Advancing After a Dropped Third Stroke

Danny Farquhar suffered a brain hemorrhage in April, and, thankfully, is on the road to a full recovery. (via Keith Allison)

If I could have my wish and pick how I might resemble Joe Niekro and Jim Bouton, I’d be a major league knuckleballer who had a long career and was capable of moments of hilarity both on the field and in print. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pick. Our resemblance is less glamorous, more taxing. My kinship with Niekro and Bouton stems from the fact that, like them, I have also had a stroke.

For me, it was in the summer of 2012. I was 32 years old and living in Austin. A heat stroke earlier that summer had caused some damage to my heart. This damage triggered a blockage that traveled to my brain. I suffered three different episodes neurologists later identified as a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), although at least one of the incidents was responsible for symptoms more severe and long-lasting than a typical TIA.

Some of those symptoms were relatively easy to understand and deal with, like migraine headaches and light sensitivity. Others were far more difficult to endure. At times, I was unable to speak for several days. I had episodes during which I would lose control of my fine motor skills. These joined other problems that ranged from tremors to nerve pain to forgetfulness and extreme fatigue.

Weeks would go by. I was caught in cycles of relapse and recovery. Even during the periods of recovery, I was still limited in the activities I could do before fatigue set in. I had to be cautious of being in situations that could trigger symptoms to worsen. This lead to lots of sitting on my couch, and while necessary, it quickly became boring. After several days, watching television for hours on end became tiresome. Oftentimes, I was dealing with small amounts of double vision, which made sustained reading difficult.

But I could still talk about baseball.

The way I became a baseball fan is a route I imagine is similar to that of many people. I played Little League, watched any game I could on TV, and talked about it with friends and family. I collected cards and read Matt Christopher’s The Boy Who Only Hit Homers until it’s pages were worn. I listened to Texas Rangers radio broadcasts until it felt like announcers Eric Nadel and Mark Holtz were the baseball-savvy uncles I didn’t have. Those early bits of fandom created deep, lasting memories, and at a time when my short-term memory was wrecked, lastings memories were more important than ever.

When my situation was at its worst, there were times I forgot the name of my then-girlfriend or would get lost crossing the street. But even during those times, I could have long conversations on who were the greatest third basemen of all time. I could remember which franchises had been relocated. And as the weeks and months started to add up, I needed those talks, that tether to baseball.

Diving deeper into baseball and its history wasn’t a conscious choice; it was a byproduct of boredom. It was wanting to find something to do I could do. I became interested in the regional history of Austin. I was fascinated by the way links to baseball had become obscured by the passage of time. I became more curious about the parallels between Rogers Hornsby and Willie Wells, two baseball greats who were both originally from and were eventually buried in the Austin area. Hornsby was born in 1896, Wells 10 years later. The pair would go on to become two of the best infielders of the 1910s to ’30s. However, Wells was African-American and was forced to spend his career playing in the Negro Leagues and internationally.

I wanted to know more. I took advantage of the time available to me while recovering to focus my research. I started working on producing something with it. Most days, my head would hurt, my energy would be low, and I dealt with tremors. Sometimes, I couldn’t even hold a pen, but I would find a way to search for more information.

I found that for three seasons, Hornsby and Wells both played for teams in St. Louis and would attend the other’s games to take notes and observe. I also found that Hornsby was the manager of the 1944 Vera Cruz Blues in the Mexican League, a team that featured Wells. Hornsby left the team early in the season, with one possible reason being that he refused to play any of the black players. Wells was named the team’s skipper, and the Blues proceeded to win the league championship.

I also found that, in addition the research I could do on my own, I had access to a community of fellow baseball fans in the Central Texas SABR Chapter. I joined the group in the summer of 2013 and began attending the monthly chapter meetings. I initially joined for the research resources that came with being a member. But I quickly found that a like-minded community was something I needed. Despite my energy being low, I was still be able to spend several hours with them at a barbecue restaurant or at a game. Sometimes, if I was going through a relapse stage, those meetings would be the only fun activity my health would allow for weeks at a time. I found that being part of this group was a boost to my spirits at a time when depression, frustration, and fear due to my health had become a near daily part of life.

