For Kate Wedge, the fateful day started with an intuition.
Her husband, Eric, had not been quite himself since the Mariners returned from a road trip to Houston. Oh, the team was humming with six wins in a row, but Kate felt Eric seemed oddly sluggish – “a little off,” she would say later.
So Kate offered to drive Wedge to the ballpark that Monday, July 22, for the Mariners’ game against Cleveland, of all teams. The two had met in 2001 while Wedge was managing the Indians’ Class AAA team in Buffalo and were married in November of 2002, thrusting her squarely into a baseball life.
Eric, at age 35, was hired as the Indians’ boy-wonder manager not long after. But never in his seven years in Cleveland, or two-plus years with the Mariners, could Kate remember ever driving her husband to the ballpark. Until that day, that is, when they bundled their two kids, Ava, 7, and Cash, 5, into the back and made the short journey to Safeco Field.
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“He thinks I’m a little psychic now,’’ she said.
For Wedge, the typical business day for a 7 p.m. game starts around noon. To pass time before the first pitch, Kate drove back home and consumed herself in phone calls to plan an upcoming charity event. She didn’t notice her cell phone was blowing up around 4 o’clock, until she finally spied a missed call from Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis, one of Eric’s closest friends.
“If Carl’s calling me during a work day, there’s something wrong,’’ she said.
We all know now that indeed, something was very wrong. Standing at the batting cage, Wedge had felt dizzy, his condition quickly worsening as he was led off the field. Wedge was quickly taken off to Harborview via ambulance, where doctors eventually determined he had suffered a mild stroke.
This is the other side of Wedge’s ordeal, which kept him away from the dugout for 32 days and 27 games, and changed his life – and by extension, his family’s — forever.
This is Kate’s side of the story, which Wedge acknowledges is the most vivid account of his recovery. He was, after all, disoriented (though always conscious) in those early days, when even the slightest movement of his head was debilitating.
Even now, when Wedge shows signs of being overly rambunctious – and the happy ending to this story is he’s feeling better, and more energetic, than he has in years – Kate flashes back to those tense, frightening days at Harborview and gently dials him back.
“I saw him laying there on the hospital bed,” she said. “He didn’t see himself. I worry – Mama Bear kind of comes out.”
When Wedge left last week on his first trip since his return, Mama Bear naturally fretted.
“I twisted the arms of a lot of the coaches and said, ‘You’d better watch him and make sure my guy’s OK.’ So I get reports,” she said with a smile. “He’s been great. He saw the light a little bit. He’s taking it very seriously. He wants to be around for his kids, and he wants to be around for his family.”
Kate beat the ambulance to the hospital, and she didn’t leave her husband’s side until Eric was discharged two days later. Having helped care for her seriously ill mother for years, she knew the right questions to ask, and how to get answers – though they were not immediately forthcoming, to Wedge’s occasional exasperation.
“Medicine’s funny and a little frustrating,” she said. “It’s very gray and not black and white. For a guy who’s very black and white sometimes, it’s frustrating to not be able to get answers.”
A babysitter stayed with the kids, and Kate reassured them by telling them, “You know when you’re on the merry-go-round and you’re spinning, and you get off and you feel dizzy when you walk? Well, Daddy’s feeling a little dizzy.”
A seemingly endless battery of tests slowly led doctors toward the stroke diagnosis . When they first heard that loaded word, it was a “wow” moment for the Wedges – one that caused Eric, who had been making noise about returning quickly to work the next day, to say to his doctor, “I guess I’m not getting out of here today.”
That’s when Kate chimed in, “We’ll stay as long as you need us to.”
Reflecting later, she said, “Once it all sunk in what exactly was going on, he took a real methodical approach to setting a game plan for getting better, getting healthy, getting stronger, and getting back.”
Doctors told them it was a “perfect storm” of factors that led to the stroke, from cholesterol to blood pressure to stress to, significantly, a sleep apnea affliction the Wedges didn’t know he had. The condition prevents its sufferers from restful sleep and has been closely linked to strokes.
Kate urges anyone who believes they might have sleep apnea to get checked out. Wedge wears a sleep mask now, and the positive benefits have been startling, she said.
“Every time your airway closes, your body jumps and spikes. Your blood pressure goes up, and it’s a constant cycle of this all through the night. … He’s never really had a true recovery time, up until recently.”
Wedge has also improved his diet and is exercising more regularly than he has in “decades,’’ she said. He’s working on techniques to better manage the stress of a job that has it in excess. Wedge is just 45, but 10 of those years have been spent in what Kate calls “a very high-octane life” of a major-league manager.
“It’s not lifestyle changes; it’s lifetime changes for us,’’ she said. “He’s feeling better than ever right now.”
But it was a slow process, one that required Wedge to watch Mariner games – managed by his interim replacement, Robby Thompson — from afar. That was an ordeal for Wedge, who had missed just one previous game – when Ava was born. The telecast was always on, but sometimes Wedge would have to leave to pace around the house.
“Sometimes he’d be playing with the kids, one eye on the TV,” she said.
One side effect of brain trauma can be heightened emotions, and Wedge found himself, for a time, getting choked up frequently.
“He used to laugh at me when I was hormonal while pregnant, crying at every commercial,” Kate said. “So I got a couple of jabs back at him. That’s dissipated. He can watch the Kleenex commercials now, and he’s better.”
She believes Wedge has learned to listen to his body more, and to put some of the pressures of baseball into better perspective. But it’s a fine line, because Wedge’s passion and intensity have always been his calling card.
“You can’t curb that,” Kate said. “That’s who he is, and that didn’t change at all. That will always be who Eric Wedge is. He’s a fiery, passionate, caring guy. He lives by a code; things are done for the right way for a reason. He’s very methodical.
“None of that has changed. If anything, it’s gotten stronger, because he sees things now a little more clearly.”
In a perverse way, in fact, his health crisis can be perceived as a blessing, in that it motivated Wedge to make constructive changes. Kate certainly sees it that way, mindful that her husband’s love of baseball will always lead him back to the ballpark.
“Don’t want to have to go through it again. Wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through it,” Kate said. “But from it, we’ve come out of it with a positive attitude and kind of an enlightenment. It’s like, OK, we’ve seen the light, and we don’t want to come back here. I think both of us are really, really happy.”
Even in the darkest moments, there was never any serious thought of giving up his job.
“We were kind of talking about everything in the whole world,” she said. “But this is his life and his love and his passion. Him not being in baseball I don’t think is an option, ever. I see him being very old and still at the ballpark.”
When Wedge finally was deemed ready to return to managing, on Aug. 23, young Ava had advice for her dad as he departed for the ballpark, plunging back into his baseball life.
“Dad, just go have fun. Have a good time. Have a good day.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @StoneLarry