WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On the metal bleachers sheltered by palm trees next to one of the back fields of the Astros’ spring training complex, an observer has found his shady perch for minor league practice.
The first-time spring training participant appeared indifferent to the loud crack of the bats making contact with the baseballs and uninterested in the infield ground ball drills. Or maybe he was taking a nap instead. Difficult to tell, with his eyes obscured by reflective glasses and his curly head resting on his two front legs.
Oh, we should mention he’s a dog. Specifically a 7-month-old Goldendoodle named Chewbacca — Chewy, for short — belonging to Justin McKissick, a mental skills coach for the Astros.
McKissick, a licensed clinical therapist, was hired in January by the Astros to work as a mental health and benefits provider based in West Palm Beach. He will spend most of his time at the rookie level in the Florida Complex League, but during spring training he worked with players and staff at all levels of the Houston organization. And he’s not going anywhere without his guide dog and sidekick, Chewy.
Chewy alternately struts and lounges around the compound dressed in a khaki service dog vest and polarized sunglasses that resemble the sunglasses worn by baseball players. “Those UV rays, they all get it,” McKissick said.
A blue collar around Chewy’s neck proclaims him “THE BEST DOG IN THE WHOLE GALAXY”. Many Astros staffers and players would likely agree.
McKissick has to budget about 10 extra minutes to walk everywhere with his canine companion, because while he’s out to observe batting practice or a bullpen session, someone is sure to stop and say hello to Chewy.
“Some people have told me their day is a little better because they see Chewy, and in my business that’s a good thing,” McKissick said.
Before getting the Astros job, McKissick worked in private practice in Houston. In a past life, he was director of public relations for a top-level baseball team in California, but he realized during a subsequent five-year stint in the United States Army, where he worked in military intelligence, that he wanted to do more to help people in a different way. After his military service, he earned a master’s degree in psychological counseling and plunged into his second career, which eventually led him back to baseball.
“I saw the (Astros) job posting and almost didn’t apply because I thought it was almost too perfect, to be honest,” McKissick said. “One of the things I try to emphasize with anyone is the importance of goals, so when the opportunity arose it was something I had to do.”
More and more MLB teams these days are hiring mental health staff. The Astros have Laura Ramos as their minor league coordinator overseeing mental health and performance. At their Dominican academy is sports psychologist Andy Nuñez, whose work was instrumental in starting pitcher Framber Valdez’s career.
The investment in mental health by the Astros’ leadership and players is part of what attracted McKissick, a lifelong baseball fan, to the job.
“This gives me the opportunity to merge two of my passions, baseball and helping people,” he said.
McKissick, a native of Concord, California, was two weeks old when he attended his first baseball game at the Oakland Coliseum. He continued to watch the A’s and played the sport throughout his childhood. Now, the oldest of his three children plays ball on the road, an environment that served as a trial site for Chewy to get used to the sounds and smells of baseball.
Chewy, a certified guide dog, is trained specifically to help McKissick, who struggles with anxiety. In other words, the puppy provides comfort and a service to McKissick that helps him do his best to help others. It doesn’t hurt that Chewy is adorable either.
“Chewy is good at grounding me, keeping me from getting too caught up in the stress,” McKissick said. “And who doesn’t love having a dog?”
Throughout her career as a mental health practitioner, McKissick’s goal has been to build trust and relationships with the people she counsels. Baseball players face similar obstacles in unique circumstances.
“This is on a much bigger stage,” McKissick said. “Most people go through anxiety and pressure, but they don’t have the spotlight on them. Even at the lowest levels, these guys have people running around for autographs and interviewing them and calling them all the time. It can be a lot.
McKissick hopes he can ease some of that pressure for Astros players and help them unlock their best selves on and off the field. He speaks Spanish from the two years he spent working as a missionary in the Dominican Republic. Inspired by his time in the military, he is also pursuing a doctorate specializing in traumatology, the study and treatment of people exposed to highly stressful and traumatic events.
“I say I’m a little weird because I like it when people say awful things to me,” McKissick said, “because usually it’s things they don’t tell a lot of people, which means they trust me. I like that feeling. I want to help people and it all starts with trust.”