Mike Marjama Has a New Major League Mission

He retired from MLB after 15 games to help people with eating disorders. Now, the former Seattle Mariners catcher opens up about his own struggle.
photo of Joon LeeJoon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterSeptember 13, 2018

Everything always needed to be in the right place. At dinner, the plates needed to be right in the center, evenly matched on the place mats. The fork and knife needed to line up with the bottom of the plate. The napkin and cup needed to be in the perfect spot. All of it centered and symmetrical. Sometimes people would knock the plate slightly off center, just to get to him. It didn't matter whether it was baseball, schoolwork or his diet. He needed everything just right, even if it came at his own expense.

It was like that in the sports he played too. If Mike Marjama needed to improve his ability to block balls in the dirt, he spent hours throwing his body in front of baseballs. At night, he'd run sprints on the basketball court before sneaking into his high school batting cage. He'd put a tarp up in the family garage and hit. He'd leave the door to the baseball field cracked open after practice so he could sneak back in late at night to continue working on his swing.

When it came to wrestling, Marjama learned he needed to cut weight and began pushing the line further and further, trying to get an advantage over his opponents. "A lot of wrestling is just willpower," Marjama says. "Can I will myself to really punish myself? I loved it because that's just what I did bestβ€”have more will than anybody. I could just outwork everybody."

He became the best weight-cutter on the team. Everyone sweat out weight using trash bags. Marjama slept in them. He also chewed on ice cubes to stave off his urge to eat. No new scheme proved enough, however. I could do even better, Marjama thought. Coming into Thanksgiving dinner his sophomore year, his body clocked in at just 130 pounds. Not enough for a cheat day. He decorated his plate with almonds and a half can of tuna.

"I looked at my will as a superpower. I can obsess and perfect better than everyone," Marjama says today. "If I used it for good, I became my own superhero. If I didn't, I became the villain. I worked hard, but I never knew where my limit was."

Mike Marjama wants to redefine what masculinity is. A tall task, he knows.

It's something he's pondered for a long time. When he was a kid, he had a singular idea of what it meant to be a man. If you're not macho, you're not a man, he told himself after what he saw on TV. Sports taught him that being a man meant not showing emotion. Stoicism represented the currency of a true manly man. Showing emotions meant you were weak. Talking about your feelings, let alone crying, was off the table.

It's why he wants to tell people that it's OK to struggle, that one-third of people with an eating disorder are males, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). That extreme weight-control behaviors may be increasing at a faster rate for men than women, according to the Journal of Eating Disorders.

Mike Marjama caught in 15 games for the Mariners over the past two seasons before deciding his time was better spent helping people through the eating disorder with which he's long struggled.
Mike Marjama caught in 15 games for the Mariners over the past two seasons before deciding his time was better spent helping people through the eating disorder with which he's long struggled.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

"We're trying to define masculinity right now, and nobody knows how to solve it," Marjama says. "There's no formula for it. Masking our emotions, being emotionally absent is hurting people. There's not a pill you take and it's fixed. We put a Band-Aid on it all of the time, like if you have a beard, you're suddenly masculine. We are who we are as men. There's no definition. It's you being who you are."

It's why he did the unthinkable: leave behind a professional baseball career before he even turned 29, just months after catching Felix Hernandez as the Seattle Mariners' Opening Day catcher. It's why he took a volunteer position with NEDA. It's why he's traveling the country to tell people his story.

"I wish I had somebody that was vulnerable in the position that I'm in," Marjama says. "If some guy in the big leagues was like, 'Here are my issues,' it would've been eye-opening for me. Watching Kevin Love open up about having depression and anxiety in the NBA. People look at athletes and think, You're an elite athlete, you get paid so much money. How could you possibly have any problems?"

He looked in the mirror, and all he could see was what he wasn't. Marjama wasn't one of the boys in middle school who'd become physically mature. He wasn't one of the guys in the movies who got the girl. All of those guys had six-pack abs and movie-star looks. He wasn't one of those guys on the Abercrombie bags when America fell in love with colognes that smell like middle schools and shirts with logos more prominent than a Trump property. At the mall, he'd walk in the stores and see the huge ads plastered on the walls, a reminder of everything he wanted to be.

"If I want to get a girlfriend, I've just got to get some abs," Marjama recalls telling himself at age 13. "I've got to look like a man. If I don't eat anything, I won't get fat. If I work out a bunch, I'll just get big and strong."

