In Daniel Robertson’s return to Rays, a clear mind is what matters

LAKE BUENA VISTA — Confident he is fully healthy after a years-long string of injuries and certain he has control of the anxiety issues that scarred his past, Daniel Robertson is convinced that at age 28 he is ready to start his career over.

And where better than the place where it all began?

Without much interest elsewhere as camps were set to open, Robertson reached out to team officials about returning to the Rays, where he had his first — and best — opportunities in the majors before being traded in August 2020.

They couldn’t promise much more than a few hugs and a minor-league contract with a chance to play during spring training, and a very real possibility that the best outcome is a season-opening roster spot at Triple-A Durham.

Robertson leapt at the offer, thrilled to be back among the Rays’ familiar faces, relaxed culture and positive vibes.

“It’s almost like a revival, like I got a new life,” Robertson said. “I’m 28 years old, it’s kind of the prime of my years, where I can feel like I figured a lot out physically and mentally. It’s helped me grow.”

As much as a string of injuries — thumb, knee and hip labrum surgery, plus a concussion (after being hit by a pitch from now-teammate Jason Adam) — that limited him from 2018 on, Robertson said the mental challenges were as much or more of an issue as he traversed an admittedly “crazy” path.

“It was kind of such a blur the last couple years,” he said. “I’m ready to just move past it, not even look back to what happened. Obviously, these trials and experiences have kind of molded me to be even a better, stronger human than I am now.”

Consider that he was a 2012 first-round pick by Oakland, the prized prospect acquired by the Rays in the 2015 Ben Zobrist trade and a promising enough young big league-infielder to have talks with the Rays about a multiyear, mega-millions deal in the spring of 2019.

But things changed quickly. Robertson was designated for assignment by the Rays and traded (to the Giants) in August 2020. Then designated again less than a year later by the Brewers. Unclaimed, he was sent back to Triple-A, where he also spent 2022 between Minnesota’s and Philadelphia’s affiliates.

Robertson said a breakthrough came when he learned to accept that “that everything kind of pans out the way it’s supposed to” and and to stop beating himself up for outcomes he couldn’t control.

“I paralyzed myself for a really long time living that way, what I should have done,” Robertson said. “It just led to a lot of anxiety and just mental issues of not being present in the moment because I was so worried about what was going to happen, or what already happened. I couldn’t take care of what was happening now.

“And I just don’t want to waste any more energy or mind doing that anymore.”

He got help from his family (which now includes his wife, Jenny) and from a sports psychologist. But mostly by reframing his mind and thought process.

“Between injuries and instability and just trying to make it, to find a way in your career and stay in the big leagues, you just lose sight of things. Sometimes things just start spiraling out of control and you can’t get a grasp on them,” Robertson said.

“I had to kind of take it upon myself to make some lifestyle changes, really clean up what I was doing day in and day out to just give myself the best opportunity to really grab control of my mind and understand how it works.”

Now when there are anxious moments, he knows how to deal with them.

“These things would always come up and I would start feeling a certain type of way and I never knew what was going on. So it would just make me kind of freak out even more,” he said. “Now I kind of have a good idea of my mind and how it works and what (tactics) to go to when I start feeling some things and what to do.”

Being back in the Rays’ relaxed Rays clubhouse, among people who saw him at his best, helps, too.

“Being away and knowing how we do things here, there’s nowhere else like it,” he said. “This is a special place.”

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