PEORIA, Ariz. — His meltdown on the mound was certain to make all the highlight shows, particularly considering who had pitched before him, who he blew the save against and the explosive fashion in which it happened.
But the tantrum that transpired next would make Ken Giles famous, or more specifically infamous, on social media platforms.
On May 1, 2018, he went Twitter viral as the kids like to say.
And now on his first official day as a member of the Mariners, having signed a 2-year, $7 million contract, almost three years removed from that regrettable moment, the hard-throwing closer was asked about that long-ago Tuesday evening in Houston.
In a way, any embarrassment endured may have saved his career from an expected disaster. It forced Giles to reassess his thinking about what he wanted from the game and seek help in dealing with the pressure of failure. Because when it engulfs you to the point that you can’t enjoy the success, life, even as a well-paid professional athlete, can be pretty miserable.
“I just try to make things a little bit better every day for myself and not to be so hard on myself as well,” he said on a video call Friday. “At the end of the day, it’s baseball. It’s not gonna be forever, but you know what, I want to enjoy it.”
He believes that mindset will allow him to push through the daily grind of rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery with no possibility of pitching in the 2021 season.
“I’ve already come to the realization that I’m not going to pitch this year, and that’s OK,” Giles said. “I want to be 100% for everybody, not just for the team, but the city as well, to go out there and compete.”
So let’s go back to that moment of infamy.
Astros starter Justin Verlander had just tossed eight brilliant shutout innings against the Yankees, allowing three hits and striking out 14 with no walks. Giles entered the 0-0 game to face the heart of the Yankees’ lineup in the top of the ninth. He gave up a leadoff single to Aaron Judge and a double to Didi Gregorious but came back to strike out Giancarlo Stanton for the first out of the inning.
It was the only out he’d record.
A first-pitch slider thrown to Gary Sanchez lacked bite and hung in the middle of the zone. The mistake was redeposited over the wall in dead center of Minute Maid Park. The three-run homer didn’t end the game, but it was lost. Giles faced one more batter, giving up a single to Aaron Hicks.
That’s when things got GIF-worthy. As he trudged off the mound, seething with rage and boos from his own fans raining down on him, Giles’ disgust at his performance spilled out. He slammed his glove across his chest, and then stunningly, used his pitching hand to deliver a right hook to his own jaw.
“That’s how my body responded, and that’s how low I was in my mental game,” he said. “I was struggling. I didn’t know how to deal with it.”
That snippet of Giles imitating Mike Tyson to his own face flooded Twitter instantly and endlessly. Any GIF search of his name will still yield that clip immediately.
His then-manager A.J. Hinch told reporters the next day it was “a tough look for someone coming out of competition like that.”
Hinch, who earned a degree in psychology at Stanford, had seen emotional outbursts from Giles before. But this was different.
“I understand the frustration, I understand how much these guys put into it, but in an ideal world you handle it a little bit more calmly and without the violence,” Hinch said. “Everybody responds to failure and success differently. You don’t want it to be counterproductive, you want it to be channeled in the right area and used in the right way and ultimately maximize their potential and their performance by being constructive and not destructive.”
Giles began to understand he needed help. In the weeks after the incident, his agent, Randy Rowley, set him up with Sean-Kelley Quinn, who was director of mental conditioning for the Moawad Consulting Group, in Arizona.
“I wouldn’t be where I am without him,” Giles said.
The growth didn’t happen immediately. It was a process that still continues to this day.
“It’s just learning to accept things the way they are,” Giles said. “If something bad happens, you either can do two things: you can either reject it and make it worse, or you can accept it and try to make it better.”
The Moawad Group works with hundreds of athletes in a variety of professional sports. The founder, Trevor Moawad, is the mental skills coach for Russell Wilson.
“It’s a great way to learn, not just about your world, but also others as well as how their brain functions,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re all still the same.”
He’s found perspective.
It’s why he isn’t bothered when new teammates ask about that moment, and they all eventually ask.
“I laugh at myself,” he said. “Everyone makes jokes about it. I make jokes about it myself. I tell them, ‘Maybe I was just trying get the stupid out of my head.’”
And he feels the mental work was the key to his resurgence when he was traded to Toronto later that season. In 2019, he was almost unhittable, posting a 1.87 earned-run average with 83 strikeouts in 53 innings.
“Learning through that, I am who I am now,” he said. “I have two identities. I am a baseball player in the field, but outside the field, I’m not. I’m a husband. I’m a father of two sons. … They rely on me more than anything in the world.”
Going Twitter viral meant baseball survival.
“If that’s part of my career, it doesn’t faze me because it is what it is,” he said. “It’s in the past. It’s never going to change. It’s already happened. I’ve got to live my life. I love my life. I love where I am right now, and I just try to live it to the fullest.”