Recently retired Seattle Mariners catcher Mike Marjama grew up spending family summer vacations in Cayucos dreaming of becoming a big league ball player. But his ambition was nearly derailed by a devastating eating disorder.
Marjama, 29, a native of Roseville in the Sacramento area, recently retired from pro baseball July 6 to focus on helping others battle an illness that nearly cost him his baseball career and threatened his life.
After playing professionally since 2011, mostly in the minor leagues, Marjama announced he was moving on to work for the nonprofit National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
Eating disorders are a mental and physical illness that surveys show will affect about 10 million men in America at some point in their lives, as well as 20 million women, according to NEDA.
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“We just need to have more conversations about it,” Marjama said. “There are men who have told me they’ve suffered with this illness for 30 or 40 years and felt like they haven’t been able to say anything about it.”
Marjama recently conducted a CBS interview from a familiar family gathering place, a rented vacation house in Cayucos, and last week spoke on ESPN radio, as part of a media blitz. He also regularly speaks at schools.
“As far as I know, I’m the first professional male athlete to open up about this, though I’m not sure if there are others who have,” Marjama told The Tribune in a phone conversation. “It’s a privilege to talk about it.”
Marjama’s health struggles began in junior high school and continued into high school, hospitalizing him as a junior when he missed a season of high school baseball to get treatment.
The reason for his downward spiral: He wanted to look like a male model to get a girlfriend.
Marjama went through cycles of denying himself food and then binge eating and purging his meals.
He remembers placing trash bags around his body, wearing sweat pants, to sweat heavily and drop weight, even passing out from the lack of hydration.
“I saw the models on a shopping bag of Abercrombie & Fitch, and I thought, ‘That’s what I need to do if I want to get a girlfriend,’” Marjama said. “I just told myself I needed to work out harder and eat less. And when I wasn’t seeing the results I wanted, I kept on going in that direction.”
While at a treatment center as a teen, Marjama was the only male patient and felt out of place. He didn’t want to be there, and discussions didn’t seem to relate to him, particularly when menstrual cycles came up.
He now understands that the psychology of eating disorders for men can be different. Men can fret more over tone and muscle and not so much the number on the scale, as bulimic and anorexic women often do.
Those who have obsessive athletic pursuits, like he did, often are susceptible as well, he said.
Marjama said, having been inside many professional locker rooms, he now realizes that some of the best athletes in the world don’t have bodies that are shaped like male models.
“Just look at all the criticism that (NFL quarterback) Tom Brady got over the recent shirtless pictures at the beach for not having a chiseled torso,” Marjama said. “And he’s an insanely good athlete.”
Overcoming the disorder
Marjama was able to regain about 60 pounds as a high school senior with medical treatment and therapy, applying some of the positive mental motivational skills that helped him succeed as a baseball player.
Along with learning about nutrition and good coaching, Marjama made his way through the college baseball at Long Beach State and the minor league ranks, getting his first major league call-up with the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 1, 2017.
He hit his first and only major league home run on Oct. 1, 2017, against the Los Angeles Angels and he caught Mariners’ ace Felix Hernandez on opening day this year.
It was a short big league career of 15 games. Marjama earned 36 plate appearances with six hits (a .211 batting average).
This season, Marjama was demoted to the minor leagues on April 20 after less than a month in Seattle. And it wasn’t long after he decided to dedicate himself fully to outreach with NEDA.
Marjama said that a number of factors contribute to kids suffering from the illness that gripped him in his youth. Social media and bullying can play a role, along with a lack of proper education on dieting and supplements. Mental illness can contribute as well, including anxiety and depression, both of which he has battled.
“One of the projects we’re working on here at NEDA is teaching kids about body confidence and body satisfaction,” Marjama said.
In the video, he said “the inner desire to be perfect is my best friend or my worst enemy, and I still carry that to this day; I just use it for more healthy outlets.”