Michael Kopech is a tale of self-awareness we can all learn from

In thinking about the return of Michael Kopech to the Chicago White Sox, my mind now shoots back to last July when I was watching fans and pundits dissect his decision to opt-out of the 2020 season, and I shot off a Tweet reminding those that needed the reminder that the personal life and mental health of Kopech was none of our business.

I thought it was as simple as that — mind your own business. At the time, I didn’t know that I would find myself going through some mental health issues in my own life shortly after. Or maybe I did, maybe I was already. That’s the thing about mental health. None of us really have a healthy understanding of it, or, ours. The discussion of mental health has long been taboo, something that was seen as a sign of weakness, especially in men.

The 2020 MLB season forged on without the promising and puzzling prospect, the White Sox shook off a lethargic start riddled with underperformance and a bunch of youngsters not really knowing what was expected of them on a winning team, and won 35 games in the truncated season, punching their ticket to the MLB Postseason for the first time since 2008.

Kopech did what all of us should do more often — tend to his mental health, his family, and his loved ones.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized — and finally admitted to myself — why I was having so much trouble waking up and getting motivated to do the simplest of tasks. Why I would put on a pot of coffee and stand in my kitchen feeling confused as I watched my kids wake up to their alarms, knock out their morning routines, and hop into their Zoom classrooms for the day. I would still be standing in the kitchen, or pacing around the house aimlessly. I knew I had a list of things to accomplish, but the order in which I would attack them, and how I would, just didn’t compute.

These are feelings that we all deal with at some point — or points — in our lives, feelings that we ignore and/or minimize, because that’s what we’ve been programmed to do.

Photo: Chicago White Sox via Twitter

I turned to the internet for answers as to why I was feeling this way. I landed on the fact that I was dealing with a bout of depression. A relentless cold and snowy winter, the family at a distance, holidays altered or canceled altogether, the continuing frustration of our “normal” lives being robbed by the pandemic — it was enough to put me in a pretty foggy place upstairs, and I know that I’m not alone.

I also know that it’s not the first time that I’ve felt that way, I’ve navigated through spells like this before, but they were nameless previously. Maybe I was “in a funk,” or maybe I was just “stuck in a rut.” Or, maybe I was just too scared to admit that something wasn’t right as a male in my twenties in a society that’s long frowned upon the open discussion of mental health. I functioned, and I told myself everything was alright. Nevermind the lashing out at those closest to me because I had a ridiculously short tolerance for any more than I already buried inside.

In his first media availability since his decision to opt-out of the 2020 campaign, Michael Kopech offered a regret-free explanation of his reasoning at Camelback Ranch this weekend.

“There are multiple reasons,” Kopech said. “COVID being one of the reasons, with having some health issues with my family, but there were a lot of personal reasons as well. I think I’ve been pretty candid in the past about my mental health being important and prioritizing that so I can be the best version of myself on the field. That’s a lot of what it came down to, as well.”

Candid Kopech has been in the past about his mental health. Last January at SoxFest Kopech spoke about his mental health, his recovery from Tommy John surgery to repair a UCL injury suffered in late 2018 and his personal life. I remember writing a story last March about Kopech feeling the best he had ever felt, both physically and mentally at that time. Then came the pandemic, and a plethora of unknowns both personally and professionally for all of us.

Things changed across the country. The way we operated and navigated our day-to-day lives changed. Hell, my kids haven’t stepped foot in a physical classroom since this began nearly one year ago.

Things changed for Kopech. By the time MLB and the MLBPA wrapped up their public pissing match over the start of the 2020 season, and teams were scheduled to open up the abbreviated season in late July, Kopech wasn’t in the same headspace that he was back in March or even January for that matter.

Now after ramping up in February and March to prepare for the 2020 season before the pandemic hit, Kopech had to shut it down and head home with everyone else. Then in the blink of an eye in July, he was expected to come back to work and expedite his ramp-up and prepare to contribute in a matter of a couple weeks after not logging an official inning in nearly two years due to the UCL injury. That’s not a small ask of anyone, let alone a 24-year-old dealing with personal issues and the prospect of becoming a father and his life completely changing forever in a mere matter of months.

When Kopech coupled everything together, he made a decision that he knew wasn’t going to be popular with outsiders, but he made the right decision for him and his closest loved ones. Say what you will about it, that takes more courage than some of the keyboard warriors who berated him online, will ever have.

Now, having personally identified some of the struggles that I was dealing with mentally, and had neglected for years and years, I find myself rooting for Kopech harder than I did even before last summer.

It’s not easy. It’s not easy to identify these things. It’s not easy to admit these things. It’s not easy to speak up about these things to other people, and it’s not easy to seek out the help of some sort. For far too long we, as a societal whole, have told people that are conscious of their mental health that they were the problem when in actuality, it was the other way around.

Now, seven months removed from his decision to opt-out of the 2020 season, and 900 days since he walked off the mound during his September 5, 2018 start against the Detroit Tigers, Michael Kopech has a renewed love for the game of baseball and what it means to him.

“I learned that I need this game a lot more than I realized,” Kopech said. “It’s a lot easier said than done to take a step away from something you’ve done your entire life. It sounds like an exaggeration, but (it’s) not.  It’s been my entire life. So, taking a step back from that and realizing how big of a piece it is to this entire puzzle for me has kind of put it all in perspective and it’s made me kind of regain the motivation to get back out there, along with some other things that have happened in my life. I think I’ve found that motivation that I may have lost, not that I ever completely lost it because I never want to be known as a guy that hasn’t worked really hard for everything that he’s had to earn. But with this time away, I’ve really had the chance to come back and prove to myself at least that this is what I want to do.”

Kopech has long been a point of public scrutiny at this point. A heralded prospect that has failed — to this point — to meet the lofty expectations set for him in not one, but two organizations. Immaturity, injury, inconsistency, and finding himself off the field have all been contributing factors. Say what you want about it, Kopech doesn’t care. He’s achieved something that’s eluded most of us, a sense of understanding and peace in his growth process and the constant balancing act that is our mental and physical well-being.

“I’ve learned throughout my career that people are going to say and think and write whatever they want, and they can continue to do so, but it doesn’t define who I am, and who I am is the best I can (be) for my teammates, my family, and my friends.”

Regardless of what his role on the field will look like in 2021, Michael Kopech is back, and he’s been welcomed back by his teammates with open arms, the only way it should be. Michael Kopech is someone we can all cheer for this summer, but he’s also someone that we can all learn from moving forward.


 Featured Photo: John Antonoff/Sun-Times