Dan Haren repeated a ritual after the miserable outings, and during the last four years of his baseball career the miserable outings became too numerous to count. He trudged off the mound and through the dugout, embarrassed by the reassurances from teammates, so he could find his phone in the clubhouse and text his wife, Jessica.
I quit, Haren would write after games for the Angels or the Dodgers or whoever employed him.
I don't want to do this anymore.
I'm sick of the stress.
The couple met when they were in college, before baseball made Haren a millionaire several dozen times over and then nearly consumed him. As the years passed and his talent waned, Haren gulped Imodium to settle his roiling stomach before he pitched. After a bad start on the road, he'd hit the lights in his hotel room and drink red wine in the darkness, hoping he would sleep until noon.
"I was always on the verge of wanting to retire," he said. "Because I never wanted to get released, just for the embarrassment of it, and how hard that would be to tell my wife and my parents. . . . I never wanted anyone to feel bad for me."
At first, Jessica reacted to the postgame texts with incredulity. But they kept coming, and her answers changed. She urged her husband to use perspective. There was more to life than baseball, she reminded him.
Haren did not quit, though he threatened to when the Dodgers traded him two winters ago. He finished his contract and retired after the 2015 season. His career afforded him financial security. His exit allowed him to exhale after more than a decade engulfed by stress.
One day last week, Haren walked into a restaurant in Irvine for lunch. He attended La Puente Bishop Amat High and Pepperdine, and he resides in Orange County. In the morning, he went to physical therapy for his back and his hip. In the afternoon, he needed to pick up his daughter at school. In between, during an hour-long conversation, Haren allowed an intimate glance into his profession.
Several times during the interview, he stressed his lack of interest in pity or "the Dan Haren sob story." But he did open up about performance anxiety, the lasting effect of his injuries and the relief of retirement. His combination of humor and candor endeared him to fans on social media, but he is reticent about becoming a television analyst or a radio personality.
"I do miss baseball," Haren said. "But I watch less baseball than I thought I would. It's on at the house, but I'm not living and dying with it."
The arc of Dan Haren's career changed on a practice mound at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City on June 1, 2011. He played catch that morning with fellow Angel Jered Weaver, who accompanied him to a bullpen session afterward.
Haren was a few months away from his 31st birthday. He was a three-time All-Star with a 2.29 earned-run average to start the season, building his resume for either a sizable extension with the Angels or a haul in free agency. Then he threw a curveball and "my back gave out completely," Haren said.
Haren collapsed to the ground and lost feeling in his legs. He required assistance getting back to the clubhouse. "I was scared for him," Weaver said.
Six days later, Haren pitched seven innings. He never went on the disabled list that season, making 34 starts and going 16-10 with a 3.17 earned-run average.
But when he started throwing in 2012, his back did not cooperate. He had dealt with discomfort in his hip for years. His flexibility decreased. He felt compelled to keep pitching, unwilling to disappoint his teammates and dissuade the Angels from picking up his $15.5-million option for 2013.
"Really, when it comes down to it, it was my choice," Haren said. "I could have gone on the DL and gotten my back fixed, gotten my hip fixed in 2012. But I made a decision that I was just going to pitch through pain as long as I could pitch through pain."
He finished the season with a losing record and a 4.33 ERA. In November, the Angels tried to trade him, but he failed a physical. With his option declined, he took a one-year contract with Washington for $13 million, leaving his wife and two young children behind for the East Coast.
The Nationals had won a division title the season before and Haren felt like "the last puzzle piece." Instead, with his fastball averaging less than 90 mph, he served up homers at an alarming rate — 28 in 169 2/3 innings. The club placed him on the disabled list that June with a shoulder injury, but mostly because of his 6.15 ERA at the time.
Haren felt isolated and ashamed, uncomfortable showing up for work. He hated when players offered condolences. At times he ducked inside the team's hyperbaric chamber, not even turning the machine on, listening to podcasts about "anything but baseball," he said.
"The No. 1 thing I don't miss is the feeling of letting down your team," he said. "The feeling of walking into the dugout after 4 1/3 [innings] and giving up seven runs. The feeling that I always felt like teammates felt bad for me."
