Sheltered behind a rack of jerseys in the corner of Orioles reliever Mike Wright Jr.’s locker is a wooden sign. There’s a phrase carved into the grain in cursive script: “Always stay humble and kind.”
Wright spends a lot of time next to his locker, and the sign, before games. For him, the words — the last line of each verse in a Tim McGraw song — punctuated the air at his wedding reception in December as he danced with his mother, Sherry. It was her favorite song.
“She was so good that day,” he said. “She did really, really well.”
Having a parent with dementia can be difficult on any child, but for Wright, it can weigh on him more from hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away. He spends most of the year with the Orioles, between spring training and the season.
Wright, 28, doesn’t hide the problems he’s dealt with for four years. With his sister, Tiffany, and wife, Madison, he started Wright State of Mind, a nonprofit intended to benefit those affected by dementia and their caregivers, as well as fund dementia research. The Orioles support their pitcher, setting up community booths on the concourse during the regular season and spring training to raise money. His charity has held memorabilia auctions and enlisted teammates to host autograph sessions — all in his name and his mother’s.
But to some extent, Wright disguises the burden he feels. Quick with a pun, he jokes around with other pitchers in the bullpen. He plays a kid’s game.
“It’s definitely hard. I know my mom would be really proud,” he said. “She’s always been my biggest fan growing up in different things.”
Baseball and family had so easily intertwined before. Though divorced, his mother and father, Dennis, 55, would drive together to Maryland to catch their son’s journey through the minors. Long before then, Sherry had been passionately invested in her son’s Little League career.
“It’s hard on him,” his father said. “To see her … it’s tough on him. She was so close with him.”
When Wright hit his first youth home run, he remembers Sherry sprinting to the outfield, beating two kid outfielders to recover the baseball for him.
“She was definitely that mom if I hit a ground ball to shortstop, she would sprint with me to first base on the outside of the fence,” Wright said. “She did that all the way to when I was 12. I never cared. I was never embarrassed by her. She was always super supportive of me.”
For the Orioles, the last home series in September 2017 marked the end of a fruitless, fifth-place season. But for the Wrights, it was emotional. Sherry was sitting in the ballpark, and it looked like it would have to be the last time.
“Now, she doesn’t really understand what’s happening. She can’t really deal with the crowds very well. … She was getting up, moving around,” Wright said. “She doesn’t have a sign that says, ‘I have dementia.’ She’ll get a lot of weird looks, people not knowing, understanding why an adult is acting like an 8-year-old, wandering around, touching random people she doesn't know.”
Wright’s sister Tiffany, Sherry’s primary caregiver, could not stand the idea that her brother would not be able to see their mother for an entire season, especially as her illness progressed. She planned a driving trip to see Wright for Mother’s Day weekend, and enlisted her grandmother and aunt for help.
But even the process of bringing Sherry to a game was no small feat. It’s a seven-hour drive from rural North Carolina to Baltimore, and it’s a long journey made ever more difficult because Sherry, at her current stage of dementia, speaks gibberish nonstop.
“I'm not going to lie, it was extremely difficult,” Tiffany said. “The entire seven hours in the car on the way there, she talked the entire time. I'm talking about literally the entire time. If me and my grandmother and my aunt were holding a conversation, we'd have to talk over her. ... But again, it's kinda like 'bada bing, bada bong. Tree tree tree.' It doesn't make any sense. That makes everybody more tired, including her.”
Sherry wouldn’t see her son pitch; she was too tired on Mother’s Day to stay the full game, and sat at the Wright State of Mind booth for game one of Saturday’s doubleheader. Between the two games, Tiffany led her mother downstairs to meet Wright for about 30 minutes.
“He was about 15 or 20 feet away, and I said, 'Mama, look, there's Michael,’ ” Tiffany said. “She really wasn’t paying any attention, so I said, 'Mama, look!' ”
Sherry looked up this time, and screamed “really, really loud.” She tore down the hall and hugged her son.
“Those seven hours in the car there and those seven hours in the car back and all the talking and the fact that we're really tired after — that moment makes it all worth it,” Tiffany said.
A long four years
Sherry still recognizes Wright. Forgetting is a symptom tied to Alzheimer’s disease, a different brain disease.
Even so, Wright said he hasn’t heard his mother say his name in a long time.
“My sister said she used it the other day,” he said. “It’s just hard for her to point at somebody and say, ‘Who is that?’ It's almost like she knows who it is, but she can’t reach into her mind and then say it.”
