I get knocked down by a cinco de bypass five months earlier, but I got up again.
I get knocked down from cataract surgery six days prior, but I got up again.
I get knocked down by a sixty mph fastball, but with some help, I slowly and painfully got up again.
Thus, in a somewhat unconventional manner, the cardiac rehab of a sixty-five year old was completed this week on an equally unconventional venue — a baseball diamond.
When I stepped into the batter’s box at Pirates Fantasy Camp last Sunday morning, I knew my rehab finish line was crossed. And I did exactly what I promised myself I would do if I ever got that far: I took a few seconds to express my gratitude and appreciation for the Lord’s blessings in helping me reach this day; out of superstition I tapped catcher Bob Calhoun on the right shin guard with the end of my bat; I said ‘good morning’ to plate umpire Russ Staffeld and then tipped my cap to pitcher Randy Frame, who with his red hair and freckles is the antithesis of intimidating, hard throwing Clayton Keyshawn on the mound.
I enjoyed the beauty on a sunny, seventy degree day at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida with a hundred other old guys a month before the major league club reports to spring training on the same grounds. While nobody is going to mistake Frame for Kershaw; nobody will mistake us for ballplayers, either.
And as Frame, a fifty-nine year old writer/editor/speechwriter/national anthem singer from just outside Philadelphia stepped on the rubber and threw his forty-five mile an hour heater, I did something I hadn’t done in seven years since I first started this silly way-past-my-prime baseball renaissance.
I swung at the pitch. I never swing at the first pitch thrown to me. Never. In eleven previous camps I’ve played about a hundred games, 750 innings and some 225 at-bats and never did what I did at that moment. In fact, just before the game started Ron Campbell, who was umpiring on the bases and knows me all too well, said “why don’t we just start you with one strike and get that first pitch over with?”
I have no idea why it happened. I don’t know why I swung. All I know is something happened that never does.
Maybe, at that moment, the blood and oxygenation was flowing too freely courtesy of the quintuple bypass in August?
Maybe, with my vision surgically corrected – cataracts removed and replaced by corrective lens – I saw the baseball too clearly?
The timing of the cataract procedure was no accident. The second eye was completed just a week after the first; only six days before the first pitch. Not ideal or recommended timing and with it came an inherent healing risk that resulted in the necessity to wear safety glasses to help soften taking a blow or if debris was kicked up in my eyes. Another reason I wanted to get it done quickly was because I knew I would be paired up with my shortstop partner from the last five camps, Mike Labanowski. Labs can hit the baseball and catch it, but his throws are like a Trump press conference — liable to wind up anywhere. I wanted to see where they were headed. Wearing those goggles made me look like Charlie Sheen’s ‘Wild Thing’ Vaughn from Major League.
However, maybe it wasn’t either of those reasons. Maybe it was because I was distracted by my two camp coaches who seemingly lost the draft lottery and got stuck with me on their roster – former Pirates Steve Blass and Richie Hebner, who both played during my baseball hero-impressionable years.
Blass, 72, is legend at Pirates camp. He’s best known for winning 103 games over ten seasons for the Bucs and posting two wins during the 1971 World Series when Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in seven games. He was the winning pitcher in game seven. In 2009 Steve defied odds of 67 million to one and recorded two hole-in-ones during one round of golf. At camp he is the kangaroo court justice with a biting sense of humor that might have made Don Rickles cringe.
Hebner, 70, spent eighteen years in the bigs with a variety of teams. He hit .276 along the way with a very respectable 203 home runs and too was part of the ’71 World Champion Pirates as a first and third baseman. Baseball fans from the ’60s and ’70s remember Hebner’s celebrated off-season occupation as a gravedigger at his family’s cemetery. These days he still lives in Boston and has gotten a career promotion — he drives a hearse for a neighborhood funeral home. His business card reads “I’ll be the last person to let you down.” No kidding.
Hebner also has an interesting vocabulary accented by a brogue as deep as the Back Bay. He was known in the big league clubhouse as Haaaacker with the New England triple-a. He will never string three words together without the middle one being ‘fu*king.’
Richie, how was your dinner? ” It fu*king was fu*king terrible.” Richie, would you like another drink? “You’re damn fu*king right I fu*king would.” Richie what does my batting stance look like? “I have fu*king stiffs in the fu*king funeral parlor that fu*king swing fu*king better than you, Berger.”
Blass and Hebner were a fu*king riot to play for. You didn’t need to keep your eye on the ball as much as you did insults flying from either fu*cking direction.
