On opening day at Anaheim Stadium last week, Greg Walker lay on the ground in the middle of the infield, and for what seemed like a very long time, no matter how hard he tried, he could not get up, could not move a muscle. And he could not have been happier. In his first game back since suffering a brain seizure on the field at Comiskey Park eight months ago, the Chicago White Sox first baseman found himself once again flat on his back and totally helpless. The difference this time was that he was on the bottom of a pile of bodies in a bench-clearing brawl with the California Angels, and when the fighting was over he bounced up and ripped a double down the rightfield line.
Santa Ana winds—seldom felt in the spring in Southern California—blew in off the desert last week, raising the temperature to nearly 100° in Anaheim. It was a day much like the scorcher in Chicago last July 30 when the 28-year-old Walker very nearly died. Early on that summer morning, Walker awoke at home in the Chicago suburb of Palos Heights, ate breakfast with his wife, Carman, and their two daughters, then drove to the ballpark.
By getting an early start, Walker, as is his custom, was among the first players to arrive at the White Sox clubhouse, where he methodically went about his preparation for the game. "I don't like to be rushed," he says. "There's so much you have to think about when you play baseball every day that during the season it takes practically all the energy I've got."
On this particular morning, baseball seemed to be taking an unusually heavy toll on Walker. "When I got to the park I was real, real tired," he says. "I lay down on the trainer's table for a while." Walker felt so weary he decided not to take any ground balls during batting practice. A converted catcher who had never played first base until he reached the minor leagues, Walker spent six years in the bushes learning the position. He religiously takes dozens of grounders before every game and broods over any defensive lapse. "It was always a struggle for me," he says. So it didn't help that when the White Sox finally made him the Opening Day first baseman in the spring of 1983, Walker butchered two chances in the first inning of that game. "I'd been a starting first baseman in the big leagues for about three pitches," he says, "and I already had two errors. It was in every paper in the country the next day."
April 16, 1989
Walker finally roused himself from the training table on that morning last July, and he decided to take infield practice after all. "I had made an error the night before," he says, "so I decided to go out and take a few to get myself going." Under the morning sun, the 6'3", 210-pound Walker retrieved ground ball after ground ball after ground ball in the standard deep infield position off first base. Then coach Eddie Brinkman motioned to him to move up and field some more while coming off the bag. "It was hot, real hot," Walker says. "When he hit the next ball," Walker says, "I kind of bounced off the bag, and as soon as my right leg planted, I felt a sharp sensation in my hip. I thought. Oh no, I've got a hip pointer. Then I felt my right leg buckle, and I knew something was bad wrong. It was too severe to be some little something. I called over to [second baseman] Donnie Hill to get me some help. I thought I was having a heart attack. This all flashed through my mind in milliseconds."
Walker crumpled to the ground and lay on his back. His muscles contracted and heaved as he went into convulsions, his body twisting into a violent arc and then straightening again, like the lash of a whip. His face had contorted into a grotesque mask of confusion: How could this be happening to me? He could not speak, could not breathe.
"For an instant," writes William Faulkner in the novel As I Lay Dying, "before the jerk comes onto his arms he sees his whole body earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-limber...." This was how Walker saw himself now—unweighted and earth-free. All of the discipline and order that had brought him to this place was suddenly gone. "I was out of control, lying there, no way to stop myself," he says. "I remember looking up and seeing the blue sky. And as I looked up, I thought, I'm dead."
Most of the players who ran to the spot where he had fallen did nothing; many of them were simply terrified to see this large, powerful man writhing helplessly. White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen was the first to try to help; Walker was clutching desperately at his own throat while gasping for air, and Guillen tried to pull his hands away. "He almost killed himself with his own hands," says Guillen. Walker grabbed Guillen by the arm and tossed him away like a doll. "He almost broke my wrist," Guillen says. "I've never been so scared."
