Friday October 9th, 2009

Rod Beaton should be here.

Here, in New York City, preparing to cover Game 2 of the American League Divisional Series between the Twins and Yankees. Here, in the Yankee Stadium press box, swapping notes with Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, plotting out story angles with Bob Nightengale, his USA Today colleague, eating in the media dining room alongside the regular gaggle of veteran baseball writers while wrapping up yet another April through October grind.

Here ... aware and alert and able.

If the name Rod Beaton escapes you, do yourself -- and Rod's wife and two sons -- a favor: Place this column aside for a moment, Google "Rod Beaton" and "USA Today" and read away. From 1986 through the early 2000s, Beaton was, without much debate, one of the nation's elite baseball scribes. In a voice that was authoritative and oft-funny (Wrote Beaton of the 2002 All-Star Game: "You won't see any Rose-Ray Fosse style collisions, either. Too much money to be made to risk injury. Now it's party, party, party, get my at-bat or inning pitched, get out, go home.") Beaton guided his readers through the ups and downs of a season with precision, intelligence and understanding. His writing, like his personality, was understated. Beaton never felt the need to slam the reader over the head with a point, and refused to tear apart a player for the mere sake of attention. Even when Barry Bonds shoved him in a 1996 clubhouse altercation in Pittsburgh, Beaton kept his calm. "It was not an Albert Belle kind of thing," he said at the time. "It never got vicious."

Most important, however, Beaton was known as a uniquely good guy. In a business often weighed down by sorority-like cliques and inane rivalries (spend a day on the Yankees beat and see for yourself), he was quick to offer young writers a helping hand; to provide a reassuring word or funny anecdote.

Now, however, just when a crippled newspaper industry could use an all-star caliber talent, Rod Beaton is -- tragically -- living a medical nightmare.

The 57-year-old Delaware native finds himself not in a press box, but in room 213 of the Emeritus of Arlington nursing home in Arlington, Va. Where he is dying.

"Rod wants to fight," says his wife, Maria . "But reality says he can live for another three months. Maybe another six."

Nine years ago, Beaton and his family first noticed that something was off. His voice, once crisp and powerful, no longer projected. His handwriting became increasingly small. His walk morphed into something of a shuffle. "And his anxieties went off the chart," says Maria. "He started worrying about losing things all the time, and he wasn't even 50. It was weird."

In May 2000, Rod was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but later he learned that what he actually had was Lewy Body Dementia, an incurable form of dementia characterized anatomically by the presence of clumps of alpha-synuclein and ubiquitin protein in neurons, detectable in postmortem brain biopsies. In layman's terms, LBD is a brutal diagnosis that strips its victims of their physical and mental capacities.

Since that time, Rod has undergone three brain surgeries, myriad setbacks (in 2006, his pacemaker had to be removed after an infection) and precious few positive moments. Because of the massive doses of mood-altering medications prescribed through the years, Beaton has struggled to control his temper, once threatening physical harm to children in a grocery store, another time punching Maria. "There are dozens of examples," Maria says. "It's not the real Rod. I know that."

Tragically, the real Rod will likely never return. Largely immobile, these days he spends nearly all his time inside a nursing home, struggling to use the remote control, confused over up vs. down, left vs. right. According to Maria, her husband of 25 years recently opened a dresser draw and, thinking it was a chair, attempted to sit down. Another time, he opened a can of dog food for dinner. "His brain is so messed up," she says, "that he often doesn't known reality vs. insanity."

A technician and secretary for the police department at Dulles International Airport in Washington, Maria has been working 10-hour shifts in order to have a full day off to spend at her husband's side. As a young married couple in the mid-1980s, the two would drive out to Baltimore's Memorial Stadium together, share dinner, then head to their respective spots -- Maria in the stands, Rod in the press box. "Afterward, while he was getting quotes, I'd sit in the car and wait for him," she says. "I loved those days. I really did."

Her voice tails off; it feels like a long time ago. Nowadays, Maria enters room 238 and hopes for some sort of sign of those golden days. A smile. A nod. Maybe even a small laugh. "Anything," she says, "that shows he's happy."

The worst moments come when Rod Beaton is lost and confused and depressed beyond belief. One day, not all that long ago, he was covering the majors. Today, his life is helplessly crawling toward its end.

"But it's not all bad," Maria says. "He has good moments."

Like when?

"Like when the TV is on," she says, "and he's able to focus on baseball."

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