The wrestling team gave him an opportunity to do just that. Marjama fell in love with the sport because it rewarded him for outworking everyone both on and off the mat. As he began to cut weight, he started pushing himself to do more. Some days, he'd only eat a quarter of a wedge of lettuce. Others, he sat in the car wrapped in a plastic bag, the heat turned all the way up. He began trying different diets: Atkins, South Beach, Carbs-are-the-mortal-enemy. Some days, he would just eat a protein bar and then finish off a heavy workout. Others, he'd eat just five carrots and five almonds.

While wrestling appealed to Marjama's willingness to outwork his competition and teammates, the drive to constantly cut weight shocked his parents into making him get treatment for what they believe had become an unhealthy obsession.
While wrestling appealed to Marjama's willingness to outwork his competition and teammates, the drive to constantly cut weight shocked his parents into making him get treatment for what they believe had become an unhealthy obsession.Photo courtesy of Mike Marjama

But he never saw the body he desired. And so he kept pushing. He began eating less, perhaps cutting back on a carrot one day, an almond the next. He began to exercise more and more. He began placing a stationary bike in the shower and pedaled endlessly with a purpose while wearing two pairs of sweatshirts and sweatpants and trash bags duct-taped to his body. He'd bike in the steam room to sweat until he nearly lost consciousness. Marjama could turn things on and off. When he needed to eat food in front of other people, he did so easily. "Now, I just have to starve myself for the next week to not worry about it," he told himself.

Instead of building muscle, his body began to eat the little muscle it had left. Sometimes, Marjama starved himself for a week, after which a weekend slice of pizza would turn into an entire pie, a single piece of candy turning into an entire bag. "Then, if I felt guilty about eating something, I would just go throw it up," Marjama said.

Marjama's mom, Kim, first began to develop concern when she noticed her son eating less and less, slowly becoming more obsessed with perfecting his diet. Mike would spend hours learning about the research behind his diet, reading everything about the supplements required for a specific diet. Kim, a nurse practitioner, raised concern with her husband, Greg, who didn't feel the need to act on anything yet. Mike, after all, had simply been a wildly competitive kid growing up who would do anything to win.

"He's just a hard worker," Greg told Kim. "He's working hard to try to do well."

It wasn't until Thanksgiving of Mike's sophomore year when the concerns came to a full head of steam. Marjama sat down with his family with half a can of tuna, two baby carrots, three almonds and a baby spoon. Everything just right, like Mike wanted.

"For a half-second, there was a lot of guilt and shame," Kim says today. "It's not like your child has cancer and everyone understands and supports you. There's a lot of embarrassment and guilt and shame. I'm like, 'Mike has an eating disorder and is starving himself and exercising like a madman.' That guilt lasts for half a second, but then you don't really care. I wanted to save my child's life."

Kim turned to her husband after dinner.

"Nope," she said to Greg. "That's it. He's done. That's it."

"I'm convinced," Greg said.

He looked at the people around him at the hospital and struggled to understand why he was there. Since that Thanksgiving dinner, Kim and Greg had sent Mike to a personal trainer to create a meal plan against his will. They wanted him to get fit in a healthy way. Mike ignored all the advice, and when he was a high school junior, his parents brought him to a counselor. One month into treatment, Marjama arrived at his fourth session having lost 14 pounds in two days.

Marjama said he didn't have high expectations for his career in baseball, but he still hoped to one day reach the majors, which he did in 2017.
Marjama said he didn't have high expectations for his career in baseball, but he still hoped to one day reach the majors, which he did in 2017.Photo courtesy of Mike Marjama

They rolled him into an ambulance, seeking treatment for an irregular heartbeat. A day later, he found himself at a local inpatient center for treatment. Around him, one person who overdosed on drugs, another who tried to commit suicide by slitting their wrists. Mike looked around the room. He couldn't figure out why he was there. He didn't feel like he deserved to be there, but as a minor, he didn't have a choice.

"I'm not trying to kill myself. I just want to have a six-pack," Mike said. "Why am I here?"

One day, Marjama noticed a fellow patient twitching her eyes, arms and legs. Curious, he asked a staff member why. "She's trying to burn as many calories as possible," they told Marjama. It opened his eyes and made him realize the circumstance he was in. When he thought he just wanted abs, he was really fighting for his life. Slowly, as he underwent treatment, Marjama began to realize his relationship with food was unhealthy.

By the time his senior year came around, he was out of the facility and eating again. It was then that his body developed and his arm started catching the eyes of college scouts. But while he looked healthy, Marjama continued to fight the parts of his brain telling him not to eat. It wasn't until he got to Sacramento City College when he began to confront his past. Because he was so malnourished in high school, Marjama did not hit puberty until his senior year of college. He was up to 170 pounds and finally seeing the results he wanted to see.

