SARASOTA, Fla. — Just before Wednesday's workout began at the Ed Smith Stadium Complex, Orioles manager Buck Showalter called for 10-year-old Johnny Oates II and his younger brother Jackson to hop the fence and join the team on the field.
The siblings quickly sprinted to Showalter, who introduced them to the players circling around, most of them starters.
That's when Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts spoke up.
“Let's show them what we have in common,” Roberts said with a smile before both he and Johnny lifted their shirts to reveal large vertical scars along the middle of their chests.
Johnny — the grandson of Johnny Oates, who managed the Orioles from 1991 to 1994 — underwent life-saving open-heart surgery a week before Christmas.
Roberts also had open-heart surgery as a child. He was 9 months old when a case of pneumonia led to the discovery that he had a hole in his heart. He was diagnosed with atrial septal defect and doctors put off surgery hoping his heart would heal, but Roberts needed open-heart surgery when he was 5, after the hole grew to the size of a quarter.
Johnny's heart problems came more suddenly. He showed no signs of problems and spent nearly every spare moment playing sports — football, baseball and basketball among them.
He had a heart murmur since birth, but after an annual checkup, doctors wanted to take additional tests. An MRI revealed that Johnny had an anomalous left coronary artery from the pulmonary artery or ALCAPA, a rare heart defect in which the arteries aren't connected correctly for the flow of blood.
The condition is often fatal if not corrected in the first days of life, but Johnny had mysteriously developed extra arteries that allowed his heart to work symptom-free for 10 years.
“That being said, what he had was one of the things you hear about when a 16-, 18-year-old kid has a massive heart attack on the field and dies,” said his father, Andy. “No one would have ever known why or never know, it just happens. … The way the doctor explained it, when his arteries formed, is zigged instead of zagged.”
Surgery was a must. Johnny worried whether he'd be able to play sports again. Andy was jarred by the news. The oldest of his four kids had been the picture of health.
“So how do you tell your child that [surgery] is going to make him better when he seems fine?” Andy said.
Johnny, who lives with his family in Richmond, Va., had successful surgery at the University of Virginia Heart Center. The day before he was released, Andy received a call from Showalter offering his well wishes and an invitation to visit Baltimore.
Showalter holds the Oates family dear to his own heart. Johnny Oates managed Showalter when he was a New York Yankees farmhand in the early 1980s. Like most of the baseball world, he was devastated when Oates died of a brain tumor in 2004. When Showalter took the Orioles' managerial job, he chose to wear Oates' No. 26 as a tribute, but not before he received the blessing of Oates' wife, Gloria, and his family.
“He did everything with a pure heart,” Showalter said of Oates. “When he told you something, you knew he felt from his years of experience it was something that he needed to impart to you. I was like a sponge around John, and he cared so much, almost to a fault.”
So reaching out to Oates' grandson seemed natural. Two days after Showalter's call Johnny was back at home but couldn't do much. A young boy needed something to cheer him up. That's when Roberts called and shared the story of having open-heart surgery.
“He'd been kind of moping around and then this huge smile comes across his face,” Andy said of Roberts' call.
“I just tried to encourage him with the fact that even 30 years ago when I had mine, it wasn't too, too long until I was able to get back out there and start doing some stuff,” Roberts, 35, said. “There was a time period where I couldn't do everything I wanted to, but that obviously the long-term gain is so much better than unfortunately the short-term pain. I just tried to encourage him with that.”
Johnny's recovery was quick. Just four weeks after the surgery he was fielding ground balls. In six weeks, he was given clearance to play baseball again. He hasn't been cleared to play football yet, but he has a clean bill of health. He takes a baby aspirin every day and gets a checkup every six months.
“I think on Christmas morning, Johnny was saying this was the worst Christmas ever,” Andy said. “But I told him that it's the best Christmas ever. We never could have realized what was wrong and we could have had a catastrophe on our hands down the road.”
As his Johnny and Jackson visited the Ed Smith complex, clutching bags of sunflower seeds, Andy reminded them of the opportunity they had — that few kids their age are allowed this type of access to a major league team.
Andy remembers his father's final game as manager of the Orioles, sitting in the dugout of Camden Yards during a rain delay on the final night of the strike-shortened 1994 season.
“Coming back here with my kids, it kind of reminds you that you can take things for granted sometimes,” Andy said.
Showalter has remained a close friend to the Oates family.
"To have them here, I've got to tell you, 10 times today I looked over at Andy and I thought it was Johnny," Showalter said. "And to look at Johnny [II] and Jackson, gosh, they all have the same body language and facial expressions."
Showalter invited Johnny and Jackson to throw out the first pitch before Friday's home Grapefruit League home game against the Boston Red Sox at Ed Smith Stadium.
"I told them that whoever throws out that first pitch has to sing the National Anthem," Showalter joked. "That really backed them off."
As for Roberts, he remembers being reluctant allowing people to see his surgery scar as a kid. But on Wednesday, when he and Johnny showed their scars in unison, there was no shame.
"It creates somewhat of a common bond and it helps to reduce some of your inhibitions and your natural struggles with it, because he is different than some of the kids he's around," Roberts said. "I can remember going to the pool when I was young and just getting stared at and people looking at you, and it can be something you can be self-conscious of. And hopefully that was a moment when he thought that he was kind of cool. There's nothing wrong with being a little different."
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