"A seizure is a very powerful thing to see." says Angel trainer Rick Smith, who helped steady Walker's head that day. "It's scary to watch somebody go through that, but it's also kind of moving to see all the power coming out of a guy like that." Chicago second baseman Steve Lyons says when he reached Walker "the look on his face was like something from The Exorcist." Lyons ran into the visiting clubhouse to call for an ambulance. "When I got back on the field, he still wasn't breathing."
Brinkman, meanwhile, had gone to the White Sox clubhouse, where he began screaming for trainer Herm Schneider to come quickly. "You got a lot of guys running in and out of the clubhouse yelling stuff all the time," Schneider says. "This was different. There was fear in his voice." Schneider raced onto the field and found the other players gathered in a circle around Walker. "It was an ugly, ugly situation," Schneider says. "Walk was blue, his lips were purple, his eyes had rolled back in his head. Guys were going in to throw up at the sight of it. Some guys just went into the clubhouse probably because they didn't want to see him die. When I got to him, on a scale of one to 10, he was nine-plus dead."
Schneider was unsure how long Walker had been without breath. But, under the assumption that Walker was choking on something, he knew that if he didn't work quickly there was a possibility he might suffer brain damage. Schneider tried to insert an oral screw into Walker's mouth but couldn't pry his teeth apart. Growing frantic, Schneider pulled out a pair of tape-cutting scissors and began to dig around Walker's incisors, looking for a crack. When he couldn't find one, he chipped one of Walker's teeth to allow him to insert the scissors and open his jaws. "I tried all the ways you're supposed to do it," Schneider says. "Finally I got my scissors in there, then I got my finger in, which you're also not supposed to do." Schneider was still trying to clear the windpipe with a rubber tongue depressor when Walker bit down on his finger so hard it began to bleed. Finally the seizure subsided, and Walker, fully conscious, was wheeled from the field on a stretcher. Schneider rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital. "He told me I was going to be all right," Walker says. "But the fact remained, something had happened, and nobody knew what it was."
Before the seizure, the only clue Walker had that something might be wrong with him was a rash that had broken out all over his body two weeks earlier, while the White Sox were playing in New York. "For the next five days I had a brutal case of the hives," he says. "I'd wake up at three o'clock in the morning and look at myself in the mirror and say, 'Who is this?' " The players had been given permission to bring their wives along on the trip, and as the rash grew, so did Carman Walker's alarm. Says Greg, "Everybody was kidding my wife that I was allergic to her, but she knew there was something wrong." At one point, Walker became convinced he was having an allergic reaction to something in his hotel room; in a panic one night at 4 a.m. he and Carman fled to a new room. Nothing helped, but eventually the condition vanished, as much a mystery as when it appeared. "I think about that all the time," Walker says. "What could I have eaten to cause that? Every time I walk up to a salad bar now, I look at all that food and wonder if there's something on there that could make me sick again. That's a pretty scary feeling, to think there might be something out there that could give me another seizure."
Walker spent the night after the seizure at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill., with Carman—who was then six months pregnant—sprawled on a chair in his room. Carman, a true Georgia peach, had met Greg when they were in the sixth grade together back in Douglas, Ga., and they have been sweethearts ever since. "He's been in my life as far back as my memories go," she drawls. "That night I remember thinking that everything in my life had been too perfect up until then, that maybe this was meant to even things out a little."
When he awoke the next morning, Greg seemed normal and in reasonably good spirits. "He was sitting on the side of the bed getting ready to take a shower," says Carman, "and I turned to get him a towel. He said, 'Carm...' and I could see his right hand start shaking. Then he lay back, and I ran out into the hall and called for the nurses." Walker suffered a second brain seizure. At that point, Greg says, "I thought, Is this going to keep going on the rest of my life?"
During his hospitalization, Walker had been given a series of tests, including a CAT scan of his brain and a more sophisticated multiresonance imaging (MRI) examination of the brain. "Whenever an adult comes into the emergency room with a focal seizure [a seizure which originates in one specific place within the brain], as Greg did, it usually has a structural cause," says Dr. Melvin Wichter, the chairman of the neurology department at Christ Hospital, who was in charge of the testing. "The favored diagnosis after Greg's first MRI was a brain tumor." However, Wichter believed the evidence—especially Walker's bout of hives—pointed away from a tumor and more toward an epileptic seizure; but he couldn't be sure until a second MRI was performed. The second test indicated there was no tumor, so Walker was treated for a variety of possible viral causes. "It was probably an inflammation we'll never identify," Wichter says.
