IT WOULD have been so easy to make the wrong decision. The Orioles were getting ready to return home from St. Petersburg, Fla., on Thursday night, and longtime bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks just didn't feel right.
It would have been so easy to put him on the airplane and tell him to check with his physician Friday morning. It was only a two-hour flight, after all, and everybody was in a hurry to get home.
Except in the case of a stroke, the first three hours can be the difference between life and death, and something about the symptoms that Hendricks described prompted Orioles trainer Richie Bancells to make one of the most important decisions of his career.
"What he described, numbness in the side of his face and the fact that he was slurring his words, those pretty much are the signs of a stroke," Bancells said yesterday. "Something was not right. Then it was a simple matter of getting on the plane or not getting on the plane."
Hendricks wanted to get on the plane, but Bancells told manager Lee Mazzilli he and Elrod would be going to the hospital, instead.
There is a drug - a miracle drug, really - that can dynamically diminish the long-term impact of a stroke, but only if it is administered within the first few hours after onset. Hendricks got it in time, but he probably would not have if he had gotten on the plane and tried to make it home.
"I talked to [Hendricks' wife] Merle," said vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan, "and she kept saying over and over that Richie saved his life."
Flanagan knows how important those three hours can be, because he has seen the unfortunate other side.
"I've known cases, even a family member who had that happen," he said. "It was not found for six hours, and now that person is wheelchair-bound and handicapped."
Hendricks is improving, though more tests have to be performed today before a decision is made on when he can return to Baltimore. The fact that he is tentatively scheduled to come home tomorrow is another sign that Bancells' quick thinking made a huge difference.
"I guess I've always had the fear that something might happen on an airplane, which is not the best place to be when something happens," Bancells said. "You just react and do what you're trained to do ... and get it to the next level of medical attention."
Sounds simple enough, but it isn't. Doing your job right isn't always a guarantee of the right outcome, as Bancells and assistant trainer Brian Ebel learned a couple of years ago in Fort Lauderdale.
When Steve Bechler collapsed after suffering heatstroke, they did everything by the book, but the young pitcher died the next day - and you wouldn't be human if you didn't carry that kind of thing around with you for a while.
It didn't help that the company that produced the ephedra-based diet supplement that contributed to Bechler's death filed a countersuit against the Orioles and tried to place the blame on the Orioles' medical staff, but everyone knew Bancells and Ebel did everything they could.
"We sent them a note of appreciation for their work on the Bechler case," Flanagan said, "and now he [Bancells] is in line for another one."
If the job doesn't seem all that complicated, that's because you probably don't have any idea what goes into being a certified athletic trainer. It isn't just icepacks and ankle sprains. It's offseason seminars and continuing education classes and - maybe most important - the ability to think on your feet.
Bancells and Ebel have to stay up to speed on the treatment of a wide array of possible injuries and illnesses, while maintaining enough basic medical knowledge to react correctly to just about any situation.
Bancells may never see another stroke, but when he saw the signs of one Thursday night, he acted decisively, and Hendricks' quality of life will be much better as a result.
"Richie's personal attention was absolutely incredible," said Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss. "He is truly one of the finest trainers in all of professional sports."