Many athletes struggle with post-career life, figuring out who they are without pro sports, deciding what to do next. The path is not always smooth.
For former Oakland Athletics pitcher Tim Kubinski, his life immediately after baseball seemed perfectly fine. He was married, settled in San Luis Obispo with his family and held jobs managing money and then in real estate after his MLB stints with Oakland in 1997 and 1999.
Five years ago, however, a certain anxiety took hold. And that’s when something from his baseball past emerged: He had painkillers left over from his Tommy John surgery and used them to self-medicate, leading to an opiate addiction, struggles to overcome that and to improve his mental health. And now, on the other side of that experience, he is actively back in the sport, providing a lifeline for players who are dealing with similar issues.
Knowing how difficult it is to ask for help and then to find it, Kubinski recently posted a message on a private Facebook group for current and former pro baseball players, major and minor leaguers, volunteering to facilitate substance-addiction treatment or mental health counseling for any and all, and he would do so in strict confidence.
He had nearly 30 responses in a day and a half.
Tim Kubinski on the day he asked for help for his opiate addition. “I had no idea I looked so defeated,” the former A’s pitcher said.
Courtesy Tim Kubinski
“People direct messaged to say, ‘I have this problem. Can we talk?’ ” Kubinski said. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ One of them told me he had been hiding an Adderall addiction and drinking problem from his family for two years — and just saying that to someone is huge. Because people think they’ll worry their families, but your family loves you and is in it all the way with you.
“Obviously, they know something’s wrong with you — you think you’re hiding it, you’re not. And as soon as you tell them, you’ll feel better and they’ll feel better and from there, you get the help you need. The more you hide it, the worse the anxiety and you’re miserable.”
Kubinski has become increasingly concerned about the prevalence of opiate addiction in society at large and in sports. Tyler Skaggs’ death two years ago, the result of a fentanyl-laced painkiller, shook him. Mental-health issues, including suicides by former athletes and current college athletes concerned him deeply.
After Jeremy Giambi committed suicide in February, Kubinski contacted agent Joel Wolfe, his former minor-league teammate and, like Kubinski, a friend of Giambi. Kubinski expressed his desire to help other players. He also talked to addicition specialist Dr. Ken Starr, who said he’d be on board to provide immediate feedback and find programs for those in need. There is a significant need: Pro sports come with tremendous pressure to perform. The hours, particularly in baseball, are long, the travel demanding, and many players turn to substances to cope.
“We drank so much when we played,” Kubinski said. “There’s so much stress involved, and for me, the worst time was you’d go out until 2 (a.m.) and then you’d go back and you’re alone in the room, and that’s when everything hits you, like, ‘The party’s over, now it’s just me and my mind.’ That’s why people in baseball self-medicate a lot. All sports. Just in life, so many people do that.”
Kubinski knows of what he speaks. He found himself getting more anxious when he was a financial advisor, not wanting to risk losing clients’ and friends’ money, so he switched to real estate. After befriending an elderly man whose home sale he’d handled and taking over the gentleman’s care, things took an unsettling turn.
“I could kind of tell he started wanting to die,” Kubinski said. “Then he had a gun and tried to shoot himself in front of me, which just crushed me. He asked me to kill him, which of course I wouldn’t even consider.
“It was just too much to deal with, and a lot of this stuff came back, a lot of pent-up stuff that I’ve always been keeping to myself. You try to compartmentalize things and then everything piles up on you all at once.”
Former Oakland A?•s pitcher, Tim Kubinski, in San Luis Obispo, Ca.
Erick Madrid / Special to The Chronicle
Nightmares and panic attacks ensued, and, Kubinski said, “I didn’t want to tell anyone. I’m the one who’s always there for everybody.”
Antidepressents left him tired, and Kubinski had his leftover pain pills from his elbow surgery. He figured they might ease his anxiety. “I could get through the day,” he said. “There was less stress.
“Three weeks into that, I thought, ‘I’m in big trouble.’ ”
Kubinski had to find sources of opiates — Mexican pharmacies, shady sources — while trying to maintain an outward appearance of normality. “You think you’re slick asking your friends for some but everyone must have known what a joke it was,” he said. “Half the time you don’t know what you’re getting. You’re going to die eventually.”
It was a hellish existence. “I realized, ‘I cannot get off this stuff by myself,’ ” he said.
Nearly two years into his ordeal, Kubinski told his wife, Nicole, then tried to check himself into rehab. That’s when he became acquainted with a major stumbling block: The clinic he went to couldn’t accommodate him immediately. So he gave up and went home. “I was like, ‘OK, I’m done. I tried. Obviously no big deal, these people don’t want to help me,’ ” he said. “If you can’t get help instantly, you say, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow,’ and then tomorrow, you just don’t do it.
“It’s a huge decision. And if you can’t get help right away, then you’re like. ‘Oh, well, no one cares.’ ”
Nicole didn’t give him a choice. She drove him to San Luis Obispo County’s Drug and Alcohol Services clinic, and he was given Suboxone to help with opiate withdrawals. A three-hour session with a therapist helped Kubinski understand some of the sources of his anxiety — “I spilled everything that was in my head and I didn’t even know had been bothering me,” he said — and the clinic referred him to Starr, an addiction expert eager to provide immediate treatment.
“He said, ‘How many pills do you take a day?,’ ” Kubinski said. “And I didn’t want to tell him 10 or 15, I felt so bad. He said, ‘That’s nothing. I have 200 patients, and everyone came in with more than that. These are lawyers. These are doctors. These are prominent people, firemen, policemen, all walks of life. You’re not alone, don’t worry.’
