseball for the final month of the 2022 season due to his mental health struggles.

“We just knew it was time,” he said.

Meadows, 27, joined the Detroit Tigers in a surprising trade from the Tampa Bay Rays on the night of April 4, four days before Opening Day. He played 36 games, missing significant time with vertigo and COVID-19 and bilateral tendinitis in his Achilles tendons.

But there was more to the situation.

“What I have told very few people is that I also have been struggling with my mental health in a way that has extended my time away from the game that I love so much,” Meadows wrote in his Sept. 2 statement. “I’ve been dealing with this privately with a great team of professionals, but I need to continue to put in the hard work off the field towards feeling mentally healthy.”

In a 30-minute phone interview with the Free Press, Meadows talked for the first time about last year’s trade, his mental and physical health and his expectations for the 2023 season.

(This Q&A has been edited slightly for length and clarity.)

What was last season like for you?

“It was tough. From a mental health perspective, I’ve been dealing with some stuff a few years before the trade happened, just some anxiety and stuff like that. It got out of control during last offseason, and then the trade happened, and everything snowballed from there. I had a good team of therapists and people to work with down here in Tampa at the time. I was trying to figure everything out while also playing, and everything snowballed when the trade happened. It was just a few days before Opening Day. The trade and going to Detroit had some stuff to do with it, but the anxiety got worse as I changed cities. I couldn’t adjust. That was the gist of it.

“I’m really fortunate to now have a really good therapist up in Detroit that the team has linked me up with. This offseason has been amazing with having our daughter (Adelynne), being in a much better place mentally and being in a much better physical shape. Everything is starting to go in the right direction.”

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The trade seemed to really impact you. It all happened so fast.

“Yeah, it was a tough adjustment. We understand it’s part of the business, but the timing of it, we were comfortable here and just finished up spring training with the Rays. I remember sitting on our back patio. It was a few days before Opening Day, and the Rays’ GM told me I was getting traded. It really caught us off guard because of the timing. Going through the whole spring with the Rays, and then next thing you know, it’s see you later, pack your bags. It was really hard, but also knowing my brother (Parker) was in the Tigers’ organization, I tried to flip the script in realizing I have a good opportunity to play with him. Being able to realize that and move forward helped me, but going back to the mental health, there was stuff for a few years in Tampa. A lot of the anxiety happened during the COVID year. That’s when everything developed with the isolation and the bubble.

“I’m a people person. I like being out and around everyone. When they took that away from me, and my wife (Alexis) couldn’t be on the road, it affected me differently and affected me maybe more than certain people. And that kept carrying over into the next couple years.”

What did you do to improve your mental health?

“Stepping away to prioritize it was a big step. For me, battling the anxiety and battling having panic attacks, trying to balance that and then balance my performance, we felt like it was time to focus on the mental side of things. I talked with A.J. (Hinch) and our front office staff. Everybody was super-understanding. I mentioned to them that this has been a buildup. It’s not like right when I got to Detroit all this happened. This is stuff that I’ve been dealing with a little bit in the past, and I’m still trying to figure it out. I was able to meet a great therapist up in Detroit to help me through the days. Even when I wasn’t playing, I was coming up to the field early in the morning, and the team was awesome about the whole process for me to still be around.

“Anxiety is funny. Anxiety, you tend to avoid certain things. For A.J. and the team to want me to come in and continue to be around the guys, even though there are certain things that might be a trigger for me when it comes to anxiety, it was a good distraction for me.”

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How do you think athletes speaking publicly about their mental health has made an impact on the subject? In 2021, USA gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from competitions at the Tokyo Olympics and disclosed her mental health struggles. In 2019, Chicago White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech opened up about his anxiety.

“It’s huge that those athletes were able to come out, and that opened the door for other athletes to do the same thing and for me to be able to come out and say I was struggling. I definitely think there is a stigma there, but I do think more people are bringing it to the front, and more people are talking about it, and that’s what we need because it’s hard to balance.

