Home Alone, Two

For Kristen Babb-Sprague and Ed Sprague, the reward for nine months of lonely separation Olympic gold and a World Series homer
January 11, 1993

THE SOUND COMES FROM THE KITCHEN. A tropical storm has rolled across the Pacific and created a giant riptide that has been carried far inland. No, a washing machine has run amok, water churning out of the suddenly open door. No, Norm is drinking from his plastic bowl.

"Get the towel," Kristen Babb-Sprague says.

"Right," her husband, Ed Sprague, says.

There is a flurry of activity because, well, Norm is Norm. There is a pattern here. The slurping noise, the water noise, will be followed by a few seconds of silence. The silence will be followed by a shaking noise. (The washing machine? No, Norm.) The shaking noise will be followed by the rainstorm. Anyone or anything may be hit.

"If you don't get to him fast...," Ed says.

"He's ruined my couches...," Kristen says.

Norm is a dog. No, Norm is a big dog. He is just about as big as any dog possibly could be, an overpowering dog, an English mastiff. He weighs 160 pounds. He has a head the size of a television set, a sad face with more folds and wrinkles than a crumpled-up love note. The water collects in the folds and wrinkles, and with one shake of his head Norm can irrigate a small farm.

Even when his face has been dried, his thirst quenched, Norm dominates a room. He enters the den and stretches across four or five feet of carpet. He plays with his toy of choice, a deflated regulation football. The football looks like a throat lozenge in his mouth. He is a good dog, a pleasant dog, named after the George Wendt character in the television comedy Cheers. He is huge.

"I wanted a dog this year because I knew I would be home alone a lot," Kristen says. "Ed was going to be gone, and I was going to be here. Ed bought him for me as a present for our first anniversary, in February. I went to a dog show and looked at setters and Saint Bernards, and then I saw the mastiffs. I knew that was what I wanted. Norm was only 10 weeks old when we got him."

He now is 14 months old. That is probably the most impressive of all of Norm's impressive statistics. How could he have grown so big so fast? He came into this modest house in Pleasanton, Calif., and in one tumultuous year he became this giant, while Kristen fulfilled a lifelong dream and won the gold medal for the solo synchronized swimming event in Barcelona and Ed became a true-life World Series hero, stepping off the bench in Game 2 to hit a ninth-inning home run in Atlanta to set the Toronto Blue Jays off toward their world championship. Norm somehow is a symbol of all that has happened to his owners.

How big, how dramatic has 1992 been? How big is Norm?

"The mailman is terrified of him," Ed says.

The year was going to be Kristen's year from the beginning. One way or another. She was going to be 24 years old, winding up a career in one of those amateur sports that hands an athlete one chance at a grand finishing touch. She would win a gold medal in the Olympics or she would not. The rest of her life would have to wait. This would be her moment, in a competition held Aug. 2-7. What was it she said to Ed when he had returned home with a gold medal as a member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic baseball team? She said she would bring home one of her own in '92. This was her time to do that.

Ed's year was much more uncertain. Signed as a first-round draft pick in June 1988, he had finally made the major leagues in '91, sitting on the Blue Jays' bench. He was not assured of that spot in '92. A third baseman, he had heard that there was a move to convert him to catcher, a change that probably would not be made in the big leagues. Where would he be in '92? Majors or minors? He had no idea. He only knew he would be alone.

"We've never had a chance to be together for a long stretch of time," Kristen says. "He was working on his career. I was working on mine. They're both careers you can have only when you're young. You either do them then or you don't do them."

The romance of the situation was the stuff of a made-for-TV movie, the synchronized swimmer and the baseball player. They had met in a dormitory hallway at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis and had become almost an instant couple. They were helped by the fact that they lived so close to each other in California's East Bay, outside San Francisco, Kristen in Walnut Creek and Ed in Stockton, but that was the only help they received. He was always leaving for some trip when she was coming home, or vice versa. Winter ball. Instructional league. World synchro championships. Hello. Goodbye. Four years of courtship. One year of marriage.

"I missed everything he did, he missed everything I did," Kristen says. "That was how it had to be. I was in the air somewhere when he was called up to the major leagues. I had 15 messages to call Ed when I got home. I called and he said, 'You can go out and buy the couches now. I'm in the big leagues.' I was in the air when he got his first major league hit. I was in the air when he got his first home run. Even when we were together, our schedules were so different. I'd have to be at the pool at 6:30 in the morning. I'd go through my two workouts and come home at five at night and be ready for dinner and bed. Ed was used to a nighttime schedule, all night games."