Around the same time, a roommate encouraged me to find an outlet for my research on Wells and Hornsby. I submitted a proposal to a monthly speaking event in Austin named Nerd Nite. Several months later, I spent an evening speaking to over 200 people at a bar about the history of Central Texas and the Negro Leagues, with Wells as a focus and Hornsby as the convenient villain. The night was a success, but when I when I watch the video, I am struck by how by the end my left arm can barely move. I am reminded of how much nerve pain my body was in the several days that followed due to the exertion and heat.

I was encouraged by that presentation, and by friends, to start writing. I submitted a proposal to a SABR publication, and it was accepted. However, due to falls from loss of balance and coordination, I was dealing with the effects of concussions as well. My head pain—calling it a headache doesn’t do the experience justice—returned and was debilitating at times. My focus and short-term memory were significantly affected by the brain fog I was experiencing. There would be days I would be lucky to be able to have 20 productive minutes to research or write. It taught me to take advantage of the good days. The dining room table in my apartment quickly became a collection of library books, index cards full of notes, and my laptop, a scene that has continued in the years since.

As I continued to improve, I found going to games wasn’t just the enjoyable experience I had had since I was a child but was an easy activity to do at a time when my activities were limited. During the fall and winter of 2012 and 2013, my most common form of exercise was going to Walmart or Target and walking around the store several times while pushing a cart for support. By the time the Round Rock Express baseball season started in the spring of 2013, I was becoming able to walk comfortably the distance from parking lot to the stadium, buy food and a drink, and watch the game. I would usually be exhausted by the time I returned to my car, but it was worth it to be able to return to a stadium and enjoy being a fan.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

A favorite internet rabbit hole of mine during that time was knuckleball pitchers. One day while reading up on the Niekro brothers, I was reminded of Joe Niekro’s passing away on October 27, 2006, due to an aneurysm. I had admired his 22-year career and his 221 victories, and the video clip of him tossing the emery board when being searched by umpires was seared into my brain from blooper reels. He later displayed his good humor about the situation when he appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman during the offseason and walked out wearing a carpenter’s belt and power tools.

I discovered during my recovery that Niekro’s daughter Natalie had formed the Joe Niekro Foundation following his passing to support research and treatment and to assist the survivors and families of those affected by brain aneurysms and hemorrhagic strokes.

There are two types of strokes, ischemic and hemorrhagic. The latter is what the longtime Astro experienced. When Niekro experienced his aneurysm, it caused a blood vessel to burst in his brain and the blood to cause damage. Ischemic strokes occur when a blood clot causes blood not to reach the brain.

What I experienced was a milder form known as a transient ischemic attack or TIA. With TIAs, the symptoms last for a shorter period of time, and while not as serious, they still can be responsible for damage and are warning signs for future problems.

In addition to funding research and working to raise public awareness, the Joe Niekro Foundation works to provide a safe haven for those who experienced a hemorrhagic stroke, whether as patients or as those who are involved as a family member, friend, or caregiver through support groups.

I would have benefitted from the sort of community a support group provides. One thing I lacked was a place to talk with others who had experienced something similar at the age I did. I’ve had great conversations with people who have or had multiple sclerosis, cancer, and other medical conditions, but I still haven’t talked to someone younger than myself who has had a stroke.

To compensate for this, I read books from authors who had gone through some form of a neurological issue. But I found most of the memoirs were either dry and medical—or else contained too many statements that sounded like they were ripped off inspirational posters—for me to be able to relate. So instead, I tended to find people I could relate to in one of my usual ways, through baseball.

