Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bob Klapisch: Murcer reassures fans, points to spring training

Thursday, January 25, 2007


The Oklahoma drawl sounds as healthy and lighthearted as it's ever been, which made it even harder to believe Bobby Murcer was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor two weeks ago. The Yankee announcer is fighting for his life against ferocious odds, but he spent a half-hour on ESPN Radio on Tuesday afternoon, comforting his fans instead of the other way around.

"Spring training is in my plans, I'm looking forward to the 2007 season," Murcer said on the air. "What a great future we have in front of us."

Only a man of faith could make such a proclamation; brain tumors are found in just 1.4 people per 10,000, so it would be easy for Murcer to have said, "Why me?" Instead, he told host Michael Kay's listeners about the "sense of calm" that's guided him through initial chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Kay graciously stepped aside for most of the half-hour Murcer was on the show, allowing callers to deliver messages of hope and love. That's what it was, adoration for a man who represents all that was once good about baseball. Kay, a boyhood Yankee fan, still describes Murcer as "my idol" – and he wasn't alone in that sentiment.

A 45-year-old woman told Murcer she had such a crush on him as a teenager, she went to his home. Both of them recalled the incident, laughing on the air. Good guy that he was, Murcer came outside to speak with the love-struck teen. Another man, also in his 40s, told Murcer he'd met him at the Stadium in August 1995, the day the Yankees mourned the death of Mickey Mantle. The caller was grateful that Murcer was so polite to a complete stranger. One by one, caller after caller, New York's baseball community was paying Murcer back for his years of kindness.

Good guy, gentle soul. It's been Murcer's profile forever. Even as a star in the 1970s, he was friends with the world. Goose Gossage, a teammate of Murcer's from 1979-83, said, "The game never changed him. He's been Bobby all the way. There was never an ounce of selfishness about him. Those are always the best kind of teammates. He treated everyone great, even the little people in the ballpark, which is why when I heard he was sick, I couldn't believe it."

A day after the devastating news, Goose placed a call to Murcer's home. He got voice mail, and found himself fumbling for the right words. Finally, Goose told Murcer he was praying for him, but not to worry about returning the call. Of course, Murcer did, telling Goose he was feeling great, chemo and all.

"I didn't know what to expect when I started talking to Bobby. I mean, it's hard to know what to say in that situation," Goose said. "But his optimism, his confidence, was amazing. I hung up feeling great, which is the last thing I thought would happen."

Obviously, the path ahead of Murcer is an unanswered question. For now, he and his wife are staying in a Houston hotel, making daily visits to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center for a combination of chemo and radiation sessions. He was first operated on Dec. 28, although the malignancy wasn't known until tests were completed Jan. 10. According to medical data, Murcer is one of approximately 15,000 Americans who will be diagnosed with a brain tumor this year.

Looking back, Kay recalled how Murcer complained of headaches through the 2006 season, prompting doctors to administer an MRI. They decided it was a sinus infection. Now Kay wonders if Murcer had been seriously ill all along. Murcer himself would joke about his failing memory. When Jim Kaat retired from the booth in September, Murcer marveled at his colleague's memory of virtually every pitch from his 25-year career.

"Me, I don't remember a thing," Murcer said with a self-deprecating chuckle.

Today, there's little reason for laughter, although Murcer has been buoyed by a radical new treatment that delivers chemo orally instead of intravenously. The other ray of hope is that Murcer's doctor was diagnosed with the same type of brain tumor, and that was 3½ years ago.

Still, Kay finds himself raging the fates, wondering how a good man like Murcer could be saddled with such horrible luck. If Murcer won't ask "Why me?" then Kay will do it for him.

Why Bobby?

"I was so profoundly saddened and so shocked. It's so unfair," Kay said Wednesday. "You're talking about one of the nicest people ever in the world, and you wonder why these things happen. I've never seen Bobby be rude to anyone, including the fans at the press gate. He always says, 'Hey, how you doing?' to everyone."

Kay kept his distance from Murcer last month, convinced his broadcaster buddy wanted (and deserved) privacy. But media agent Steve Lefkowitz, who represents both Kay and Murcer, suggested putting Murcer on the air. That way, fans could hear that nothing, not even a malignancy, could steal this man's appreciation for life. Kay and Murcer finally spoke at noon Wednesday, five hours before his live interview, and like Gossage, Kay treaded lightly.

Within moments, however, it was clear the same old Murcer was on the phone, and it didn't take much for Kay to persuade him to go on the air. But taking calls was another matter. The public needed to hear from Murcer himself that he's standing up to this terrible disease. To that suggestion, Murcer readily agreed.

"I love my fans," Murcer told Kay.

Now more than ever, it goes both ways.


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