“People don’t understand and realize that we’re human beings, and we have feelings and emotions. On the other side of that, we’re trying to perform with a lot of pressure from fans. And we’re trying to balance family life. There could be something going on at home. You bring it to the field, and you go 0-for-4, and it just snowballs. There are so many different components to it. This is just the baseball world. I don’t know the other worlds with the other athletes. But I’m glad it’s being talked about, and I’m glad I was able to make the decision to put it out there to the world.

“The outreach was incredible from people all around, like high school teammates and classmates all the way to current players in the big leagues and normal everyday people. They reached out and told me they were struggling with this or that. The impact was huge. We were hesitant to put it out, obviously, but we wanted people to know what was going on because we kept holding out for so long. It was a huge weight off my shoulder to let the world know what was going on and let people know that they’re not alone. I think that was a huge step forward for us.”

Why did you share your mental health struggles on social media?

“I think a lot of it was for the world to know. There were some injuries leading up to the (social media) post. Out of respect for the organization, out of respect for you guys as media, it was just time to put it out there. We kept dragging it along. I dealt with it all season last year, and obviously before that, so we didn’t want to keep playing it out. We didn’t want to make up things. It was just time. A.J. and I discussed a time to do it out of respect to the organization. The organization handled it really well. We went through some things about what to say and how to put it out there to the world. They were very helpful with that. It’s never an easy topic. It’s never an easy thing to post or talk about, but the organization was really helpful and supportive, as well as my wife and my family, so we put something out there, which was a huge step.

“But when you hit send, you don’t know what people are going to say or how people are going to react. I don’t think I saw a negative comment. I think I saw all support and so much comparison to what people are going through. A lot of people go through stuff that they don’t talk about, and for people to open up to me, it was really awesome.”

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You experienced challenges physically and mentally last season. How did the physical and mental components interact?

“All the injuries were definitely real. We weren’t coming up with stuff to cover anything up. We had the Achilles, the vertigo and all that stuff. It was frustrating at first because both of my Achilles were in pain. I remember playing in April and May, and they wouldn’t stop aching and wouldn’t stop hurting when I was running. When I would sit still on the bench and then run, it really bothered me. It was really upsetting. One Achilles might be normal, but both Achilles, I was like, ‘What is going on?’ I kept questioning and replaying it in my head like, ‘How could this be? I prepared so hard.’ Injuries are tough. There’s never good timing for any injury. When you’re dealing with a new injury, which is what I had with the Achilles, it definitely flusters you to try to figure it out because you want to be out there with your guys and your teammates, no matter what team you’re on. To have to deal with that started the whole process, as well as trying to deal with the anxiety and panic. It snowballed into an anxiety monster, but we’re in a better place now, and that’s in the past.”

Being in a better place, how does that change things for you personally and professionally?

“It changes a lot. Having our daughter now puts a lot of things in perspective. I’m looking forward to seeing her and my wife in the stands. When you’re going through something, the first thing is getting help, but the second thing is getting the right help. That’s been my biggest M.O., being able to find what works for me and find certain therapists that work for me. This offseason, we’ve been able to hone in on what works to deal with the anxiety and panic. The transformation is amazing when you find the right help for you. You start to really enjoy your days and not worry about the next anxiety attack. You’re able to enjoy life, be a father, be a good husband and be back to where I was mentally and physically on the baseball field. This is some of the best shape that I’ve been in. I attacked it, and on top of that, I did all the therapy and all the mental work. I feel like we’re as prepared as we can be for this year.”

What did you do to transform your body?

“My wife was pregnant all last year. I decided I wanted to stay home and be closer to her for workouts, so we invested in a gym in the garage of the house. I’ve done all my workouts there, and there’s a hitting facility down the street. I live in a neighborhood with open grass, so I’m able to do a lot of running and workouts there. I have used a high school 30 minutes south the past couple weeks to hit off velocity, run and be on the field. I have a chef. He doesn’t cook at the house, but he sends meals. Being on a diet plan started last year during my time off while not playing. I talked with our dietician, and we put a plan in place into the offseason. She was tremendous helping me out, as was the chef here, and all the hot weather in Florida has gotten me in some of the best shape I’ve ever been in.”