It’s funny but whatever doubt I had about my physical condition went away quickly. I knew after the first day’s batting practice I wouldn’t pop my chest open. I knew after I threw the ball the first time that the glue that sealed it back up after surgery was pretty good stuff. I knew after I caught the ball the first time, even from Labanowski, that the bothersome safety glasses would have to make do for the next six days.
However, I didn’t get off to the start I had hoped going 2-9 at the dish after the first three games. But things took a turn in Game Four, played in downtown Bradenton at the Pirates spring stadium, Lecom Park. I had my first ever 4-4 game including a huff and puff double that didn’t make me huff and puff as much as it used to. That was a very good thing. The game went 10 innings, it took a camp record three hours and twenty minutes, and we lost 10-9.
We found our rhythm after that game and won three straight to make it back to Lecom Park for the championship game under the Thursday night lights, only to lose to the same team again, this time 6-2. It also marks the fourth time in four years I’ve played for a championship only to channel my inner-Buffalo Bills and go home without throwing a cheap champagne stained uniform in the laundry. Looking at things with a new perspective on life, however — “Jimmy crack corn…”
My goal for the week, other than getting through it in one piece, was to maybe hit .350 and be competitive. Official scoring at fantasy camp would make the honchos at Cooperstown cringe. Once that 4-4 day happened, I finished 10 for 21 for a .476 average with seven runs scored (that wasn’t easy), four RBI, four walks and got hit by two pitches, the most painful by my 2010 rookie camp mentor Kevin Kubala, smack on the top of the right fibula with a sixty mph fastball that knocked me out of the last three innings of the title game. As Hebner would say, “it fu*kin hurt.” But I fu*kin got up again.
As a team we finished 5-3. A diverse group of twelve guys with an average age of fifty-one, a bit on the young side for fantasy camps. Only three of the dozen live in the greater Pittsburgh region, another oddity. Our inspirational leader was Paul Metlin, 64, who was also key for me during my rehab. Eight years ago, Paulie had a quad bypass and much to wife Jill’s chagrin back in Jacksonville he was on the ballfield three months later. During my recovery he checked in with me at least once a week to tell me, even when things seemed darkest, that I could do it, too. During our third game on Monday afternoon, Metlin was upended by an arguably targeted takeout at second base trying to break up a double play. He tore the meniscus in his left knee. The guy operates under the triple axiom that if it’s already torn how can he tear it again; he paid his four grand for the week so he might as well get some value and it’s his knee, not his arm, so why not pitch? And in probably the gutsiest, though maybe not the smartest performance of the week, he pitched the first three innings of the next five games almost flawlessly. I don’t think he told Jill.
Paulie described our team, other than me, as being completely free of egos which is probably why we jelled so quickly. Richie Boyles, 66, who was the oldest on our team and a fourteen year camp veteran, played with his son Jay and son-in-law Jeff Hardy. Hardy was the youngest at half that age. John Beran, 55, pitched the three innings of every game after Metlin until his arm fell off. Rich Hetzer, a camp rook, caught every inning of every game at forty-five years old and still had enough left in the tank to knock in a team high twenty runs. Yankee camper James Provenchano, 42, was at home in Syracuse, New York looking after his five car dealerships last Saturday when he got word there was a late camp opening. He was on a 6 a.m. flight Sunday morning and his big left-handed stick was in the afternoon’s opening line-up. Jet lag be damned; he tripled to the right center wall in his first at-bat as a Buc. Dave Merison, 61, is not only one of the real solid people I look forward to seeing every year but he and I split first base to allow some of the younger guys like Tom Troutman, 48, and Ty Smith, 47, to get as many innings as they could elsewhere in the field. Labanowski, 56, led the entire camp in hitting with an amazing .739. He texts me hourly to remind me of it.
My biggest hurdle is an age-driven lack of mobility. I was the second oldest on the team and the fifteenth oldest in camp. It got tougher by the day to move on and off the field. Sitting down was easy; getting up…not so much. Getting into bed at night, simple; getting out in the morning was leg by leg. I started camp with the fluidity of a barrel filled with cement; I ended it with the flexibility of the Washington Monument.
When Randy Frame looked in and threw that first pitch the ball looked looked like the proverbial beach ball. It seemed so big. I was so excited. In August and September, I never dreamed I could play ball or do almost anything, ever again, despite Metlin telling me I would. Over the last two months I realized he was right, I could. Frame threw the first pitch and I swung at it. I hit a two hopper to shortstop Rob Cooper and in a bang-bang play at first he got me by only a dozen steps.
Five months post open heart, I walked back to the dugout feeling like I just hit the longest shot of my life. Because I did.