St. Louis Post-Dispatch from St. Louis, Missouri on June 30, 1991 · Page 24
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St. Louis Post-Dispatch from St. Louis, Missouri · Page 24

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Sunday, June 30, 1991
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'3 JUN 30 1991 SPORTS. 3F SUNDAY, JUNE 30, 1991 - b I. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH BASEBALL )rflrs A Baseball Player Tells About The Impact ik I I just kept saying to myself, 'You're OK. You're OK. Everything is going to be fine.' That's all I could do to keep myself from running back into the clubhouse. 9 9 MIKE EATINGER wancer doesn't happen to you; it always happens to somebody else. And it can't happen to somebody my age. ... Cancer was the last thing on my mind, f 7 MIKE EATINGER By Joe Domagalski Riverside Press-Enterprise There were no fans in the stands three hours before gametime. The only noise was from balls popping into the gloves of the Sarasota White Sox, warming up down the right field line. Mike Eatinger walked onto the field and the noise stopped. His hat was pulled down over his eyes so he couldn't see anybody. He hoped they wouldn't see him. "I just kept saying to myself, 'You're OK. You'r; OK. Everything is going to be fine.' That's all I could do to keep myself from running back into the clubhouse," Eatinger said. He looked up Just long enough to see one player start walking toward him. Then another. And another. "I think they knew something was wrong, but they were afraid to say anything. So I figured I better say something, but the only thing I could think of was, 'They gave me some great drugs.' I was trying to joke around. "Then our big first baseman, Ed Smith, came over and you could see it In his face that he knew something was wrong. He asked what did they find out. I told him it was my lymph nodes, but he kept asking questions. Finally, I just said, 'Let's put it this way, I got cancer.'" Eatinger started to cry, so he put his head down, hoping nobody would notice. Smith hugged him. "Right then I lost it. I started bawling. I couldn't stop. Then three or four other guys put their arms around me. I was trying to be a man about it, but I couldn't stop crying. For those four or five minutes, my whole life was falling apart." Eatinger, 23, was recalling the drama of three months ago. His goal now, and for the next few months, is to put his life back together. In early April, he was diagnosed as having large-cell lymphoma, malignant cancer of the lymph nodes. He completed chemotherapy treatment and will undergo a bone marrow transplant next month. "What I've been through, I never thought I'd have to do," said Eatinger, an Ail-American at California-Riverside in 1989. "Cancer doesn't happen to you; it always happens to somebody else. And it can't happen to somebody my age. When the problems first started, cancer was the last thing on my mind." Eatinger spotted a small lump under his right arm last Thanksgiving. Three weeks later it was gone. Three weeks after that, there were two lumps. Then, they were on the left side of his neck. "I just figured they'd go away like they did before," he said. "Besides, spring training was coming up and I wasn't going to let anything get in the way. This was going to be my spring. I was ready to make a big move up." Last season, Eatinger was most valuable player of the South Bend (Ind.) White Sox. He hit .262 with five home runs and 57 runs batted in. He was voted best defensive second baseman in the Class A Midwest League. He had What was I going to do now? Where do I go from here?" Mike and his wife, Debbie, went back to the apartment to call home. "Debbie had to do the talking. I just couldn't talk about it," Eatinger said. "She was my secretary and my answering machine. She gave me a shoulder to cry on. Debbie's everything to me." Mike and Debbie Finnigan met In March 1987, when they were college students. They were married in February 1990. So soon, "we were faced with the biggest test of our lives," said Debbie. "I knew I had to be strong for Mike, so I couldn't break down and start crying like I wanted to. Making those calls was probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do. Trying to get through every sentence and hearing them (Mike's parents) crying was something I'll never forget. We wanted to be with them, but they were so far away and we were just by ourselves. There was nobody else to turn to except each other, and that's what we did." Eatinger felt he had to tell his teammates. Nobody could help with that. "I had to feel part of the team for one last time. I knew I was going to say goodbye to these guys. I just didn't know if I was going to be saying goodbye to my career, too." Eatinger was late getting to the clubhouse. He was hoping nobody was still there. He had put his uniform in his locker the