Off Base
It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

September 22, 2010, 7:37 p.m. Tommy Lasorda brought his team to play. Los Angeles vs. San Francisco at the Ravine. September 22, 1990. Tommy's 63rd birthday.

Receiving a kidney transplant that beautiful Saturday, a birthday for me as well. New life. A brand new life.

The Dodgers had a little streak going. Zero World Series appearances in 23 months. Undaunted, L.A. sent Dennis Cook to the mound to face the Giants and Mike LaCoss.

At the start of play, Cincinnati's Reds, at 84-66, led the National League West by 3 ½ games, with the Padres up next for a doubleheader. Dodgers in second at 84-70.

My first biopsy at UCLA in 1964 (L.A. finished sixth in a ten-team league that year) turned up nothing, which in retrospect was a blessing. I'd return to the same building for the transplant 36 years later, with far better results.

I started to lose my hearing at age 13, a symptom of what we would find out later was a kidney disease called Alport's Syndrome. Problems with my vision a few years after; also a symptom.

The signs were there but somehow the doctors missed them. Another blessing, as I went on with my life, which despite a little more illness than I would've liked, was pretty much normal.

A simple blood pressure test in my mid-twenties led to another biopsy and a diagnosis. The third symptom of Alport's – kidney failure – often around age 30, was coming. And I knew it was coming.

I kept up a fighting spirit, thinking I'd be the one guy to beat the thing, but couldn’t get out of bed on Saturday, October 14, 1989, as the World Series began in Oakland. Dave Stewart blanked the Giants and Scott Garrelts (Series Game One starter Scott Garrelts?!) 5-0. I'd slept through the entire game, and couldn’t remember another time I'd missed a World Series opener.

I toughed out the weekend at home, holding out hope that what I was experiencing was not end-stage renal failure, but on doctor's orders, admitted myself to the hospital on Monday.

The next day, October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake stopped the World Series. Already thinking my life was over – and wrongly, I might add – I'd turn on the TV only to find devastation on every channel.

But that's it for nightmare stuff here. While there have been struggles, sure, what follows is all positive. This is not a sob story, OK? Transplants are a gift of life, OK? This in not about kidney failure, OK? It's about kidney success. Kidney Success.

There's a great deal of courage and love in evidence, and the families who give the go-ahead amidst such personal sadness, who say, "yes, put those organs to good use," are heroes. And it happens every day in this country. It needs to happen more perhaps, but it happens every day in this country. The transplant community is grateful. My family is grateful. I am grateful, believe me.

I started dialysis, got out of the hospital, did what the doctors told me, and stayed in shape. Wore a beeper, geared up for the big day down the road, and tried to look forward rather than back. For the most part, I was able to.

That big day down the road started with breakfast with my friend Richard, at Polly's in Santa Monica, across the street from Zucky's. September 22, 1990, 9:00 a.m.

I'd prepared a list of people for Richard to notify. My support system. And I was not afraid, particularly. What I was was ready. Yeah, Don Mattingly said he was ready just the other day, but what does he know? Wait, don't answer that. Please don't answer that. I was ready.

The page came before even as much as a sip of coffee, which is good, because they want your stomach empty. An 825 prefix. UCLA. Holy, bleeping shit. Let's go.

Though I'm a baseball man through and through, there was something about the whole thing that had me thinking football. Dialysis was an experience kind of like sitting on the sidelines, you know, something about which I had no control, as people did things to me. I just kind of sat there. Not kind of. I sat there.

I'd thought for awhile that when the call came, I'd have some say in the matter, some measure of direction over what was to occur next. I thought, "just gimme the ball, and let me run with it. Stand clear and watch me run."

You need a team to make it happen, and UCLA had a great one at the time (no jokes about the Rick Neuheisel's Bruins here please). The best.

Surgery in the afternoon a rousing success. "Special K," the name for the kidney, provided by my sister Analee, was chugging from the start. Forget Day One; we're talking almost literally Minute One. I was peeing up a storm, and in case you don't know, pee is good. Pee equals good. Good pee.

Kirk Gibson, playing center that day, went two for three, with a double and an RBI. Juan Samuel's three hits included a homer, and Cook earned the 6-3 win. The Dodgers had accomplished what they needed to.