A couple of days after he was discharged from the hospital, Walker, feeling strangely again, was brought back to the emergency room in an ambulance and suffered a third focal seizure while being observed by his doctors. "His head was jerking violently, and his eyes were driven to the right," Wichter says. What was now clear was that Walker had not suffered a "freak incident," as he had hoped, but that he was having epileptic seizures—though what induced them remains unknown.
On August 15, Walker had an allergic reaction to Dilantin, a medication commonly used to control brain seizures, and had to be placed on drugs that kept him heavily sedated. "For the next two months I just walked around in a daze." he says. His first visit to the White Sox clubhouse, three weeks after the first seizure, proved to be less a relief to his teammates than Walker had intended. "I could see it in their eyes," he says. "I wasn't looking too good."
During his first few weeks at home, Walker received hundreds of calls from well-wishers, including many of his teammates. "The phone would be sitting right next to his chair, ringing all day," Carman says, "and he would sleep through it all. He would literally sleep 20 out of 24 hours. I had to wake him up to feed him." At first, their five-year-old daughter, Leigh Ann, was reluctant to be near him. "She would just sit on his bed and touch his toe," Carman says.
The one person who had not been afraid to touch Walker when he needed it most was Schneider, who would ordinarily have been the hero of this drama. But in the publicity that ensued after Walker's dramatic episode, Schneider instead ran afoul of the Epilepsy Foundation. Schneider was bombarded with angry letters from doctors, epileptics and others for using scissors to open Walker's mouth, and for then suggesting, according to the newspaper stories that followed, that the seizure had caused Walker to swallow his tongue—which, as it turns out, is physically impossible. The proper procedure in dealing with an epileptic seizure, as specialists like to stress, is to leave the victim alone, except to make sure he doesn't hurt himself, particularly by cradling the head, and to gently turn the head to either side to facilitate breathing. Schneider, however, did not know that Walker was suffering an epileptic seizure. "Herm was a hero for the moment, and everybody made him out to be something he didn't ask to be," Walker says. "The Epilepsy Foundation blasted him because they didn't want people sticking scissors or butter knives in people's mouths when somebody falls out in a restaurant. But I'm here today with a little chip on my tooth, and I'm glad he did what he did. In my mind he saved my life."
When Walker arrived at the White Sox spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla., this February, he still had to find out if he was fully restored after his ordeal. He had been gradually weaned from the more powerful antiseizure drugs, and a final brain scan had convinced his doctors there was no tumor. Now Walker had to convince himself he could still play baseball. As it turned out, he batted .308 for the spring and led the Sox in home runs (7) and RBIs (15). "Once I got down there and started swinging the bat," he says, "I knew I was back." If there were any lingering doubts, he erased them by the end of the first week of the regular season, hitting a cool .363. On Opening Day, he even felt good enough to throw himself into the fray that occurred after Angel reliever Bob McClure hit White Sox rightfielder Ivan Calderon with a pitch in the ninth inning. "I just had a good time." Walker said later. "I been waitin' on that game a while."
Walker's condition is still being carefully monitored, and he must take a drug called Tegretol at least until the end of the year. He hopes to reconcile with the Epilepsy Foundation after the "icy feelings" it caused by criticizing his friend Schneider; if so, he may possibly make the kind of public-service messages for the foundation that he has made tirelessly in the past for other service groups. "He could do all the public-service spots in the world," says Wichter, "and it wouldn't mean as much as the fact that Greg Walker, the baseball player with epilepsy, has made it back and been a success. For epileptics, he is a source of inspiration. Greg had one of the most public seizures it is possible to have in America, and if he had failed in his comeback, epileptics may have doubted themselves. That didn't happen because Greg didn't let it happen."