day before, and now he was only going to get to wear It once. "I put it on real slow. Sometimes I just wanted to leave and not deal with it. Go back to California and have people say, 'Where did he go?' I was looking around hoping nobody would walk in." Just then, the trainer, Steve Davis, arrived. "I just looked at him and he looked at me, and I had to spit it out," Eatinger said. "I tried to explain it like the doctor explained it to me. I just couldn't say I had cancer. When I finally said I had lymphoma, he just turned cold-faced. All of a sudden, I turned cold. He didn't know what to say and if he couldn't, how was I going to tell the guys? I wanted to scream or cry. "I was relieved when Steve said he'd go out to the field with me. I had to be led from one direction to another. I was hurting for some help." After Eatinger told teammates, he looked at outfielder Jerry Wolak, his roommate last year, when, as Wolak said, "we were two California kids lost somewhere in Indiana." "Jerry was staring at the ground. He didn't say a word and he never hugged me. But before I could talk to him, he ran off to take batting practice." "That was one moment I'll never forget," Wolak recalled. "I like to talk, but for the first time in my life I was speechless. I ran off because I had to step away from the whole situation. Maybe run away from it. My God, Mike said he had cancer, and that's such a scary word ... how can something like this happen to somebody you care about, some- think people are staring at me, and usually I they are. I'm too ashamed to take my hat off in public. That's been the hardest thing I've had j to get used to." ' He went to the driving range, but his grip j was so weak he could barely hold the golf club. He tried bowling, "but the next day I thought i my arm was going to fall off." j "It was driving me crazy. Ever since I was a little kid, I never sat at home and watched cartoons. I'd always be throwing the ball against the house, or just raising hell. i "So I was getting pretty frustrated watching cartoons, game shows and soap operas. I need- j ed something to keep me busy." t Answering get-well cards helped. He got ! more than four dozen cards from people he knew, and some from people he didn't know, i One wrote: "Dear Mike, Don't give up, Mike. ! Keep a good attitude that is very important! My husband and I are both recovering from ; cancer. I'm nearly to the 5-year mark and he is 1 at 3 years. Remember to put your trust in God ! and turn to Him for help. Many people are praying for you and wish you well." i It was signed: "From a South Bend fan." On June 13, the South Bend club held a night for Eatinger. The team flew him back to Indi- ana, where he was "treated like a major i leaguer." J He was going to take batting practice but he did three television interviews before he could i even get to the field. "I just had to put on a uniform again because I forgot what it felt like. I was so excited, I think I was running on adrenalin. I took some, ground balls, and it was just like I did it the 1 other day. I think I stayed with the other guys, , but no way could I have played a game after I practice I was so tired." J Eatinger threw out the first ball, "and I think I was more nervous doing that than I was any time I played there." He signed autographs for almost an hour. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has told Eatinger he'll cover all medical costs. The bone marrow transplant costs almost $150,000. " White Sox general manager Ron Schueler still u calls him at least once a week, as does Larry Monroe, director of minor league operations " and scouting. Monroe's wife, Glenna, battled" cancer three years ago but has recovered. "When somebody is going through something like that, it's very hard to say the right 1 thing," Monroe said, "but I did know what he '' was going through. I wanted to give him some ', hope, so I told him about my wife. I think you " need something to look forward to after the" transplant. For my wife, It was our kids grow- lng up. For Mike, it's playing again, whether It's in the Instructional League in the fall, of not until next year. We'll take him back when-" ever he's ready." ,1 Eatinger tells his doctors of his baseball plans, "and they just shake their heads," he said. uii "They keep telling me to take it one step at a.: time, and the first step is the bone marrow " transplant." m been a third baseman but the White Sox thought his great range and not-so-great power made him better suited for second. He thought he might move up to AA Birmingham, Ala., this season. "I didn't want to miss a day of spring training," Eatinger said. Eatinger didn't miss an exhibition game, even though the right side of his neck swelled so people "were looking at me like I was deformed." It became difficult to turn his head when batting. His lower back hurt so much, running was a chore. He