Down south, unfortunately but all too predictably, the Pads also did what they needed to do, rolling over twice to Cincy, 6-4 and 9-5. Mariano Duncan went 5-8 in the two games, with Rob Dibble beating Greg Harris in the first game, and Tom Browning getting the win over Atlee Hammaker in the nightcap.

Hammaker (of Fred Lynn All-Star Game grand slam fame) actually pitched pretty well, giving up three runs in six innings, but Eric Show followed by allowing six in two thirds. So the Dodgers ended the day four games back, instead of what might have been as few as two, with ten to play, and their season effectively over.

I wake up in intensive care, not a care in the world because I knew for sure that that kidney was going to be working. There simply was no question in my mind. I just knew.

All I wanted was the baseball scores, and the way I remember it, my first question was about the doubleheader in San Diego, not about the success of the transplant. Bleeping Padres.

What I recall as a highlight of the experience was this one particular nurse in the ICU. Babe. Florence Nightengale's way prettier and more angelic (nay, Dodgerelic) younger sister. A site for sore organs, if ever there was one.

Conveniently, as part of the surgical prep, I'd had a catheter parked, well, you-know-where, to capture the glorious pee I mentioned earlier. Ms. Nightengale, God bless her (I remember her full name, but the spelling is problematic and she might be listening, so I'll save that for another day) kept lifting up the blanket to check out my, uh, shall we say, plumbing.

This was not the anesthesia talking. I remember distinctly, and I watched carefully to see if any of the other nurses – both male and female – made the same medical move a part of their routine. They didn't.

I'll leave the rest of that particular chapter to you. If, in your imagination, I, unlike the 1990 San Diego Padres (or the 2010, for that matter), score, then that's just great. If not, that's fine too.

I had enough to celebrate, and was out of the hospital after the minimum stay recommended at the time, which was six days. Again, I did everything the doctors and nurses told me, and I let my family take care of me.

Stronger with each passing day that fall, I listened to Bob Seger's "Like a Rock" while walking the neighborhood. I was able to walk a little easier with time, and a little further.

There was something about the carrying a part of someone who'd passed along with me as I started a new life, and in a way being better than I ever was to begin with, and about how lucky I must have been for the set of circumstances to come together to make it all happen for me – for me. Just the notion of that phrase, "for me." Best word to describe the experience, and I've thought about this a lot, is exhilarating.

With my friends Brett and Rick visiting, I watched the Reds beat the Bucs in the NLCS. Barry Bonds hitting.167, with three knocks, all singles.

Cincy swept Tony LaRussa's so-called "Bash Brothers" of Oakland, and I remember feeling a bit of kinship with Eric Davis, who lacerated a kidney diving for a ball in Game Four.

I started focusing on the one-day-a-time thing, and what a great concept that is. A day, a week, a month, a year, and then 20 of those.

If, as you read this, you're wondering about the possibility of a call to action coming, the answer is yes. But no one's asking you to send money, and I'm not asking you for your organs. Hang onto those things. Take them to as many ballgames as you can; seatbelts fastened please.

But also consider, please, that carrying a donor card is great, but family members still have to sign off, and it makes an agonizing decision that much more difficult if they haven't talked to you about it. So please, talk to your loved ones if you've come to grips with the concept. If you haven't, maybe this is a good time to think about it some.

They say there are two times when you are to be congratulated entering a hospital. One is when you're having a baby. The other is when you're having a transplant operation.

There was a sense of accomplishment that day, September 22, 1990, and I felt the congratulations, even when it was unspoken. It just seemed like there were smiles all around.

I felt a responsibility to be a success story, to keep that kidney-shaped Special K thingee flourishing inside me, for a very long time.

Twenty years is a very long time. Not every organ transplant recipient gets 20 years, so I ought to celebrate, no? How would anyone know if I didn't announce it, right? And this seemed like the place to do so. In my beloved Off Base column.

I'm grateful for the baseball connection, that it's Tommy Lasorda's birthday, and mine, together. Better than one day prior or one day later, it seems to me.

So, if I may, let me close by suggesting we each have our assignments. You guys, give some thought to the organ donation idea, and try to come to terms with how you feel. Then share your thinking with your families.

And me, well, I'm going to redouble my efforts, and strive for 21 years. Then another, and another. We'll see you at 25, in 2015, OK?

And remember, glove conquers all.

 

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