I just realized that Fathers' Day is not very far off, and in that realization I decided to post this very important and memorable chapter in my life and baseball career.
IT'S NOT ABOUT ME
AUGUST 18, 2003- That is a date that will go down as the most significant day in my Major-League Baseball career. I was playing for the Milwaukee Brewers at that point in time, and we were playing the Philadelphia Phillies, in Philadelphia, which helped set the stage for the event. I am from the area- I was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and I grew up in a small town in Maryland- both of which are in proximity to Philadelphia. Add in the fact that my mother's entire family is from the Philly-area, while my dad's family is from the same small town in Maryland, and this already could be painted as a memorable event. What made this event so special wasn't because it was, essentially, a “homecoming,” nor was it the fact that I was able to procure 75 tickets for family members- not to mention the fans from my town/county who spent their own money to get in. No, it stemmed from an event that occurred in January of 2002.
I was in Venezuela playing Winter Ball; Venezuela is one of four Caribbean countries (along with the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Mexico) where professionals go, either as free agents, looking to show their talents, or solely to work on certain aspects of their respective games. One balmy January day in 2002- which was a typical day in Valencia (the city in which I was playing)- quickly turned into a nightmare. I received a phone call from my sister, and she informed me that my dad- my immortal, stronger-than-anyone, bigger-than-life dad- had just been diagnosed with throat cancer. At best, he had a 30-40 percent chance of surviving. I called my parents to tell them I was going to come home, but my mother called me back later and said that my dad did not want me to come back. I will probably never know if the reason was because he knew how important baseball was in my life, or if he didn't want me to be around once he started his chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I really wanted to go back and be of help, but how could I possibly go against his wishes? Therefore, I stayed in Venezuela, and I didn't tell anyone who was involved with the team. People on the team could sometimes see a change in my personality, but I played it off. I remember a night, about three nights after I found out about my dad, where I sat up in bed and spontaneously started to cry- no, weep! I have never, before or since, done that.
In the summer of 2002 my father had surgery to remove his tumor, which as it turns out, was much bigger than estimated. Obviously, I was playing baseball at the time (still with Houston) and I couldn't be there- again- but it wasn't supposed to be anything but “part of the process.” My dad spent several days in the hospital, and came home feeling like “a lot less of a man.” Sometime (months) later, my mother finally disclosed to me that my dad was within an inch of losing his life- he had developed an infection after his surgery, and his doctor even telephoned my mother, telling her to get to the hospital because they were “losing” my dad. Somehow (which those of us with faith understand), my dad withstood the infection and fought through it. Someday, I will tell what my dad told me about that night. A month after the surgery, I was traded to Milwaukee, and played there the rest of 2002, and all of 2003- which brings me full-circle in my story.
The first game of the three-game series in Philadelphia was set up perfectly- I was the starting pitcher. I can promise one thing: I have been nervous for every start since little league, but on this day I wasn't. I kept hoping to get nervous, ironically, because I associated it with concentration. No matter what I tried I could not get the butterflies. So, I just embraced the feeling and made myself act “cocky,” but not in the sense where I was a total “ass.” I kept telling myself, “I got this game- in the bag!” The moment that I never saw coming, hence did not realize until it happened, came after I did my twenty-minute warmup routine before the game started. I warmed up in the visitors' bullpen of Veterans' Stadium- which is in the left field corner. After I was ready, I walked out the door of the 'pen, along with Mike Maddux, the pitching coach, and lo and behold, there stood my dad to say “good luck.” Spontaneously, I walked over to him and hugged him- and if anyone knows me, they would be shocked, because I am a little shy about those kinds of emotions in public. Like I said, it was spontaneous. I realized after the game that that game was a culmination of all the baseball I had ever played up to that point, and also of the battle my dad fought with cancer. That hug was truly out of love, respect, and also just to say “we both made it.” That was the first game of my big-league career that my dad had made it to- on hindsight, thank God!!!!
What was just icing on the cake, I pitched six and two-thirds innings, gave up only three runs, and wound up being the winner. Sometimes I wonder if my manager- Ned Yost- took me out of the game during an inning (as opposed to after the inning, when I would be sitting in the dugout already) because he knew of the crowd I had there for me. As I walked off the field I looked up, and there was this huge cheering-section for me, on their feet, giving me an ovation. I looked up at all of them, then at my dad, and I tipped my cap to them to say “thank you.” It was surreal to say the least, but what made it surreal was, stay with me, that it was real.
I love my entire family, but to say I wouldn't change that day for anything is an understatement. The truth is, my dad didn't have a father growing up, and he made a certain promise that if he ever had a son, he would be there for his son. He was challenged by cancer, and he was challenged to meet a promise he had made; he met both challenges head-on. I may have won the game, but my father became the biggest winner that night.