One of those people was Jim Bouton, who in the summer of 2017 spoke with The New York Times and later at the annual SABR conference about his career and his life following a stroke on August 15, 2012. By chance, that summer was between my first two TIAs.

Bouton was a figure I had looked up to for a while. As interesting as his playing career was, going from a young fireballer World Series hero to a veteran knuckleball pitcher, it was his activities off the field that made him a legend. In 1969, he kept a diary of his season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros that was published the following year as Ball Four. The book was popular at the time for its insider perspective of the players’ carousing. I discovered it nearly 40 years after it was released and was hooked by its witty language and writing, which still felt fresh.

When I first read about Bouton’s struggles with language in the years since his stroke, I didn’t feel sadness or sympathy for a personal hero. Instead, I felt a connection and empathy with a fellow survivor. His experiences felt familiar when I read a passage from Tyler Kepner’s article:

Yes, the author of Ball Four can still tell you how many balls are in a walk, he can still recite his Army number—BR18609797—and he still proudly states that he once won 21 games in a season. But Bouton does not know the year—he recently guessed 1982—or his age.”

Even during my worst days, I was able to communicate at a near-normal level. However, I recall a get-together during which I said my age incorrectly several times and later got other year-related questions wrong. After several hours of this, one friend realized I was convinced it was 2011 instead of 2013.

Libraries had become “free bookstores” and toddlers were “Stella friends,” named after the young daughter of a couple I knew. It has been years since I had to deal with the conditions Bouton experienced, but reading his story awakens those memories. It also serves to remind me how far I have come. It shows how even though Bouton had issues with language and memory, he too was able to use baseball and its community to heal.

On April 20, during a game against the Astros, 31-year-old White Sox pitcher Danny Farquhar suffered a brain hemorrhage in the dugout caused by a ruptured aneurysm.

When I read about the incident the next day, I felt strange. While I cared about this stranger, and of course hoped he would recover, given his age, the incident initially brought back unpleasant memories and emotions from my own experience six years prior. I felt selfish for feeling that way. As time passed, I found myself relating to Farquhar. I wanted to reach out, not as a baseball fan, but as someone who had gone through a similar situation at a similar age.

I was astounded and excited when just six weeks later, he was able to throw out the first pitch at a White Sox game. The proceeds from all the fundraising efforts that evening were donated to the Joe Niekro Foundation. Farquhar already has improved to the point that he is able to throw off of flat ground. He is hopeful he will be able to return next season. As I have followed his progress, I found myself not just happy for him and his family but also feeling something both more personal and communal as I watched a young survivor of a stroke recover and thrive.

I too have improved significantly since 2012. With the factors I can control, like diet and exercise, I am possibly the healthiest I have been in my life. Despite most days being great, I still have to deal with the effects of the strokes at times. Last year I had several migraine spells that would leave me on the floor. I have to contend with nerve pain and weakness, and I am still significantly worse at remembering names than I was before.

As my body has healed and I am able to do more, I still find myself following the passions I turned to while in recovery. This summer, I went to Pittsburgh for SABR’s national conference, spent time with players for the Chinese National Team for an article I wrote, and hosted a new friend as he drove cross-country to attend a game at each major league stadium, all of which were a direct result of steps I began six years ago during days when my head pain was so chronic I was left with double vision and could not hold onto a pencil. For all that, all I can say is, thank you baseball.

The National Stroke Association and American Stroke Association each have a wealth of resources available on strokes, their prevention, and aftercare. They were also the source for the medical information in this article.

Eric Robinson is a Fort Worth, Texas-based writer, researcher, and presenter on baseball history and sometimes more. He is co-chairman of SABR's Asian Baseball Committee. For more information please check out his website, Lyndon Baseball Johnson, and/or Facebook page.
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3 years ago

Outstanding article, thank you for sharing your story.

3 years ago

Thank you for sharing, Eric. Really appreciate your insights and sharing both your struggles and personal victories and progress. Thank you baseball, indeed.