For all four seasons of Wright’s major league career, his mother has lived with dementia. His sister had taken her to doctor’s visits all year before seeing a neurologist in September 2014. With it being a new doctor, she wasn’t expecting a diagnosis yet. No one was.
Tiffany drove to tell her grandmother. Then she called Wright.
“I didn't want to distract my brother with all the bad news, and keep him up to date on every single thing, with him playing baseball, things that are important. It just makes it harder to focus,” Tiffany said. “But I felt that that was something that couldn't and shouldn’t wait.”
By March 2015, two months before Wright’s major league debut with the Orioles, doctors would narrow it down to a phrase: “behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia” (bvFTD).
After diagnosis, patients with that kind of dementia typically live 6½ to seven years, according to The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration. Sherry is 55.
Before the diagnosis, Wright thought his mother might just be stressed.
“You know, she’s balanced checkbooks her whole life and she was having trouble doing that,” he said. “She was getting lost going to work, even though she’s worked at the same place for 10 years,” he said. “She was a CNA (certified nursing assistant) hospice nurse, so she actually took care of people with dementia.”
However, Wright said he really started to believe something was wrong with his mother when a dog, Petey, came into the picture.
A fastidiously clean woman who vacuumed and dusted “five times a day,” according to Wright, Sherry was the kind of parent who did not allow animals in her home as Wright was growing up, to his memory. When his great-grandparents had smuggled a dog to Wright as a kid, he tried to hide the pup in the van ride home until an ill-timed bark gave them away. His mother permitted the animal, Sugar, to stay in the yard, but only because his great-grandparents refused to take her back.
But just before Sherry’s diagnosis, Tiffany said a puppy ran down the road and, fleas and all, cuddled Sherry while she “loved on him” and brought him home.
“I wouldn’t say it was the first sign, but it was like for sure a sign that she let a dog in her house that she had changed a little bit,” Wright said.
A different kind of reliever
In June, Wright's career was blooming. He had a 2.30 ERA in 15 2/3 innings that month, walking six and striking out nine. Back in North Carolina, though, his sister gave up her full-time job as an occupational therapist assistant to take on her mother’s care.
“She needed someone there 24-7 because the doctor suggested she could no longer drive or even cook,” Wright said. “A lot of times, people don’t even realize that they’re cooking, forget that they’re cooking, and their house catches on fire.”
Tiffany still works on-call so she won’t lose her license, and is also president of Wright State of Mind while running a small business, Independent Color Street Stylist. She lays out medication. She handles doctor’s visits. She deals with her mother’s new behaviors, which seem to belong to a stranger.
That weighs on Wright, knowing his 31-year-old sister’s life has been absorbed by this, while he lives out a life most baseball players dream of. As cofounder of Wright State of Mind, he coordinates his nonprofit with his sister. He helps with care when he can. He sends money home.
“It's important that I don’t lose my sister in the process also. She’s still young, she still has a lot of life left, but it’s stressful constantly having to take care of someone,” Wright said. “I try to go there and relieve a little bit of the pressure.”
He went home during the All-Star break. He’ll spend portions of the offseason, as he has in the past, at his mother’s house in Scotland County, N.C., about 90 miles from Charlotte — and, according to Wright, a 30-minute drive from the closest weight-lifting facility.
He bought a plastic shed to put in his mother's backyard and filled it with a squat rack and row machine to make sure he wasn’t arriving at spring training with weakened arms. But going solo in rural North Carolina has significant drawbacks.
“I don’t get to go to the big city and work out with other baseball players very often; I’m in the middle of nowhere,” Wright said. “No one’s around me. It’s actually really hard to find a catch partner.”
After the Orioles dealt away the core of their bullpen — Zach Britton, Brad Brach and Darren O’Day — at the end of July, Wright’s stock as a reliever rose. He has a chance to become a late-inning option next year.
But without a major league team in the North Carolina area, the regular-season lifestyle keeps Wright away from his mother more often than he’d like. He does his best to get updates on her from his sister and holds mementos to keep them tied together.
“I have her card in my locker, I see it every day,” he said. “A sign that my mom and my sister got me because that was one of my mom’s favorite songs. When my mom was first getting dementia — even now — music was a big thing because she can’t sing all the words. But there’s certain songs that make her happy. That was our first dance song.”
The sign currently in Wright’s locker was the second one they got him. His mother and sister had made the first one to commemorate Wright making the team out of spring training for the first time in 2016. After Wright’s wedding, Tiffany found another one on the craft marketplace Etsy, and sent it.
“I felt like, in terms of songs, this would definitely be something that if my mama could tell my brother that he made it, to just remind him 'Always stay humble and kind,' ” Tiffany said.