Instead of focusing on the abstract, Marjama started planning more for the moment. Before baseball practices, he maintained the same routine every single day. He worked on mental-skill lessons for 15 minutes, writing himself positive affirmations led by then-head coach, now-Mariners director of player development Andy McKay. "I'm a good baseball player," he'd scribble in a small book, his collection of positive affirmations. Slowly, Marjama began developing confidence on the field, believing what he wrote.

"I started to believe in myself," Marjama said.

Dating back to Little League, Mike Marjama was never the star. He was always on the smaller end for his age group, fairly skilled, a bit pudgy, not particularly fast or naturally athletic. Even in high school, simply playing varsity baseball thrilled him. "My expectations and that of my family in regards to baseball have never been very high," Marjama says. But Marjama's dreams included one goal: making the major leagues. What he didn't have in talent, Marjama tried to make up for in effort, spending time in the batting cage or practicing blocking balls in the dirt as a catcher.

When injuries hampered his ability to continue refining his game, Marjama felt it was better to step away from the game than to deal with the anxiety he regularly felt.
When injuries hampered his ability to continue refining his game, Marjama felt it was better to step away from the game than to deal with the anxiety he regularly felt.Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Through nine minor league cities over eight seasons, Marjama continued to chase the dream. Hours burning time on the team bus. Day after day, playing in front of sparse crowds in small cities all around the country, making less than $7,000 every year. It all paid off. After playing baseball at two different colleges, being selected in the 23rd round of the 2011 MLB draft and being traded twice along the way, Marjama reached the big leagues at 28 years old in 2017.

Injuries began to pile up. A concussion here, a back injury there, then a pulmonary embolism on top of cortisone shots to make him feel alright and ready to play the next day. With the medical problems came depression and anxiety. Would he be able to perfect the mechanics of his swing? Would he make it back to the big leagues? Would he fulfill his full potential? Put it all together, and Marjama felt like half of his old baseball-playing self. As much as he loved the game, the strain it put on him brought more negativity than the joy baseball brought into his life.

"I know I'm not gonna be Mike Trout; I'm not gonna be a Bryce Harper," Marjama says. "I believe I've been blessed with the platform of becoming a major leaguer to impact the lives of others and tell the story of how I got there. I hope me telling my story allows me to reach somebody, so their hopes and dreams aren't taken away because of a mental illness of an eating disorder."

So after a total of 15 games at the major league level, Marjama decided to hang up the cleats. Now 29 years old, a little over a year after he made his major league debut, he's accepted an unpaid role as an ambassador for NEDA. Over the next month, Marjama will be traveling to 15 different cities to tell his story and fundraise for mental illness, including a three-day briefing in front of Congress in early October.

"It sounds really stupid, but no one cares when you're a minor leaguer," Marjama said. "But once you have one day of being in the big leagues, people actually care about your story now."

He runs on the beach because the fight continues today. Other days, he'll walk around the house, take a stroll around the neighborhood. Even just getting in the sun makes him feel better. For such a long time, Marjama's focus centered on self-criticism, which led him through a field of potential mental landmines. He runs to make sure everything is just right. He makes sure to check in with himself.

"In sports, everyone would always say: 'Don't show emotions. Don't show your enemy your weakness.'" Marjama says. "Well, I'm going to be honest with you, I'm an Energizer Bunny. I'm an emotional suitcase. I am out there."

The people around Mike watched his growth from 130-pound struggling teenager into the Mariners' Opening Day starting catcher. But the memories of the bad days, the days before the big leagues, stick around.

Michael Marjama @MMarjama

Ever since the stories of my #EatingDisorder and journey to @MLB were publicized, I've felt a desire to help people make healthy, informed life decisions. Thus, I'm starting a new campaign on my social media accounts to promote positive change! Follow along and share your story! https://t.co/4Z7fKiWsbF

"I don't think I've ever moved past the fact that I missed the signs," Greg says. "I think it's going to stick with me as a lesson. Maybe the man upstairs put me in a position where he knows I have a wife that was in tune to this stuff, and now I can see it in other people. I'm a high school teacher. Every time I think of it, it chokes me up a little bit. I wish I would've noticed those things."

Now, Marjama is spending more time with his family. He's plotting out what he wants to do alongside his work with NEDA. He's starting a business, he's writing a book and working on a program for media literacy to grow confidence in men. And now with his baseball career over, Marjama continues to manage his stress and anxiety. He's trying to find time for himself. Everything just right.

"If you ask somebody, 'Hey, can you add more balance in your life?' They always go, 'Yeah, that's probably a good thing.'" Marjama says. "No one has ever said less balance in life is worse."


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