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Peanut allergy links Orioles reliever Brian Matusz with young fan

BaseballMajor League BaseballBrian MatuszBaltimore OriolesDining and Drinking

Orioles reliever Brian Matusz remembers laughing when he opened the piece of fan mail in Sarasota, Fla., last month.

He immediately showed the contents of the manila envelope to Orioles head athletic trainer Richie Bancells before informing manager Buck Showalter.

"I'm like, Richie, can you believe this?' Then I told Buck about it," Matusz said recently, chuckling. "That's probably the most unusual, interesting item any fan has ever asked me to sign. I thought it was hilarious."

Inside the envelope was a newspaper article detailing Matusz's frightening allergic reaction to a dinner prepared in peanut oil March 9 that sent the 27-year-old left-hander to the emergency room.

Also included in the package was a portable shot of epinephrine that allergy sufferers carry in case of a reaction. Although similar in content to the ubiquitous EpiPen, the Auvi-Q inside Matusz's envelope was instead square and flat like a thick credit card — easy for autographing — and included audio instructions for injecting it.

At first, he thought it was a concerned fan wanting Matusz, who has suffered from peanut allergies for years, to have the Auvi-Q in case he didn't already own one. Or maybe it was a weird collector who desired a particularly odd souvenir.

Then Matusz read the handwritten letter that was attached. It was from Wyatt Alford, an 8-year-old Braves fan from Atlanta who spent his spring break week with extended family in Sarasota, Fla., and had attended two Orioles exhibition games.

'It's pretty hard' with a peanut allergy

Wyatt loves baseball, made his league's all-star team last year and wants to be a major league pitcher or catcher. Wyatt also is hyperallergic to peanuts and most tree nuts. He has to be extra careful at restaurants. He can't have desserts unless he knows who made them and how they were prepared. He has to bring his own cupcakes to birthday parties.

"It's pretty hard, because I can't have most of the foods other kids can have," Wyatt said.

Then, this spring, the boy discovered a major league pitcher with the same affliction — one that, according to various sources, affects between 2 million to 3 million Americans and can be fatal if a reaction goes untreated.

Matusz has been allergic to peanuts since he was young, but he said it has gotten worse with each episode. When ordering at a restaurant, he usually asks about specific items.

But in March, Matusz didn't ask, and he said he dug into a dish of tuna tartare before almost immediately feeling his windpipe closing. He found out later that the meal, and the chips that accompanied it, were prepared in peanut oil.

"It was like a double whammy of peanuts," he said. "I wanted to eat it because it was so good. And then it went down, and my throat started closing, and I was like, 'Here we go.' "

Matusz said he injected himself with an EpiPen, took some Benadryl and then called his mother, who told him to go the hospital anyway. His mother was right. Matusz suffered a second, intense reaction while in the emergency room. Two days later, he was pitching again.

"Allergies are common, especially with a peanut allergy, it's really common," said Matusz, the Orioles' 2008 first-round pick who is now a key member of the club's bullpen. "So to see a fan notice that a professional athlete has an allergy, but is still able to overcome it — especially in the game of baseball, where peanuts are really prevalent — and to have a fan reach out because of it, that's just really cool."

'Wyatt now has this role model'

Wyatt saw Matusz pitch March 11, but he didn't realize their bond until the newspaper article the next day. On March 12, Wyatt, his mother, brother and sister went to the Orioles' game at Ed Smith Stadium and tried to get Matusz's attention, but he was never close enough.

After the game, outside the players' parking lot, the Alford family spoke to a clubhouse attendant who suggested that they write to Matusz. A member of the Orioles' spring training staff provided the family with envelopes and paper, and Wyatt sat on the curb and penned his letter.

It was his idea to include the Auvi-Q to be autographed — it was the link between the two.

Wyatt's mother, Sloane, gave her approval. She always carries two EpiPens or Auvi-Qs with her in case one doesn't work. The family has them planted all around their house and in their cars. Giving away one — even if it wouldn't be returned — wasn't a big deal.

That's when the wait began.

For the next few weeks, Wyatt checked the mail every day after school to see if Matusz had responded. Because this is the big-business world of professional baseball, the Alfords weren't sure Matusz had even received the letter. Even if he had, would he take the time to autograph the items?

The Alfords sure hoped that he would.

"Wyatt just worships this guy now, and every day he was running out to check the mailbox," Brad Alford said about his son. "After a couple weeks, I was getting a little bit nervous."

The package came in early April — the autographed Auvi-Q and the newspaper article, also signed.

Sloane Alford pulled out her camera phone in time to shoot a video of Wyatt tearing into the envelope. The 42-second video, which the family posted on YouTube, shows Wyatt in an Orioles hat, at one point jumping up and down, proclaiming that Matusz is his "favorite baseball player." His mom yells, "Big props to Brian Matusz, Yeah."

"I just wanted to weep with joy. Wyatt now has this role model," Sloane Alford said. "As a parent, I'm proud of Wyatt. But I'm also proud of Brian Matusz for doing the right thing. Mr. Matusz has a fan for life. He actually has a lot of fans for life now."

'Nothing to be embarrassed about'

Ever since Wyatt returned from Sarasota, he has worn his Orioles hat — even to bed.

On Wednesday, his school encouraged its students to wear their favorite team apparel. Instead of putting on his Braves gear, Wyatt wore his Orioles hat and shirt.

"I'm [now] an Orioles fan No. 1, and a Braves fan No. 2," Wyatt said.

Matusz said he is somewhat amazed how all of this has come together. He never imagined something good would come out of a scary trip to the emergency room during spring training.

"This is a great story. I'm sure this kid gets made fun of in school for having to carry an EpiPen around. I get made fun of day in and day out in the clubhouse for having a peanut allergy," Matusz said. "So I'm sure it pumps the kid up knowing that, hey, he's not the only one on this earth with an allergy. That it's nothing to be embarrassed about or to be made fun of.

"He can be like, 'So what? I have to take precautionary measures. I have an EpiPen. But, look, a major league baseball player has signed mine.' "

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

twitter.com/danconnollysun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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BaseballMajor League BaseballBrian MatuszBaltimore OriolesDining and Drinking
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