DETROIT — The glint is back in Aubrey Huff's eyes. The smile — and, more important, the smirk — on his face. The smart aleck and sarcasm in his words.
"Maybe," he said, "all the stress of the six years of losing in Tampa finally caught up to me."
He laughed as he said that, which is a good sign, too.
That's because a few months ago, there was no joking for the former Ray.
An overwhelming panic attack hit him early one April morning in a New York hotel room, an experience that would disrupt his season with the Giants and change his life.
If it first didn't end it.
"I thought I was dying," he said. "I really did."
Huff overcame the shortness of breath, the racing heart and mind, and abruptly left the team, flying home to Tampa under the guise of a family emergency. After another episode the next day, he eventually made his way back, launching a monthslong odyssey of therapy and treatment that he said now has him feeling under control again.
"The days are getting shorter and shorter where I'm freaking out," Huff said. "I'm just worried about living day by day, and being positive, and having as much fun as you can. You're not guaranteed another day in this life, so just enjoy it. I started thinking about how much God's blessed my career and my family."
That's quite a different soundtrack for Huff, 35, who was usually known for a belligerent attitude, a steady stream of put-downs and a large frat boy personality, highlighted by his starring role in the Giants' 2010 championship run modeling a red rally thong.
He's still not sure exactly what happened that April morning, just that it was a confluence of issues: problems in his marriage to Baubi (who had filed for divorce in January), poor play that endangered his role on the team, an embarrassing misplay when forced to play second base for the first time that cost the Giants a game on national TV, and his usual uneasiness about being in New York.
"Everything was happening so fast," Huff said. "There was a lot of stuff that kind of just hit me at once. You get to the point where your mind can only take so much, and you just kind of lose it a little bit."
He returned to San Francisco a week later and started seeing a therapist, who identified his core issue as "future-tripping" — that Huff was thinking too much about too many things that might happen.
For the first month they talked almost every day, then a couple of times a week, then once, and now Huff said he has gone a month without. He also started taking antianxiety medication but quit after a few weeks because he didn't like the zombie- like feeling it gave him.
So he decided instead to focus on positive thinking. "It's been good," Huff said.
Though Giants officials and teammates weren't privy to all the details, they said they were glad Huff sought treatment and persevered.
"I know this has been a difficult year for him," manager Bruce Bochy said. "I think he's in a better place than he was."
"I think some guys now are finally saying, 'You know what, I'm not going to sit there and tough-guy it all the time and say I'm too good for that.' Instead they say, 'I've got to get some help,' " reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "I feel like he's doing a lot better now. … He got some help he needed rather than going the other way, not saying anything and getting into a situation you don't want to be in in your mind."
The anxiety issues weren't Huff's only problem, as he completes a two-year, $22 million contract. He ended up being sidelined for close to three months with a freak injury: spraining his right knee jumping over the dugout railing to celebrate Matt Cain's perfect game in June.
By the time Huff was fully healthy in September, he had lost his part-time duty at first base and in leftfield. He was reduced to pinch-hitting and just thankful even to be on the playoffs and World Series roster. His season stats: .192 with one homer and seven RBIs in 52 games (15 starts).
Which leads to his next dilemma. He seems to have the anxiety under control, and his marriage was reconstructed, with Baubi and their two boys a big part of his recovery. But he doesn't want his career, which started with the Rays in 2000, to end like this.
"This year would be a tough year to go out on personally," he said. "I'm in the World Series, and it's great to be here, but I feel like I'd like to go out on a little higher note."
He will be a free agent when the Giants decline his $10 million option, and though he first said it would have to be the "right situation" — competitive team, comfortable city — he admits he badly wants one more chance.
"I definitely do want to play. I'm sure something will be out there," he said. "Maybe I could sign a one-year deal and pinch-hit and play a little first base for the Rays next year. You can throw that out there if you want."
Now that sounds like the old Huff.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]
Giants 2, Tigers 0
Game 1: Giants 8, Tigers 3
Game 2: Giants 2, Tigers 0
Tonight: at Detroit, 8:07
Sunday: at Detroit, 8:15
Monday: at Detroit, 8:07 *
Wednesday: at San Francisco, 8:07 *
Thursday: at San Francisco, 8:07 *
TV: Ch. 13 * if necessary