struggled to throw. "But I was still playing, so I thought nothing serious could be wrong. I just figured I'd play through the pain. Then I got scared when I started having night sweats. I'd keep putting the air conditioner up to where the room would be freezing, but I'd be soaking wet and the sheets would be drenched. I'd just lay there and think, 'What is wrong with me? What is happening to me?'" After being assigned to Sarasota, he finally went looking for the answer. He would have to miss the first road trip waiting for results of a biopsy on one of the tumors in his neck, "but it was no big deal because I figured I'd be back in the lineup for the first home game." The day of Sarasota's first home game was the day Eatinger received the test results. His first day back with the team became his last day. "I knew right away something was wrong," Eatinger recalled. "Dr. (Andrew) Pulliam usually came out and said, 'Hey, how are you doing?' and we'd talk about baseball. But that day it was, "Mike, why don't you come back here with me?' He was real quiet until we got to his office. He went through the results of every test, but I didn't understand anything until he said I could have lymphoma. I knew that meant cancer. "I just sat there. I didn't know what to say. I was in shock. We had never talked about the possibility of it being cancer. It was supposed to be just a virus. The blood tests and CAT scans were coming out good. I just told him, "No, it can't be. My picture of somebody with cancer is losing their hair, they're real skinny and they look like they're dying. And I'm playing baseball every day. I can't have cancer. No way.' "When we left the office, that's when it hit me. I was really scared. I couldn't stop crying. 7 i I . Days And Nights Of Young Pitching And Veteran Catching body you love." Eatinger went to the batting cage, grabbed a bat and started to swing at imaginary pitches off to the side, away from everybody. "I felt like I aged 10 years in 10 minutes. I was thinking, 'Man, am I ever going to play baseball again?' or could this be my last game and I can't even play in It. That was the first time I thought my career was over. I was scared and I was totally giving up at that moment, but I forgot about it as soon as the game started." Eatinger coached first base for five innings, but stayed on the bench after his back started hurting. "Guys would come up to me, put their arms around me and tell me, 'Man, we'll be thinking of you. I never knew what they thought about me until that night. I loved them to death." Finally, Wolak came over and put his arm around Eatinger. "I finally realized I was being stupid," Wolak said. "I couldn't stay away from Mike just because I couldn't handle the situation. I had to talk to him. Sure it was a crushing blow to me, but it was a lot worse for Mike. I just told Mike I'd always be there for him, no matter what." After the game, Eatinger was presented with a baseball signed by his teammates. "I never wanted to leave these guys, but I knew I had to," Eatinger said. "I was the first one out of the locker room, but I looked back and promised myself I'd be back. It was like a scene out of a movie. I was Just waiting for the background music," Eatinger said. Eatinger left Florida for California and more tests to determine what kind of cancer he had. He had to wait three more days for the diagnosis. Treatment started at 3 In the morning. He had no trouble waking up. He hadn't been asleep. When he left the hospital that day, he went to a baseball game. When people would ask ' why he wasn't playing, he said he was on the disabled list, that he had a bad arm and was out for a month. "I don't know what I would have said after that month, but I wasn't worried about that then. I tried to act like nothing was wrong. I just didn't want people to know the truth." The truth was beginning to show. Eatinger lost almost 20 pounds in eight days, down to 165. He started losing his hair. "I've become paranoid because I always 'Where the hell are you going?' Before you can say anything, they're telling you exactly what they're doing wrong. "What I used to do was say, 'Then why the hell aren't you doing it, since you know?' Then I'd go back, and just leave them there thinking, 'Oh.' " Some catchers, however, don't even get to that point. Said Carter: "I've seen cases where a catcher started going out to the mound and the pitcher literally turned his back to him and started walking away." Carter rolled his eyes and sighed. " 'All right, I guess I'll just go back here and fire the signs down.' " It doesn't always have to be Intimidating, though. The awkwardness doesn't have to persist indefinitely. The catchers were unanimous in their solutions: Ask questions. Learn the pitchers both their technical abilities and their personality quirks. Be wide open to suggestions. Avoid having an overbearing