Watching Those Kardiac Kids From Westport Does A Heart Good

There had been no shortage of such stories in my writing past.

When Jim Calhoun and UConn finally broke through to the Final Four and went on to the 1999 national basketball championship, notes of joy filtered in from convalescent homes and hospices. When the Red Sox ended their 86-year drought in 2004, folks emailed how their sick dad or infirm grandma had gathered strength and hope from the history-making comeback against the Yankees, from the realization that the only curse was the one that the foolish had placed on themselves.

And so it has gone through the years. Their stories have been a delight to retell. Yet in the retelling, even if those stories were entirely factual, they felt more apologue and allegory, more of a metaphorical feel-good vehicle for others than any sort of personal metamorphosis.

That's when a familiar pain shot down my back on Aug. 17, a familiar burn running down my arms and under my armpits like a tightening leather belt around my chest. While the boa constrictor did loosen its horrible grip, make no mistake, he would be back. I immediately went to the hospital.

This would be my fourth cardiac episode in eight years, the worst requiring quadruple bypass surgery in 2005. And while this one was not nearly as dramatic, the very nature of having two more blockages and a third and fourth stent implanted within three years had a dispiriting, even despairing effect.

I love to leave little notes and texts for my basketball-loving 15-year-old son. Familiar words of encouragement like, "It's not how many times you get knocked down. It's how many times you get up." John Wooden quotes like, "The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching."

Yet the hard truth is it's easier to dispense advice than it is to accept it. The pain and the surgical procedure was only 10 percent of the battle. The remaining 90 percent is in shaking the fear of the unknown, overcoming any despair at repeated cardiac problems, getting back up and dusting yourself off … again.

And that's when Chad Knight and Harry "The Horse" Azadian galloped into my hospital room. That's when they were followed by Charlie Roof, Ricky Offenberg and Matt Stone and Max Popken and the others. It would be ridiculous medical fraud to assert that the Westport Little League All-Stars were more important to my physical health than the staff at UMass-Worcester. It would trivialize my core values of family and religion to assert that those 12- and 13-year-old boys were more vital to my spiritual health.

But, damn, if those boys didn't lift me at a time when I needed it.

Stepping over from the objective side of the great journalistic line, I think I better understand the personal nature of those letters from UConn fans in 1999 and Red Sox fans in 2004 now. Better understand those senior UConn women's fans, better understand the Giants and Patriots fans before their Super Bowls, about the impact of what teams and sports can do to lift hearts.

I had watched the previous Thursday when South Nashville, Tenn., took a 2-1 lead in the top of the fifth inning and Westport provided its first dramatic answer. Offenberg tied the game with a home run. Chris Drbal followed with a single and Knight doubled in Drbal to give Westport a 3-2 win.

So there I was two Sundays ago, in a hospital bed, with an IV of clot-clearing heparin in my arm, watching Westport hold off a furious comeback by Sammamish, Wash., for a 9-7 victory. Azadian knocked in five runs, but he needed stout relief from Alex Reiner to pull out a victory that could have been called heart-stopping — although it would be medically inaccurate. Besides there were a couple of games ahead that probably did qualify as such.

By Wednesday I was resting at home, eagerly waiting for the Westport kids to enter my living room. I have argued in the past that too much ESPN exposure of Little Leaguers is a dangerous thing. Some of the shots of kids crying or blurting inappropriate things over the years have been exploitative and ESPN has seemed to pull back a tad. The last thing anybody needs is the feeling his life peaked at age 12. Yet this Westport team struck me as unusually poised, better capable of handling the impending peaks and valleys of a nationally told drama.

Matt Brown hit a three-run homer off the previously unhittable, 6-foot-4 Grant Holman, but Chula Vista, Calif., struck back for two runs in the sixth to tie on Nick Mora's home run. Although manager Tim Rogers would be second-guessed for pulling Azadian from the mound, it did take until the ninth for Holman to hit a three-run homer and send Westport to a devastating 6-3 defeat.

Only it wasn't devastating to these Westport kids.

"They just never give up," Rogers said. "They just continue to battle, one pitch at a time."

By Friday, I admit it. I was addicted. And what happened that afternoon against Sammamish was epic, or at least as epic as any reasonable man would describe a game played by boys. Down 13-6 in the fifth, five outs from elimination. Westport scored seven runs to tie. Reiner? Three-run homer. Popken? Three-run homer. Knight's game-tying homer deep onto the hill was followed by his hand gesture that screamed, "What else did you expect?"

Anything was possible. Knight, of course, was the one who won it with a walk-off hit in the seventh and Westport was in the U.S. championship. The fact they were crushed, 12-1, by Chula Vista Saturday certainly doesn't diminish their accomplishments. Nor, of equal importance, did they pack it in.

Down 11-6 in the fifth Sunday in the third-place game against Tijuana, Mexico, Westport tied it on homers by Azadian and Stone. Even after Tijuana went back ahead, 15-11, Westport, down to its last out, got a three-run homer from Knight and got the tying run on base before falling 15-14.

Afterward, Rogers told reporters, "It just says wonders about the kids, just how competitive they really are and how much they like to play. They don't give up."

As we look back, the comebacks against Westport were nearly as dramatic as their own. These kids are indomitable. That is what struck me, so lifted me in my recuperation. Youth, Aristotle once said, is easily deceived because it is quick to hope. Yet the converse also is true. Elders often deceive themselves into surrender because they abandon their hope.

Yes, trans fats remain the mortal enemy. Salt remains the dirtiest four-letter word in the English language. Too much stress and too little exercise remain the recipe for death. Genetics always are the cards you must play. And, yes, reading too much into boys playing a boys game is to trivialize the science and great profundities of considered thought.

Yet in watching the Westport boys, damn, if youth didn't have lessons to share. The thought of quitting never crossed their minds. Never. These Kardiac Kids didn't operate on hearts, but they sure lifted them.

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