Is dieting a new tool for you?

“When I was younger, it was just eat whatever and play. You run into some injuries at a young age and realize, ‘I’m not a normal person, per se, I’m a professional athlete.’ I got to take care of my body, and what I put in will only help me succeed more on the field. We really took that into consideration with injuries in the past. Eating cleaner can help inflammation and stuff like that. It’s been a huge step for me, not only physically but mentally, too, because it makes you feel better. You feel leaner, you feel better mentally. That’s been the big focus going into this year.”

What’s your weight entering spring training?

“Right now, I’m hovering around like 225-230 (pounds). That’s my spot. I probably lost a little over 20 pounds. I would say 15-20 pounds, and then just building the muscle. For me, I didn’t play, so I gained weight towards the end of the season last year. To be able to lose fat and gain muscle but still lose weight is always a challenge, but I just got after it, put my head down and tried to put myself in the best spot I can be. That 225-230 is where I feel my best, and I’m ready to roll.”

Did your offseason program change because of your physical and mental health?

“I probably started around the same time that I usually do. The first couple months of this offseason was still the therapy side and continuing the therapy work to find the right therapist for me. From when I stopped playing last year until November or December were the most important months for me to develop a team. I’ve had a team in the past, but to find the right help for me was the main focus. The workouts start pretty early in the offseason, so I was able to lift and work out, but no baseball activity. Basically, I would lift and then do therapy. That was the main focus going into the end of the year, and then building on it once January started.”

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What’s the biggest difference between this spring training and last spring training?

“So much more clarity. It’s been a fight, and it’s been really hard to be at a place where I am now. There’s still work to be done, but there’s been so much work on the physical side and mental side. Some days, I feel drained at the end, but I know it’s worth it. Last spring training was a really big struggle for me with the Rays, just going to the field and trying to figure out what’s going on with my body. Like, ‘What is this anxiety?’ And I didn’t know what was going on. So now, I have power over that to know, ‘OK, this is some anxiety coming on.’ Having the tools to cope and still perform is a huge step in the right direction. I’m still learning, but I’ve learned so much about mental health and about anxiety. It’s helped me cope a lot better leading up to this year.”

(Meadows made the All-Star team, hit .291 with 33 home runs and finished 14th in American League MVP voting in 2019. He also launched 27 homers and finished 20th in AL MVP voting in 2021.)

Do you feel like you can get back to being that All-Star-caliber player?

“I do, I really do. The biggest thing is I’ve controlled what I can this offseason. I’ve put myself in the best place to succeed on the field and stay healthy. I’m right where I want to be mentally, and I’m right where I want to be physically. I went back to my old trainer that I used in Georgia for three or four years, back when I was with Tampa Bay. We moved down here (to Florida) in 2020, and I used a different trainer. I got back with my trainer in Atlanta, and we work virtually in the gym at home. He’s made me feel the best I’ve ever felt. It all starts in the offseason. If I can stay on the field, I think big things can happen. I’m not a goal setter, like hit this or that, but for me, if I continue to take care of myself on and off the field and stay healthy, I think good things will happen.”

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I can’t forget about Parker. Are you ready for big-league camp with your little brother?

“It’s wild to know we’ll be sharing the same locker room. I’ve seen him play a few times professionally, but we’ve never been on the same team. It’s pretty surreal, man. We thank our parents for getting us to this point. I can’t imagine what they’ll go through when they see us on that same field together. It’s a blessing. I’m so proud of him for all the hard work and the great season he had last year. He had some struggling years early in the minor leagues, and he’s developed into knowing himself now. He has the power. He has the speed. He has everything you want in a big-league outfielder. Time will tell for him. He starts in Triple-A (Toledo), and we’ll see what happens after that. But it’s exciting. You don’t see that too often, two brothers on the same team. It’s pretty cool.”

Contact Evan Petzold at or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.

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