Baseball Has Everything To Do With Parkinson’s

I attended my first baseball game on May 24, 1971. During the middle of the fifth inning there was a message on the Dodger Stadium scoreboard – Happy 8th Birthday Kevin Woo.

Holy cow.

I got to go to a baseball game with my dad, stay out late on a school night and eat junk food. I’ve been a Dodgers fan ever since.

When I graduated from college, I was lucky enough to land a position with the Dodgers. I got the chance to work in sales and marketing which meant that every night I was on the field for pre-game activities.

There’s a famous story about Marilyn Monroe saying to her husband, Joe Dimaggio, “You have no idea what it’s like to have 60,000 people cheer for you.”

“Yes I do,” he replied.

I know what it’s like to be on the field when 56,000 fans go crazy. The earth shakes. I know what it’s like to stand on the same pitching mound where Sandy Koufax threw a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs in 1965.

That’s why I love baseball.

One night, in May 1988, I was in the Dodger dugout watching the Los Angeles Lakers play the Detroit Pistons in the NBA finals. Kirk Gibson, the Dodgers right fielder grabbed my shoulders and asked, “Who’s winning?”

If there was one rule you learned early in your Dodgers career it was: don’t talk to Kirk before a game.

I told Gibson that Detroit was leading the Lakers at halftime. We stood by the bat rack chit chatting about his wife, kids and the rumor that he wasn’t to be spoken to before a game.

“You didn’t talk to me. I talked to you which is ok.”

Kirk personified courage and desire. In that year he played with a groin muscle that had nearly torn away from the bone. In game one of the 1988 World Series Kirk hit one of the most historic home runs ever.

Twenty seven years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. When I heard the news I wanted to throw up. How could the fiercest competitor I’ve ever known have Parkinson’s?

A year later I was diagnosed. From my DX date until this past summer I didn’t go to a single baseball game. I was afraid. This summer I convinced my three daughters to go see the Oakland A’s vs. Seattle Mariners. I don’t think they were terribly enthused to go but they faked their indifference well.

About a week before the game I started to panic – where are our seats in relation to the aisle? What if I have to take a potty break and I can’t walk sideways to get out of the row? What if someone in our row orders coffee and I have to pass it down? Legitimate questions all.

My oldest daughter sensed my anxiety and did some research. She found that there were 17 seats in our row. We would be smack in the middle. She also discovered that there are handrails in the aisle to help with stability. She asked how I’d be after sitting for a few hours. “Wobbly at best, “ I said.

To manage my fears we ate our collection of junk food before the game standing up. When we sat down i noticed that the row wasn’t very wide and that it might be challenging to get out. Note to bladder: you’re not going anywhere so sit back and enjoy the game.

We decided to leave in the middle of the seventh affording me the opportunity to avoid the crowds on the ramps and stairs. As we passed through our row on our way out I said to a man who chose to move his legs rather than stand up, “I have Parkinson’s. I might fall on you because I don’t have much foot room here so I apologize in advance.”

“If you fall we’ll push you back up. No worries.”

We left on the wrong side of the stadium so we had to walk around it to get to our car. As we circled the stadium I heard the crowd cheer. The ground shook. You never forget the feel of a cheering crowd.

Kirk is now a color commentator for the Detroit Tigers, his hometown team. I watch YouTube videos of his pregame analysis because he still has that grit and determination. He has the signs of a PWP – mask face and shaky hands. He started the Kirk Gibson Foundation to help find a cure for the disease.

He doesn’t look like the Kirk Gibson I knew. He’s noticeably thinner and he no longer walks with the grace of an athlete. But based on what I’ve seen, Parkinson’s has a fight on its hands to beat Kirk.

My kids think that baseball is boring because it’s too slow. If I remember correctly one of them mentioned “paint” and “dry” in the same sentence. In time I hope they’ll come to appreciate that baseball is a metaphor for life. You never know who you’re going to meet and you never know when your paths may cross again.

Keep moving.

Kevin Woo is a freelance writer from San Francisco. You can read more articles by visiting www.kevinjwoo.com.