“That made me feel a little bit better. Like, OK, I’m not such a loser. Not weak.”
16 Mar 2000: Pitcher Tim Kubinski #58 of the Oakland Athletics pitches the ball during the Spring Training Game against the Anaheim Angels at Phoenix Municipal Stadium in Phoenix, Arizona. The Athletics defeated the Angels 4-3.
Tom Hauck / Getty Images
That’s where we come to obstacle No. 2. Many athletes — many people in general — dealing with addiction issues or mental-health concerns do not want to appear weak. They are high achievers, leaders, the backbone of their family, responsible.
Kubinski understands this impulse extremely well, and how destructive it is.
“The players I’ve heard from all say the same thing, so the first thing I tell them is: You’re not weak at all, you are actually strong to do this,” he said, “You need to be vulnerable. Everybody needs to be vulnerable.”
Painkillers are a standard part of athletes’ lives. Few pros make it through their careers without significant injuries, or without lingering pain afterward. Kubinski had two ligament-replacement surgeries.
“I don’t blame anything the A’s or the Indians ever did,” he said. “They don’t tie you down and make you take stuff to get better so you can play in pain or anything like that. But as soon as it’s over, it’s like, ‘Good luck, try to get off all that stuff.’ I think a lot of people have trouble with that.”
One of the players Kubinski has been in touch with since his Facebook message is former Dodgers pitcher Kip Gross, who would like him to help a longtime mutual friend who is dealing with alcoholism. Gross’ wife, Jami, was an alcoholic, which he found out only a few days before her death at the age of 47 in 2017. Gross said Jami had decided to rehab on her own, and he is convinced the heart attack she incurred while going through delerium tremens was tied to that decision.
“The biggest mistake of my life was to let her do that,” Gross said. “I’m so sorry I didn’t know, I had no idea that you really can’t do it on your own. She was hallucinating and they said to get her to the emergency room right now, but walking down the stairs to the car, she had a heart attack and died in my arms.”
He does not want other families to have to go through anything similar, and applauds Kubinski for his outreach, especially after his own attempts to help his former teammate get into recovery were unsuccessful.
“Just this morning, I woke up and I went through our Facebook group, and there’s another post from somebody putting Tim’s name in there to get a hold of him because he needs help,” Gross said. “It’s awesome what Tim’s doing, he’s making himself available to anyone and everyone.
“I think a lot of players had a hard time when they get out of baseball, things didn’t go the way they wanted, and I think there’s a link with all the steroids and the drugs and the alcohol and whatever else everyone was doing. Sometimes, it can be as simple as making one phone call and talking to someone who understands. I wish my wife had reached out.”
4 Mar 2000: Tim Kubinski #58 of the Oakland Athletics pitches the ball during the Spring Training Game against the California Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. The Athletics defeated the Angels 12-4. Mandatory Credit: Tom Hauck /Allsport
Tom Hauck / Getty Images
Since Kubinski, 50, reclaimed his life, he has cut back on the real-estate business and spent more time training and mentoring kids. He no longer paces incessantly, something he’d never realized he was doing until his daughter, Chase, mentioned he’d stopped once he’d completed treatment. He steered his son, Tanyon, away from baseball when he realized he wasn’t enjoying it — something Kubinski himself had found and believes many others encounter.
“Baseball is the sport of failure, it really is,” he said. “I tell the kids I work with, ‘Look, if you don’t have fun, don’t play because the last time I enjoyed baseball was when I was your age.’ When you have to get paid, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I have to pitch well or I’m going to get released.’ ”
Baseball has numerous health and financial resources in place for current and former minor-leaguers, including the Baseball Assistance Team program, and many teams are beginning to emphasize mental-health awareness, with the Giants leading the way. Even so, players are slipping through the cracks.
“You don’t want to tell the people in charge, ‘Hey, I’ve got a mental problem,’ ” Kubinski said. “You’re worried they’ll be like, ‘All right, see ya. I got 10 people behind you who are just good and who don’t stress out. Who am I going to promote?’ ”
And Kubinski knows that, as much trouble as he found trying to get immediate support, it’s more difficult now.
“After COVID, it’s like a six-month wait just to get therapy,” he said. “It’s a huge problem. I told Joel, ‘Hey, if you have any players who are struggling, have them call me. I’m not looking to monetize it. I just want to help.’ ”
Starr told him to give any players in need his cell phone number and he’d respond, and Kubinski would like to start a website to give past and present players a forum to discuss their problems anonymously, so they know they’re not alone and they can find appropriate resources.
“Everybody has a way to numb their pain, and once you start numbing pain, of course you’re going to get addicted to whatever you’re taking,” Kubinski said. ‘But when a doctor tells you, ‘Here you go,’ and prescribes it, you think, ‘It can’t be that bad. I’m not drug addict. I’m taking what doctors prescribed.’
“I thought, ‘I have gone through this. I have to get out there and try to help some people out.’ I guarantee you there are so many who need it. People are going through bad stuff. And they need to talk about it.”
Starr is impressed with his friend and former patient for his proactive response to the increasingly prevalent problems of opiate addiction and mental-health care availability.
“It takes a lot of guts right to come out and admit that you have a problem, especially if someone who is well known,” Starr said. “I haven’t had a lot of professional athletes in my practice, but it was interesting in talking with Tim over the years about the pressures during your career, and the accessibility of various substances and the culture, and then more importantly, what happens when you’re done playing — how do you how deal with that?
“These things need to be addressed. I’m so glad that he’s doing this, and I’m really proud of him for taking such big steps.”
Susan Slusser covers the Giants for The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @susanslusser