Was Michael going to be OK? For the Hirschbecks, the answer was always the same:
We don't know.
But the umpire promised himself: On the field, it wouldn't get to him. On the field, no one would know. The promise was tested during the 1995 World Series, Hirschbeck's first World Series in 13 years as a major league umpire.
Three years had passed since Michael's transplant. By October of 1995, Michael was taking high doses of powerful anti-seizure medication -- and now there were other problems. The boy who loved to eat was getting skinny and had no appetite. He was increasingly agitated, confused and disoriented. Normally polite, he stared blankly at family friends. The night his father worked the plate in the fourth game of the World Series -- a series that pitted Cleveland, Michael's favorite team, against Atlanta -- Michael didn't even seem to care. He stayed in the hotel in Cleveland with his grandmother while his mother went to the game. Michael, missing a baseball game, let alone a World Series game that his dad was working? Never in a million years. It was like his whole person just disappeared.
Denise didn't want John to be alarmed; these were the biggest games of his life, she knew. But, of course, he saw what was happening. "Let's just get through the Series," he told her. "Then we'll be home."
He concentrated. He focused. One pitch at a time, he got through it. Atlanta beat Cleveland in six games. And Michael's symptoms turned out to be a reaction to the powerful seizure drugs. The worries didn't end -- but the crisis did.
This past baseball season was the umpire's fourth since little John died. Every day off, he went to the cemetery in Poland. Every game day, he carried a pager, in case Michael got sick. On special occasions, he took Michael to his games. "I'm going out on the road," Michael would tell Patti Preston, who'd been little John's tutor and was now his.
On the road, Michael came into his own. He was the brown-eyed charmer who beat the umpires at gin and helped them prepare the baseballs by rubbing them with mud before games. He shook hands with strangers and chatted with Kirby Puckett and politely told umpires "good game" after they worked. His father always got him seats behind the screen, where no foul ball could hurt him. Michael watched the games, but he also watched his father -- the umpire with silver initials on the back of his navy hat. JDH.
John Drew Hirschbeck.
When Michael went on the road, his brother did, too.
Back in the game
After the transplant, it was a while before Michael felt well enough to play with other kids again. When he did, the first person he thought of was his brother's best friend.
"Can I call Johnny?" he asked Denise.
Johnny Ramson knew Michael had the same disease that killed his brother. Johnny's mother had told him that a bone marrow transplant was going to save Michael's life. Even so, Johnny kept an eye out for Michael. Sometimes, while they were playing, he told Michael to slow down and take it easy.
Playing with Johnny helped Michael go on with life. Playing baseball did, too. The doctors warned that sports might be difficult for Michael -- ALD had left him with blind spots in his vision, and he was prone to overheating and seizures. But how could Michael not play Pee-Wee baseball? He loved it so much that he'd joined his big brother's team a year early, at age 5.
After little John died, John Hirschbeck devised a plan to make sure Michael -- who'd already lost so much -- wouldn't lose baseball. John would anonymously sponsor Michael's Pee-Wee team and pick his own coaches, dads who would understand Michael's weaknesses and encourage him.
Dads who would understand the double meaning of the team's name: John Deere.
Playing baseball, Michael was just like any other kid. He was a strong boy, a right-handed pull hitter, a team cheerleader who occasionally had to be told to stop singing "We will, we will, rock you" while his team was losing. Other boys got distracted during games -- digging in the dirt or playing with a bug. But Michael's attention never strayed.
The effects of his disease meant that Michael sometimes misjudged balls in the field, and he couldn't always make contact at the plate. A few times, he had a seizure the night before a game. But the next day, he'd come downstairs with his uniform on, ready to play.
Denise: "I can picture him right now. He goes running up to the plate. He's got that little smile and he gets in his stance and he's so excited, beaming from ear to ear."
The Umpire's Sons
How do you survive the death of a child? How do you go on knowing another child shares the same genetic disease? When you've traveled umpire John Hirschbeck's journey, being spit upon is just a footnote.
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