manner early on. "I've been out there," Mackey Sasser, a young catcher for the Mets, said of the mound. "But I never tell them. I ask them: 'What do you want to do in this situation?' " The Dodgers' Mike Scioscia found the same approach invaluable when he was working with Don Sutton and Burt Hooton 10 years ago. "Those guys called me out as much as I went out there," he said. "At a key moment in a game, they'd call me out and say what they wanted to do and why they wanted to do it. I can't tell you how much I learned from those guys." When off the field, meanwhile, Scioscia would pick the minds of whatever catchers were within earshot: Roy Campanella, John Roseboro, Del Crandall, Steve Yeager, Jerry Grote, Johnny Oates. "That's free education," said Scioscia, who holds the Dodgers record for games caught. "It's like talking with college professors when you're in high school, and you're getting it for nothing." You know what they say about a little knowledge, though, and a catcher's demeanor in the early stages of his major-league career may be as important as anything that spews from his mouth. Sour relations between young catcher and established pitcher, Parrish said, "more times than not happen when you have a catcher who is real rambunctious and real hyper, a guy who comes up wanting to be overenthusiastic. He feels it's his duty. And it's taught that way in the minor leagues: 'You've got to take charge.' it "It's better to lay low," said Sasser, "especially when you've got a veteran staff. They know what they want to do." After a catcher has completed his apprenticeship and, he hopes, lulled his way into a pitcher's good graces he can gently and imperceptibly effect a shifting of the command. The catcher can begin to guide the ride rather than just going along for it. Said Parrish: "The way I tried to approach it, I was just going to go with what I thought they wanted to do. And then maybe, subtly, start going Into what I wanted to do and see if they wanted to go along with me." Hmm. Clever. Nuke, the pitcher: "What are you doing out here? I'm cruisin', man." Crash, the catcher: "I want you to throw the next one at the mascot. Just throw it at the bull, all right? Trust me." .7 r Perseverance The Lesson For Edwards Scripps Howard News Service It's easy to characterize the years Johnny,, Edwards spent as the Cincinnati Reds catcher. "A.B. and B.B.," is how Edwards puts it. 'J "After (Ed) Bailey and before (Johnny),, Bench." Of equal importance, those seasons, 1961-67, " were years during which Edwards made his L own mark, both as a catcher, with three All-,,', Star Game appearances and two Gold Gloves, and as a citizen of the game. Edwards, along with Jim Bunning and Bob Allison, paved the way for the Major League Baseball Players Association by hiring Marvin '. Miller as the union's executive director back " in 1966. "I still have our original contract with Mar-"1 vin Miller at home," said Edwards. "It said we,, were going to pay him $60,000, and the union didn't have enough money to pay him. WeHn were going to try to get every player to pay $2ri! per game as union dues and try to get the teams to collect it It was a long shot. But it--workedout." Edwards was one of a few players in the'" 1960s who had a college education, having " graduated from Ohio State with a degree in Z engineering. He knows too well why it is neces- " sary for ex-players to tour major-league stadiums today for the benefit of down-and-out'" former players, which he does as part of the1; Upper Deck Heroes of Baseball Old-Timers :; series. ' ' '"" "I kept telling guys, 'You're over the hill in ' 1 this game at 35. You've got to find another career for when this ends,'" said Edwards. "I said that not everybody can be a TV guy or a coach. Not everybody listened, and that's why you see a lot of guys who are dead in the water. "They have alcohol problems, or they divorce their wives of 15 or 20 years because they can't handle not being the hero." - Edwards knew how to be a hero from the"" start. He came up from the minor leagues for,' the final third of the 1961 season because the ; Reds were desperate for a solid catcher, having traded Bailey to San Francisco. , When Edwards came up, he would be under ; constant Instruction from Reds pitching stal-. warts Joey Jay and Bob Purkey and, though' ! Edwards batted only .186, he was widely cred-1 ited as the missing piece that led the Reds to the pennant that season. .Z In spring training of 1966, Edwards broke " the index finger on his throwing hand and came back 10 days later with a splint. For the entire season, he suffered the same malady throwing the ball to the pitcher that afflicts New York Mets catcher Mackey Sasser. He overcame it by convincing himself to stop being afraid he would throw the ball 7 -away. At the end of the 1967 season, the Reds-"i brought up Bench, and Edwards asked man-;.; agement