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Arencibia overcame anxiety to enjoy baseball again

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Opponents would see J.P. Arencibia and assume he was in the minor leagues on a rehab assignment. Umpires would ask the former major-leaguer why he was toiling in triple A.

J.P. Arencibia returns a book after signing his autograph.
J.P. Arencibia returns a book after signing his autograph.Read more(Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Opponents would see J.P. Arencibia and assume he was in the minor leagues on a rehab assignment. Umpires would ask the former major-leaguer why he was toiling in triple A.

Arencibia played four seasons in the majors before he was dropped to the minors in May 2014. His performance started to spiral because of the anxiety from the pressure Arencibia applied to himself. The demotion, he said, caused him to "strip down" his career.

He was trying to prove too much. Baseball was no longer fun.

"I was driving to the ballpark filled with anxiety to not fail," Arencibia said. "I was on deck many times where I hoped that the guy in front of me gets it done so I'm not the one that fails."

Arencibia, 30, was invited to Toronto's camp in 2010, and he spent parts of four seasons with the Blue Jays. He signed with the Rangers as a free agent for 2014 and spent most of last season with Tampa Bay's triple-A team.

He signed with the Phillies this offseason. He was told the spring would offer an open competition. The team's two catchers - Carlos Ruiz and Cameron Rupp - appear entrenched in their roles. Arencibia will likely start at triple-A Lehigh Valley, but a strong spring could change that.

Being sent down, Arencibia said, was the best thing that happened to his career. He met with a sports psychologist. He saw a psychiatrist, who took Arencibia off Adderall, a cognitive enhancer used to treat ADHD. Arencibia said the medication contributed to his anxiety.

His new medication - Lexapro - is an antidepressant that is also used to treat ADHD. Arencibia said he feels free. When bad things happen, he can let them pass.

Arencibia had been using a prescription since 2009 to take Adderall. Instead of being zoned in on baseball, Arencibia would lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, questioning himself. How can I get better? What can I do? Why am I not doing this?

Arencibia said he "could not get out of my own head." He wanted to live a normal life. He was ordering dinner to his house as a way to avoid people who may have seen him struggle on the field. He would rather be a space cadet, Arencibia said, than continue to use Adderall.

He would walk into a restaurant and wonder why everyone was staring at him. No one was staring, Arencibia said. It was just the anxiety he was living with. It was a tough time, he said.

"I was battling my own demons," Arencibia said. "Ultimately I just fought those demons off and said. 'You know what, I'm just going to enjoy it.' I'm not getting shot at. I don't have cancer. You back away from baseball and say why was I putting so much pressure on myself that I couldn't even enjoy one of the biggest blessings?"

Arencibia hit 22 homers and drove in 65 runs in 99 games in triple A last season. It was his most consistent season in three years, and it ended with a month and a half in the majors. He played the game without pressure and no longer drove to the ballpark filled with anxiety. Baseball was fun again.

Arencibia became a free agent in the winter and signed a minor-league contract in December with the Phillies. Baseball works in crazy ways, Arencibia said. He hopes to be a player who, after struggling for a few years, returns to form.

Arencibia works each day with Rupp, who said the veteran has been "nothing but helpful." Rupp was surprised to see Arencibia hang around the clubhouse with the young players. It was not the norm here for veterans in the past. Arencibia makes everyone comfortable, Rupp said.

"I wake up in the morning. I have my coffee. I come here, and I just try to be a light anywhere I am," Arencibia said. "Try to be good to people. Try to make people feel better. Try to have fun with these guys. And if I make this team, I make this team. If I don't, I don't. But I'm going to enjoy it every step of the way."