Occasionally, we'll select stories - old and new, sports and otherwise, relevant and merely sublime - that we urge you to read for one reason or another. Today: a portrait of an umpire battling to save his sons from a rare disease.
"The Umpire's Sons," by Lisa Pollak, (The Baltimore Sun, Dec. 12, 1996)
The story follows John Hirshbeck, an MLB umpire who was once on the receiving end of new Hall of Fame inductee Roberto Alomar's expectorate, as he struggles with the strange genetic disease that threatens the lives of his sons.
In September, Michael was in a Minneapolis hotel room, getting ready to go to a baseball game with his dad, when a seizure hit him. He felt the familiar dizziness before the left side of his body stiffened. His eyes went blank. The phone rang, but Michael, sprawled in a chair, didn't move.
"Michael, would you get the phone for Dad?" John Hirschbeck called from the bathroom.
But there was no answer.
The umpire ran to Michael's side, and in the dazed empty eyes he saw it again: The reason he carried a pager everywhere he went. The reason a phone ringing during the school day could make him jump. The reason a blank stare at the dinner table induced panic — even though the doctors said Michael had been steadily improving for several years. In Michael's eyes, John Hirschbeck saw the question, and he saw the answer:
We don't know.
Hirschbeck tucked Michael in bed. The seizures usually passed quickly, but they left Michael shaky and exhausted. A mile away, at the Metrodome, workers were preparing the field. Seattle was playing Minnesota, a Sunday afternoon game, and Hirschbeck was scheduled to work the plate. He had promised himself: On the field, it wouldn't get to him.
For a while, Hirschbeck watched Michael sleep. Then, after an hour or so, he carried his son to the ballpark. Michael was still too tired from the seizure to watch the game, so a bed was fashioned from towels and blankets on the carpeted floor of the umpires' room. While his father worked, Michael slept. The clubhouse manager woke him up once for medication, but he drifted off again. Jamie Moyer, a Mariners pitcher who wasn't working that day, looked in on Michael four or five times and flashed Hirschbeck the thumbs-up sign from the dugout between innings.
At one point, Ken Griffey Jr. came up to bat for the Mariners. Before he stepped in the box, he spoke to the umpire.
I just saw Michael, and he's still sleeping, Griffey said. He's fine.
Thanks, said Hirschbeck, crouching down for the next pitch.
"The Umpire's Sons," by Lisa Pollak. [The Baltimore Sun]