He finished that 2013 season 10-14 with a 4.67 ERA and contemplated retirement during the winter, hoping to be with his family, until the Dodgers offered a $10-million deal with an option for 2015. To counteract insults about his diminished capacity, he started a Twitter account poking fun at his fastball velocity: @IThrow88.
Encouraged by new teammate Zack Greinke, Haren channeled his between-starts nerves into researching the weaknesses of hitters. Haren excelled early in the season, but got pounded in July. When he arrived at Angel Stadium on Aug. 6, he sensed the end.
"This could be it," he told himself. "This could easily be my last start ever."
It was not. Haren carried the Dodgers into the eighth inning, and saved his place on the roster. He crossed the 180-inning threshold the next month, which guaranteed him a $10-million salary for 2015. A few months later, Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' new president of baseball operations, traded Haren to Miami. Haren did not want to go, and instructed his agents to spread a story about his contemplating retirement.
"A lot of people, especially on social media and stuff, they thought I was being a big baby," Haren said. "Where, really, it was kind of the opposite. I was willing to forgo the money because I didn't want to travel. It had nothing to do with the Marlins organization.
"When it came down to it, I had worked so hard for that option year, there was no way I was going to not take the money. It sounds bad, but I had earned that."
No expectations greeted him in Miami, so Haren studied and pitched well enough to get traded to the Chicago Cubs. He felt nervous about entering the pennant race, but he cherished his final weeks in the majors. After the Cubs were eliminated by the New York Mets in the NL Championship Series, Haren found his phone.
"Thank you baseball," he wrote on Twitter. "I played this beautiful game for 30 years. I took my jersey off for the last time tonight. It was an honor. #IThrew88."
Inspiration struck Haren in January as he rode an exercise bike. Out of boredom, he thumbed a dozen tweets about his career. The tone ranged from macabre ("There were at least 3-4 times I thought the team plane was gonna crash") to mundane ("I only hit like 5-7 people on purpose"). But he also found a comedic tone to convey years of self-doubt.
"I went into almost every start the last few years thinking, 'How the hell am I gonna get these guys out?'" he wrote.
The outburst delighted fans. Haren only increased his profile the rest of the winter, writing the occasional one-liner or gentle barb at a former teammate. He captured Weaver, a noted grump, dancing at a Jennifer Lopez concert.
"It's not fair, because I don't have any of that stuff, so I can't get him back," Weaver said. "I'll think of something, though."
His skill on Twitter brought more acclaim than Haren expected. The attention wrought a different form of performance anxiety. Haren now feels pressure to produce in 140 characters, so he often abstains from revealing his thoughts.
He reacted in similar fashion to overtures from radio or television. He said he declined an offer to appear weekly on ESPN's "SportsCenter" with Scott Van Pelt.
"I don't need the stress of going on live TV, that's for sure," Haren said as he picked at a Cobb salad. "I would want to throw up before I went on. Doing radio, or doing TV, what is the point? Why would I even do that? Why am I doing this interview right now?"
One day a couple weeks ago, he hopped on the stationary bike and cued up video from a 2015 start against Toronto. Haren had watched film on the Blue Jays for about 12 hours before that game, studying as much data as he could consume, and when he took the mound at Rogers Centre, he felt a rare calm. His fastball velocity never cleared 88 mph, but he held the Blue Jays to two runs in seven innings.
"That was it," Haren said. "That game was like the pinnacle for me."
Most days are not like this. He needs a hip replacement. He struggles to tie his shoes, and he needs to position himself in a specific way to get into his car. He paid that price to secure his family's financial future.
So Haren delights in his independence. He challenges strangers to games of H-O-R-S-E on the basketball court. He walks his dogs, goes on dates with his wife and picks up his children from school. He would like to coach his eight-year-old son's basketball team. Each day reminds him there is more to life than baseball.
"The most annoying question is 'What are you going to do now? Are you going to miss baseball? Oh, you're going to go crazy,'" Haren said. "Everybody is worried about me. And it's like, 'Don't worry about me.' I live a simple life."
Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter @McCulloughTimes