Commentary

Sick children show superstars' humanity

Guillen, Piniella put families first in clubhouse

Originally Published: July 10, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

When Ryan Dempster told the world about his infant daughter Riley's health crisis, he did more than inform people about DiGeorge Syndrome.

"He let people understand that we're all human beings," said White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez.

Last January, Ramirez, a father of three, went through a medical emergency with his 7-month-old son, who stopped breathing after a feeding.

"He was very sick, almost to the point of not making it, and at that point you don't think about anything else," Ramirez said through an interpreter. "I can kind of relate to what Ryan was going through."

So, too, can other players who go through personal travails that can knock their careers off track. To share that private side, however, is not always an easy decision.

[+] EnlargeRyan Dempster
Jason Wise/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesCubs pitcher Ryan Dempster went public with his daughter's condition, but the decision to do so wasn't easy.

Dempster said the choice to publicly reveal the news about his daughter's rare congenital condition, which prevents her from properly swallowing and digesting food and kept her hospitalized for nearly the first three months of her life, was difficult because he did not want fans to think he was looking for their sympathy.

"I didn't want it to be about me, 'Oh, poor me,' because the pain of what I'm going through pales in comparison to what she's going through," he said.

"But it takes a huge weight off my chest because there are frustrating days out there. Especially in April, I'd get really frustrated, especially when times got tough, I'd take it all out at once. I try to separate the two. I try to go out there and try to do my job. I don't really think about it out there, but if I have the bases are loaded or some other situation, I think, 'This is not really that big of a situation' and it helps sometimes."

Dempster told the story of a teammate in Atlanta, Mike Redmond, who was going through a family tragedy when the two were playing for the Braves.

"It was my last start of the year and [during] the whole game, there were times when [Redmond] would come in between innings and he wouldn't take his mask off," Dempster said. "He had a great game but he was real quiet. And then one time he took his mask off and I could see he was crying. After the game I asked if everything was all right and he said he had found out the night before that his dad had terminal stomach cancer. That's your dad. Most people would take a week off work and go home to your family. And here, not only are you supposed to come to work but you're supposed to do your job and do it well.

"That's the reality. And some people struggle with it and some people, like Brett Favre, finds out his dad died and goes out on 'Monday Night Football' and has one of the best games of his career. Everybody handles it differently."

Jim Thome had to pause to compose himself as he described trying to perform on the baseball field while his mother was losing her battle with cancer. He was with the Philadelphia Phillies at the time; he had had elbow surgery that year and was struggling in more ways than one.

"The toughest part was knowing there was nothing I could do and every day just feeling so badly inside," he recalled. "I'm not saying things like that are why players perform badly, but it does say why we're not perfect.

"We're all gifted physically to be here, and sometimes the mental part of the game is overlooked. If your mind isn't right, it can be very difficult."

Detroit Tigers shortstop Adam Everett said when his daughter was diagnosed with spina bifida in 2005 when she 8 eight months old, and required back surgery to remove a tumor, it was very difficult to think about baseball and his performance suffered.

"A lot goes on with our lives that people don't realize," he said. "People think because we make millions of dollars that our lives are perfect and it doesn't work that way. I went through what [Dempster] is going through. And I guarantee he would forfeit his contract for his daughter to be healthy."

Fans did not initially know what Everett was going through and at the time one writer wrote in a column, "What's going on with this guy? Get him out of there," Everett recalled. "Afterward," he said, "you don't get apologies."

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has one philosophy when it comes to his players' personal matters.

"In my clubhouse, family is first, baseball is last, especially when kids are involved," said Guillen. "You talk about divorce and you got thrown out because you're getting divorced, you're weak. You got a divorce for a reason and if you involve divorce with baseball, you're weak. But you talk about your own kid, that's a problem. You can ask any of my players who ever played for me and it's kids first, then the rest.

"Maybe some fans think this is an excuse. They think the players want people to feel sorry for them. If you perform poorly, they don't give a [damn] why. People don't look at what happened to Derrek. I feel for him. And Ryan Dempster."

[+] EnlargeDerrek Lee
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe decision by Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee to go public with his daughter's ailment was a difficult one for his family, but they felt they could help more if they spoke out.

In September of 2006, Lee's 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Leber's congenital amaurosis, a rare genetic disease that causes the loss of vision. The family has since learned that she will maintain the vision she has and they have become that much more determined, through the foundation, Project 3000, to raise awareness and funds to eradicate the disease.

" We felt like we could help more by going public," Lee said. "It was a hard decision for us because we like to keep our privacy. We just felt like we could help other families by taking it public. [Dempster] did it to bring awareness [to DiGeorge Syndrome] ... That was his main concern."

Cubs management was understanding of Dempster's situation, making concessions to allow the pitcher, currently on the DL with a broken toe, to be with his family as much as possible between starts. But even so, Lee said sometimes that may not be enough.

"I know in my situation the team was very supportive, but I think there comes a point where, whether they support you or not, you have to do what you have to do," Lee said. "That's one of the things I told Ryan. I said, 'Your family comes first. If you can't be here, don't be here.' He had great support also, which is nice."

When Cubs manager Lou Piniella was a player, the mentality was quite a bit different, he said.

"When I played, the first two kids I had, I was there playing," he said. "The last one, I was able to go to the hospital and missed that day, but that was it. It has changed. But what's more important than your family? There is nothing more important. Games, yeah, they're important but not quite as important and we treat it that way.

"We've done that all the time here. This is a very tough sport to play; it's every day and when you have family issues, take care of those first and primary and you come out here to the ballpark and you're more relaxed, your mind is more at ease and you can perform better."

Dempster's decision to speak publicly about his family's situation drew support in the White Sox clubhouse.

"The media was going to find out," said Ramirez, "and for him to be open about it, that was the right thing to do because you need to let people know what you're going through so they can understand that everyone is a human being."

Thome agreed.

"I commend Ryan for what he did because sometimes it's tough to open up and be honest and let people know your feelings. Some people in this game think that's a sign of weakness but it certainly is not."

In May, Guillen left his team to travel home to Venezuela to be with his terminally ill father-in-law, who subsequently passed away. As a Sox player, he also traveled home in April of 1995 to be with the family of his close friend, former major leaguer Gus Polidor, who was killed in a robbery attempt.

"He was my friend, he was murdered and I had to get over that," Guillen said. "But when you have a kid, a young kid is going through whatever [Riley Dempster] is going through, the only thing in life you have is your kids. As soon as you leave this game, they'll remember you when you die and if you ever go to the Hall of Fame. When you talk about your kids, that's the only things is really yours. If one of my kids gets sick, [screw] baseball, I'll go be with my kids."

Cubs pitcher Randy Wells is single without children but says he feels for what Dempster has gone through.

"It's hard enough to play this game and to stare down major league batters when you're not going through something like that," Wells said. "I think people don't understand that we have loved ones get sick and pass away. We're held up to such a high standard. I understand they pay their hard-earned money for our performance. But to go through the anxiety of a child getting treatment? Say I was a plumber and I had personal issues, I could take days off. We can't really do that.

"Still, this is what we signed up for. And ultimately, no one is going to be sorry for us when we give up runs."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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