On Oct. 5, after being booed at each at-bat in Cleveland, Roberto Alomar hit the winning home run for the Orioles, sending Baltimore to the American League Championship Series. After the game, Sandy Alomar Jr. went into the visitors clubhouse to see his little brother. Sandy Jr. hugged Roberto and touched his face. The second baseman cried.
Seventy-five miles away, in Poland, Ohio, Michael Hirschbeck was absorbed in the playoffs, which he watched as much as he could on television. His mind didn't wander. His eyes stayed bright. During the day, he played cards and went to school with his sisters. At night, he slept in the bedroom he used to share with his brother.
Four and a half years after his transplant, Michael still loves games of chance. Last Christmas he got his own Las Vegas-style slot machine. If players bet with their own quarters, they can keep the winnings, but if they bet with Michael's quarters, the jackpot is all his.
On Oct. 23, in the middle of the World Series, Michael celebrated his 10th birthday. When his grandmother, Mary Ina, asked him what he wanted, he said: "You know, Grandma, I really have all the things I want." So she made him a money tree. It was a white branch dangling with rolls of quarters and silver dollars and instant-win lottery tickets. He loved it.
But he didn't scratch off the tickets right away, his grandmother noticed. He tucked them in his wallet, to save for later.
The bone marrow transplant bought Michael time -- a lifetime, his parents pray. Every year Michael does better in school and has fewer seizures. Every year his parents get on their hands and knees and do more work at little John's gravesite. A few months ago, near the end of the baseball season, they planted a red maple and two weeping hemlocks.
"Everybody tells us that as time goes on, it gets easier," says Denise. "I don't find that it gets easier. Holidays are hard. Birthdays are hard." "Every day is hard," says John. "Every day."
Don't let a dead child be forgotten, says the newspaper column on the refrigerator in the Hirschbecks' sparkling kitchen. The kitchen is the center of life in their house, where breakfasts are gulped and spelling words are learned and medication is doled out along with the hugs. There are six seats at the table, and one of them will always be little John's. Maybe someday John and Denise will sit 8-year-old Erin and 5-year-old Megan down at that table and explain to them what it means to be ALD carriers -- that ALD could affect their health when they are older, that they could pass the disease on to their own children.
But John and Denise aren't worrying about that yet. They have enough to think about.
Michael is in the third grade now. He takes eight pills a day; in school, he watches the clock and quietly excuses himself at medication time. Because of his vision, he gets his classwork enlarged, and every day he leaves the room to see a tutor. He recently came home ecstatic, with his first perfect report card.
In private, there are times when Michael cries. "I miss John," he tells his mother. But the odds are, if you ever get to meet him, Michael will shake your hand and beam. When you say goodbye, he'll hug you long and hard. When he laughs, he'll make you laugh, too.
And if you ask, he might even give you a tour of his bedroom.
This is some of John's stuff. Some of it is mine, but some of it is his. Here's my piggy bank, and it's all filled with quarters. Here are my baseball cards. I love to collect baseball cards. I love anything baseball. Lofton and Belle are like my top cards, and baseball's like my top thing. Someday when I'm older I can show my kids I have these cards to look at. Some are to look at, and some are to put away. I got all my cards sorted. If I want to know if I have a certain card, a Roberto Alomar card, let's say, then I can look under the Orioles and then I could find it.... That bed should have been my brother's.... I have the biggest room, because it should have been my brother's too, but he got sick and he died.... Here's his picture.... John's in our family, but he's just not here. He's our angel.
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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