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What Baseball Taught Me About CHD and Heart Transplant

Last night, as I began falling asleep, I started thinking about baseball. There was no particular reason to be thinking about baseball in the middle of January. Yet, my brain took me there anyway. Baseball has always been one of my favorite sports. While it is certainly a slow-paced game, it is a game of strategy and calculation as well. On the surface it may not seem that way, but baseball may be one of the most strategic games. It is a sport where the skill of the individual player is as important as the skill of the collective team. Different situations present themselves: where the fielders line up, stealing bases, bunting, where the pitcher places the ball. And, when the pitcher throws the pitch, any sort of miscalculation can result in a hit or home run for the other team.

But more than anything, it’s the idea of baseball and what it represents that I like the most. Baseball means Spring Training, and Spring Training means warm weather. Baseball means spending time outside with family and friends. And sometimes it means not even paying attention to the game, but rather, paying attention to those around you while the crowd murmurs on during the occasional crack of the bat. Sometimes you miss the action, and that’s OK. You’re at a baseball game, and there are many more pitches, many more batters, and many more games that you will see.

Like most, my fascination with baseball and sports, in general, began when I was young. I remember my dad taking me to Phillies games in the 90s, more specifically, during the 90s when the Phillies weren’t that good. The Vet would be half empty, and you were there to pass time and just enjoy the game of baseball. There were no real stakes, no playoff hopes, everything echoed. It was boring. But, boring was good. And the hot dogs were good too.

When I was in second grade I had an open heart surgery to put a fenestration in my heart with the hopes that it would relieve the hemodynamic pressure and, for the time being, “cure” my protein-losing enteropathy (PLE). It did that. I remember not being so worried about the surgery itself. But, there are maybe four or five distinct things I remember from the surgery:

1. Getting a tour, before the surgery, of the floor where I’d be recovering.

2. Asking the surgeon when I’d be able to eat McDonald’s again.

3. A stuffed dog that my parents got that I named Cinnamon.

4. The tragic loss of my “blanky.” The cleaning staff must have thrown it in with the laundry. And not surprisingly, my dad going down to the laundry room and wading through hospital laundry to find my blanky.

5. A gift pack from the Philadelphia Phillies. I don’t remember exactly what was in the Phillies gift pack, but I remember thinking it was one of the greatest gifts in the world.

For me, it’s clear that baseball is magical. But it’s the same for others too. The game has history, the game is romanticized. A. Bartlett Giamatti, a Renaissance literature scholar, was the commissioner of Major League Baseball for five months before his sudden death. He wrote that the season “begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” Not only does baseball represent warm weather, but it sort of represents the same renewal of life that spring represents. In an article written by Andrew Rice for The Nation, entitled “The Magic of Baseball Endures,” Rice writes “Less poetically, the game demonstrates, again and cruelly again, the way the body inevitably betrays us. A baseball career is a life span compressed: a player is drafted at 18, reaches maturity at 25, is seasoned by 30 and at 35 is contemplating an afterlife on the golf course.” Just as baseball represents renewal, it also represents all of our experiences in life – from birth to death. As much as I enjoy exciting playoff baseball, boring baseball appeals to me just the same. This is because, in my own life, boring is also good. It means I am well. It means I can just enjoy the game, and enjoy the day. More on this later.

In baseball, getting called up from the minor leagues to the major leagues is called making it to the show. Some players play all of the life in the minor leagues, never making it to the show. It is a difficult thing to accomplish. There are 30 major league teams. In a season, each team has a 25-man roster. So, in a given season, there are 750 active major league players. There are 247 minor league teams, from Triple-A to Single-A. Skills are highly important in baseball, but the odds of ever making a major league roster are extremely low.

I can only imagine what it must be like to get called up to the major leagues, walking up the dugout stairs and onto the field for the first time, hearing tens of thousands of fans cheer for you the first time, boo you the first time. I imagine that feeling wells up in your chest – feeling heavy and empty at the same time. It must be difficult to catch your breath, difficult to speak. And when that initial moment passes, you convince yourself you are ready for this, and the weight of the world falls off your shoulders. There is always the potential to be sent down to the minor leagues again.

On Monday I had a routine appointment with the transplant team. During the appointment, they let me know that I was now at the top of the status 1B list for people with blood type B. While there still may be some status 1A’s ahead of me, for all intents and purposes, I am on deck – I am about to be called up to the show. When they gave me that news, everything suddenly became more real. The whole ordeal sank in just a little bit more. This still doesn’t make a timeline any more clear, there are lots of factors that still play into all of this: the heart has to be good, the liver has to be good, the blood type has to match, the antibody profiles have to be compatible. But soon, I will do my own walking up the dugout stairs, but unlike baseball, I can’t go back down to the minor leagues. This is it.

One of my all-time favorite players is Doug Glanville. If you know baseball at all, you know that is a bizarre statement. He played center field for the Phillies for five years. He wasn’t necessarily the best ballplayer, he was no Ken Griffey Jr. for sure, there wasn’t anything that special about him. But what did stand out to me was his hustle and his smarts. It wasn’t until years after he retired that my admiration for Glanville really grew. He wrote a book called “The Game From Where I Stand” that detailed his life in the minors, majors, and outside of baseball. Glanville was not only a ballplayer but a graduate of University of Pennsylvania as well. At the end of the introduction of his book, Glanville writes, “In fact, if I have done this great game justice, you will find that whether or not you have ever picked up a bat or thrown a ball, this book could be your story as well.” And his words are true.

I’ve spoken and written about how I am not necessarily brave, but rather, just doing what I need to do in order to live my life. In an interview with National Public Radio, Glanville says something that resonates with me. He talks about how all of his knowledge and calculated approach to preparation and approach for the game sometimes just goes out the window. He says “you have to have moments where you sort of blank. You’re not thinking. You’re not calculating. You’re just in a space where you have to perform and react and trust your instincts. Yes, you can use the engineering to prepare,” he says. “But when it comes down to it, you have to react to that ball because you have a split second to make a decision.” This, in essence, sums up my approach to life. For everything I know about my own heart and health, sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you just have to do. You just have to go with the flow. You just have to take the next pitch, and it may be a curve ball.

But, here’s my fear: That maybe up to this point I have been “just doing” for so long that I have forgotten to take stock of everything and enjoy life. That I’ve been living day to day, surviving day-to-day, that, with the exception of being at a ball game, I have forgotten to look up, sit back, and just enjoy life. But, in a way, I had to “just do” because of my health. Because for me, there was no other way to live. That each day is simply each day, like short stories in an anthology. They are all bound in one book, but they are not a cohesive collection. They are random stories that don’t thread together. At the same time, I don’t necessarily believe this to be true, but I don’t want to wake up one day without having a cohesive story written.

And somehow, Doug Glanville, through the game of baseball, is able to capture this feeling so succinctly and so perfectly. “It was so hard to see what the future held because to perform at this game, you have to be ‘in the mud,’ obsessed with the task at hand. Perspective is neutralized, stunted so that you can capture only the most relevant, time-sensitive data that will determine how to approach your opponent that day. Then you look up and realize your 20-year career has been a collection of days where you couldn’t see tomorrow.”

Fortunately, I am not a major league baseball player. To me, baseball is still a game that I can think about fondly and still romanticize. Fortunately, baseball can still be an escape for me, a time to sit back, relax, look out on to the field with the warm breeze on my skin, the skyline in the background. Fortunately, I am being afforded a chance to look up and see tomorrow.

Getty image by cosmin4000

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