to be traded. "The best thing about that situation was that the Reds traded me right after that season. To,, have me still around while Bench was trying to n establish himself would have been unfair to 1 everybody." o". The Reds traded Edwards to St. Louis, where he caught every game pitched by Bob Gibson, who went 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA in 1968."" Houston picked him up following that season. Edwards played for the Astros until 1974, -( when he retired at 36. Today, he is an opera-tions manager for the oil tool division at Coop-;C er Industries in Houston. H 1 1991, Los Angeles Daily News Pitcher Nuke LaLoosh (to himself): "No. No. He's looking for heat. Let me give him the deuce." Catcher Crash Davis (to the batter): "This SOB is throwing a two-hit shutout. He'sshaking me off. You believe that (stuff)?" One of baseball's enduring doctrines holds that a heady, veteran catcher can enhance the development of a young pitcher immeasurably. Hence, a dominant theme and fodder for boundless hilarity in the movie "Bull Durham," from which the above exchange was borrowed. The conventional wisdom dictates that young pitchers with tender psyches (is that redundant?) can best be guided through the minefields of pro baseball by a guy who has experienced just about everything the game and an opposing batting order can offer. But what happens when this equation is reversed, when an established, proven pitcher is forced to work with a kid? Is the process of calling (and shaking off) signals awkward? Does the catcher suffer pangs of bewildered despair? And what, in the name of all that sinks and curves, does the young catcher say when he trots out to the mound for a conference with one of those graybeards? Interviews with a half-dozen present, former and perhaps future catching stars produced a consistent series of responses. Yes, it can be difficult. Yes, the acquisition of experience behind the plate tends to be arduous. And yes, some pitchers can make the process hellish; it's the patient, understanding ones who speed development. "There was never any time my first few years that I really felt like I was calling the game," said Angels catcher Lance Parrish, recalling his early seasons with Detroit in the late-1970s. "If they wanted to shake me off, fine, go ahead." And his trips to the mound? "A lot of times, I wouldn't even go out. For the most part, there really wasn't a whole lot I could tell these guys, and I realized that. They knew what they wanted to do. They certainly didn't want somebody just coming up from the minor leagues trying to tell them how to pitch. I didn't think it would be received well." Indeed, often it isn't. The Dodgers' Gary Carter began his career as an outfielder with Montreal in the mid-'70s. When he was asked to start taking some turns behind the plate, the Expos pitchers were comfortably adjusted to Barry Foote, who had accompanied many of them up through the minors. "When you're thrown back there, you're under the microscope," Carter said. 'They expect you to call a great game and you don't even know the hitters. It wasn't quite up to par, and then the fingerpointing came out. (He wouldn't elaborate.) It worked its way out." Sometimes it doesn't work its way out readily, for a lot of reasons. Pitchers have been known to establish a kind of security-blanket rapport with a certain catcher. "It doesn't matter if you're old, young, smart or dumb," said former Dodgers reserve Barry Lyons, who broke in with the New York Mets five years ago. "Some people get to where they work well with a certain person." ), ' (r t . ike Scioscia would pick the minds of whatever catchers were within earshot: Roy Campanella, John Roseboro, Del Crandall, Steve Yeager, Jerry Grote, Johnny Oates. It was like a free education, he said. 97 Hendricks said. "I think it's, 'I'm the veteran, I know how to pitch, I know what I'm doing out here, I know what to do.' And the poor kid. He comes out there and he's defeated before he even gets to the bottom of the hill." Hendricks continued: "The guys who are very intense do it subconsciously. Jim Palmer used to be that way. They're so wrapped up in the game. They might get out of sync and a catcher goes out Just to give them a breather or remind them of something. By the time you get halfway there, they're looking at you like, Cross up that chemistry, compound the tension with a dose of wet-nosed youth behind the plate and ... well, catchers have their horror stories, either witnessed or experienced first hand. Elrod Hendricks, a Baltimore coach who helped catch the '71 Orioles staff the last in baseball to feature four 20-game winners In a single season recalls cringing while watching his counterparts on other teams. "I've seen the likes of a Gaylord Perry really give a young catcher a tough way to go," i

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