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Players taking advantage of MLB's new paternity leave policy

WASHINGTON -- The details of April 26 are stamped into Ian Desmond's memory forever. His eyes light up and a smile creases his face when he tells the story of rushing from Washington, D.C. to Sarasota, Fla., to be with his wife, Chelsey, for the birth of their first child, Grayson Wesley.

"He arrived at 3:56 in the afternoon and it was an unbelievable feeling,'' Desmond says. "I don't know how to describe it."

Desmond's sentiments aren't all that different than those of any most new fathers. What was different is that the job he left behind for a few days was that of major league shortstop. That makes Desmond something of a pioneer in that he's one of the first four players to take advantage of Major League Baseball's new softer side, a rule that allows paternity leave for players. It's a guilt-free accommodation for the player to take up to three days off for the birth of a child without hurting the team, which can fill the roster spot while the new papa is experiencing a dream moment.

"It was better than any game I've played or any big hit I've had," says Desmond, the Nationals' 25-year-old rising star. "People think that players are supposed to be tough and not do these things, but I say that players should take paternity leave and enjoy the experience.''

The new rule was discussed at the general managers' meeting in November, and after a recommendation, ownership and the players' union without much debate approved it for this season.

"Players were torn between their family and leaving their team a man short,'' MLB spokesman Patrick Courtney said. "Baseball understands that players need to be with their families, but there was no rule to replace the player. Because of that, players were feeling pressure.''

The new rule makes life easier for managers.

"Players should be able to leave and be with their wives,'' Nationals manager Jim Riggleman says. "But, it's good to be able to have a replacement. What would happen to a team if two players had to be gone at the same time?''

San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy agrees. He doesn't want players to miss the birth of a child, "But when a player leaves, you manage differently with a 24-man roster, and it can affect a game,'' says Bochy, who, as a former catcher, missed the birth of his first son in 1979 because his team, the Houston Astros, were on the road.

"Back then, we wouldn't have even thought about asking for time off to be with our wife and newborn,'' Bochy says. "I didn't see my son until he was eight days old.''

Pitcher Colby Lewis has the distinction of being the first player to be placed on paternity leave when he left the Texas Rangers to witness the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth Grace. The other two to have taken advantage of the policy are Oakland Athletics catcher Kurt Suzuki, who took time off last week to be with his wife, Renee, when she delivered a daughter, Malia Grace, and the Mets' Jason Bay, who returned Thursday after missing two games for the birth of his third child, son Garrett David.

In the New York Daily News, Mets manager Terry Collins said, "Twenty-five years ago nobody left. Nobody went to weddings. You played because the season was six months long or five months long and you stayed. But the rules changed and that's part of the Basic Agreement now, but they got this rule which helps you so you don't lose a player and you can keep a core roster. We adjust to it. (But) I'm sure the wives are happier."

As Collins notes, things are very different now. Former pitcher Mike Krukow, who retired in 1989, found out about the birth of one of his children in the fourth inning of a game he was pitching.

Former San Francisco catcher Bob Brenly was told he could be at his child's birth, but only if he were able to fly back to New York in time for the game. Ex-outfielder Tom Grieve missed a birth because he couldn't leave a spring-training game with the New York Mets in 1978.

Longtime catcher Ray Fosse had to leave the hospital for the ballpark a few minutes after his daughter was born. Current Giants second baseman Freddy Sanchez was told he could be with his wife until the seventh inning.

Suzuki couldn't imagine that circumstance.

"Never, never,'' Suzuki says, emphatically. "I would do anything to be there. When they put that baby in your arms for the first time, it's a surreal kind of thing.''

Past players would love the same luxury of time.

"Times have changed and that's a good thing,'' says Fosse, an Athletics broadcaster.

On Sept. 24, 1975, when his wife, Carol, delivered their daughter, Nicole, Fosse got a few minutes to hold her before he had to report to the ballpark in Oakland as the A's prepared to clinch the American League West.

"I probably left the hospital within the hour,'' Fosse says. "It was emotional and draining, and the last thing I wanted to do was play baseball.''

He was planning to pass out cigars in the clubhouse and return to the hospital, but "(manager) Alvin Dark asked me to stay in case something happened.''

Fosse caught the ninth inning, and after the A's clinched the division with a win against the Chicago White Sox, Fosse grabbed a bottle of champagne and returned to the hospital.

On April 19, 2005, Sanchez, then a utility infielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was told on the day that his wife, Alissa, was due that he could be absent, but the team rule was that he had to be back in uniform by the seventh inning -- whether the child had been born or not.

His son, Evan, arrived during the early evening. Sanchez monitored the Pirates' game on TV and left in time to be in the dugout for the final three innings. He didn't play.

"Trust me, I didn't want to go,'' says Sanchez. "I was a young player and had to follow the team's policy. I didn't want to get sent down. But, your baby is all that matters, and that's all you're thinking about.''

Four of Krukow's five children were born during the baseball season, one in June, two in July and another in September.

His first son, Jarek, was born in 1979 when Krukow was pitching for the Cubs in a game at Wrigley Field. That same day, Krukow hit his first big-league home run, But, after getting involved in a brawl, he was ejected, but couldn't leave the ballpark. He kept thinking about his wife, Jennifer, watching back in the hospital.

There was a bizarre twist to the birth of his second son, Bake, born in 1983 when Krukow was pitching in for the Giants in Pittsburgh. Jennifer was in labor back in San Francisco, so he left her the phone number of the Giants' clubhouse in case there was any news.

There was.

Jennifer called the clubhouse and pitcher Mark Davis answered. "He came into the dugout and said, 'Congratulations, you just had a baby boy,''' Krukow says.

When he got to the mound, there was a congratulatory announcement on the scoreboard.

"I was pumped, but it takes away your concentration,'' Krukow says.

Suzuki and Desmond can understand concentration issues, especially before the birth. Suzuki says that when the due date was approaching, all he could think about was the how his wife was doing.

"Especially on the road, you are away from your wife and there's the possibility she would go into labor at any time,'' Suzuki says.

When he returned from leave, Suzuki had four RBIs in three games vs. Texas.

Desmond had a similar experience. As the birth approached, he wasn't hitting. After the birth, he had six hits, including a home run, in his first four games. Riggleman said Desmond was more relaxed after the birth.

Desmond arrived from D.C. in Sarasota at noon, four hours before his son arrived.

"The determination on my wife's face was awesome,'' Desmond says. "She was inspirational with all that she went through. I was cheering her on all that I could. Her look of gratification was beautiful. I can't imagine not being there.''

That night, Desmond held Grayson in one arm and watched the Nationals' game vs. the New York Mets on his cell phone. "I could tell that he likes baseball,'' Desmond says. "I didn't want to put him down. I never wanted to leave him.''

Some day, Desmond will tell Grayson the story about their first night together. Desmond said that connection is important for the father-son relationship. He never had a conversation about his birth with his dad, Wesley, a hair stylist who died of a heart attack at 46.

"It was something that was missing for me,'' Desmond says. "Some day, I will tell my son the story of his birth. It's something I'll never forget.''

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