Saturday, April 11, 2009

Loss Beyond the Score

New York Times
April 11, 2009
Op-Ed Guest Columnist Heading Home


After hearing about the tragic death of the 22-year-old pitcher Nick Adenhart, my heart skipped a beat. Although I never met him, I still feel close to the baseball family and his loss was the loss of a brother.

Earlier this year, I lost a member of my family to kidney disease. Kevin Foster, who died at 39, was also not a blood relation: he was part of the baseball brotherhood. We played together on the Cubs for a season and a half, but were more than teammates. Kevin was my doppleganger.

Fans were baffled by our physical similarities. During my rookie year, I was called "Kevin" more times than I was called by my own name. In 1996, he was brought up to the big leagues and when the Cubs didn't have a uniform that fit him, they just gave him mine. Same size.

Our skinny frames put together meaty baseball careers in the face of a game that emphasized power. Together, we learned to accept that our pants could only stay up when we manually punched an extra hole in the belt. From this common ground our friendship grew. While we were teammates, fans saw us as twins and constantly mixed us up. After a while, we made a joke of it and just nodded even when we were called the wrong name.

I lost touch with Kevin after he left the game, but I was honore d that his family thought to contact me after he di ed.

Kevin was not the only brother taken from the family too soon. There was Cory Lidle, lost in a plane crash; Josh Hancock, in a highway accident; and Geremi Gonzalez, struck by lightning. Or Rod Beck, and one of my favorite players when I was a youngster, Tug McGraw. All died too young. So, too, did the consummate father-figure, my Phillies coach John Vukovich, to complications caused by a brain tumor.

Athletes are supposed to be invincible. Young and strong, we play the game confident that Death does not have a locker room pass. In truth, those on the field are not any more immune to kidney disease, plane or car crashes, lightning strikes, drug overdoses or brain cancer than those in the stands. We can be immortalized, but we are not immortal.

In my litany of the dearly departed, I left out one name. Fred White was the first teammate I lost. In many ways, the impact of his death remains the most enduring.

As a professional baseball player, it is not unusual to go through roommates like paper towels. There are your spring training roommates, your instructional league roommates, your roommate at home, your roommate on the road, not to mention your winter league roommate if you choose to play in the off-season. Most of the time, the transient nature of the business prevents you from getting too familiar with anyone. But we connected .

We met in 1993, two among the mob of players that descended on Mesa, Ariz., for the Cubs' minor leag ue spring training camp. Fred was 24, a talented pitcher from Compton, Calif. Charismatic and troubled, he was at that crossroads in his career where he had to advance quickly or be stuck for multiple seasons at the same level — a level light years away from the major leagues.

Once camp ended and the teams were finalized, Fred and I realized that we were both reporting to Daytona Beach for the regular season. Having hit it off in Mesa, we decided to be roommates. As this was the first team to play in Daytona Beach in many years, there was no infrastructure to help us get settled. After our three-day, rent-free hotel stay came to a close, we rented a car and drove around town blindly to find an apartment. Through sheer luck, we happened on the Anatole Apartments, off the main drag. We chose a simple two-bedroom with rooms on opposite ends of the space. As always, I was responsible for breakfast.

Early in the season, Fred had a nagging elbow injury that he was afraid to tell the team about. Players were afraid that coming up lame would be seen as a sign of weakness. Not to mention that being hurt is a surefire way to slow your progress up the ladder. So Fred just tried to make due with home remedies like numbing his arm with Dixie cups filled with ice.

It didn't work. By the time Fred finally decided to tell our manager about his compromised elbow, he was given his walking papers. In an instant, I no longer had a roommate and Fred n o longer had a career. No other team was interested in him.

His baseball life over, Fred moved to Orlando and began life as a "civilian." Coincidentally, Orlando was the next stop in the minor league progression for me. Once I got there, we reconnected. For the most part, I talked to Fred on the phone and in person about what he was going to do professionally, in this next phase of his life. But we both liked this one place to hang out with the team. Heroes. A night spot in Orlando.

After a night of hanging out, we'd go to our respective apartments. By then, Fred had his own place with his significant other, and I was rooming with my Double-A teammate, Paul Torres. I left on a road trip during the same week that Fred made a trip to California to pay his respects to his grandmother, who had passed away recently.

A few days later I walked into the Orlando Cubs locker room, as I had done after every other road trip. Tired of carrying a slew of bags, I dreamed of getting back to my apartment to get some rest. Then the words I heard from a teammate poured over me like the cold shower I probably needed: "Fred was killed while you guys were gone."

"Fred, as in my old roommate?"

One night in California, Fred had visited friends to play a harmless game of dominoes. While they were playing, someone started to break into a jee p belonging to one of the friends. Fred went down to inter vene.

Being a trained boxer, Fred soon was getting the best of the carjacker. Unfortunately, the thief had a gun. When he pulled it out, Fred ran. The coward chased him down and killed him at near-point-blank range.

Fred's senseless death was hard to understand. I was 23 years old, playing with a healthy bunch of young prospects. We had already seen death come to us in strange ways that season. Our catcher's sister was tragically killed in the Dominican Republic when she ran across a live wire. During batting practice we saw five construction workers killed when a draw bridge behind our home field in Daytona Beachmalfunctioned. But none of these victims had been ballplayers. We still felt invincible.

We were young kids doing what we loved to do, carrying the torches of our hometowns and baseball history. We were supposed to be protected from the pain of this world because we were supposed to be part of life's innocence. Loss only happened because the other team scored more runs, not because someone from our locker room family was taken from us.

In memory of Fred, I became the godfather to his infant son, Trevor. Now of high school age, he is old enough to ask questions about his dad. I try to give him as much information as I can remember.

I want my godson to know that his father was my teammate and therefore my family. In the game of baseball, you live an d fight together as a unit day after day. Gradually an unspok en truth emerges: we will look out for one another, even 15, 20 years down the road. It is an everlasting vigilance that protects our immediate and extended baseball family.

In memory of fallen teammates, opponents, coaches, media members and administrators. My prayers and thoughts go out to the family, friends and teammates of Nick Adenhart.

New York Times
April 11, 2009

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