The 1992 separation was the worst. No doubt about that. Ed left for spring training early, in the middle of February. Kristen saw him only for two-and three-day stretches somewhere in North America. She saw him no more than 15 days, total, until after the Olympics in August. Norm was her companion. He was still very young and weighed about 65 pounds when Ed got on the plane for Florida.

"Norm helped a lot," Kristen says. "There were people I could visit—my parents, my teammates at the Walnut Creek Aquanuts Club, my friends—but when I came home, it helped to have someone in the house waiting for me. You could see him changing. There were weeks when he would grow 10 pounds. He was always glad to see me. He became a real mama's dog."

Kristen's workouts were the last pieces of a long comeback. Taking over in 1989 for the retired Tracie Ruiz-Conforto as the U.S.'s top synchronized swimmer, Kristen suffered severe back pain after winning the 1989 national championships. The diagnosis was that she had torn facets, tiny ligaments attached to the vertebrae. It was an injury most often seen in aging pro football linebackers, brought on by arching the back too many times at the point of collision. A synchronized swimmer sometimes feels as though she spends her entire life with her back arched. The prescription was total rest. Kristen did nothing for the next nine months.

From that point, in February 1990, until the Olympics, the race was on to catch Sylvie Frechette of Canada, the world champion. She and Kristen had battled each other in age-group competitions since 1985, always close, but now Frechette had a substantial lead in performance and conditioning. Each time they had met since Kristen's injury, the American had chipped away at Frechette's lead, but still there was a lead. The Olympic gold was a toss-up at best.

"The hard part about synchronized swimming is that there are so few games," Kristen says. "Ed is playing games every day. We have to make up our games. You work as hard as you can, and then your coach says, 'Let's do it again, from the beginning.' And you have another three and a half minutes of hell. You have to think you're swimming for the gold medal."

The early news from Ed's games was not good. The switch was made to catcher, and at the end of spring training he was sent to Syracuse, Triple A, to learn the trade. With Toronto, at least, he was a line in a box score in the morning paper, which was at least some communication with Kristen. With Syracuse he was in a netherworld that sent him to places like Rochester, N.Y., and Pawtucket, R.I. She would call him early in the morning or late at night at his hotel. There was no in-between. He was at the ballpark. She was at the pool.

The last time they saw each other before the Olympics was the Fourth of July weekend, in Scranton, Pa. Ed had been doing some thinking. How could he miss his wife's performance in the Olympics? He would go to Barcelona. If he were in the big leagues, fine, he would not go. But the minors? He could not escape the thought that he might be going 0 for 4 in obscurity while his wife was becoming famous.

Kristen told him not to go. She said that all things had a purpose. If he went, he might miss a chance to be called back to the big leagues. It would be silly to go. Toronto could call any day. No, Toronto would call. She was right.

"On July 31 he was called up," she says. "I was in Barcelona by then, though, and I didn't know. You couldn't call into the Olympic Village, so he couldn't tell me where he was. I had to call him. I called the room where he had been staying, and some girl answered. I said, 'What is this?' She didn't know anything. It took me half a day, calling all over the place, to find out what had happened and where he was. See? It was best that he didn't go."

Kristen was busy, anyway. She was involved in the early stages of a melodrama she had done nothing to create. She was about to become the enemy of an entire country. The country was the one where Ed was playing baseball. Canada.

"Two days before I left for Barcelona, the news arrived that Sylvie Frechette's fiancè had killed himself," Kristen says. "I just started crying. I put myself in her shoes. My coach told me to forget about it, that there was nothing I could do, that it couldn't be my problem. My reply was, 'That's a nice thing to say in theory, but how do you do that?' I felt so bad. I tried to get in touch with Sylvie, but by then the whole world was trying to get in touch with her. I sent a note. It was the best I could do. Then I went to Barcelona."

The suicide changed the focus and the amount of attention the sport received at the Games. Ordinarily dropped to the back of even the Olympic news, synchronized swimming became a compelling story in the summer of '92. Especially in Canada. How would the grieving Frechette fare? She was transformed from simple favorite to sentimental favorite. Kristen, who earlier had been the sentimental favorite, having overcome back pain, became the roadblock to a happy ending. Ed's call-up to the Blue Jays in the midst of all this made the story even more topical, more personal. Especially in Canada.

Kristen talked with Frechette for two hours in the days before the competition, expressing her sympathy. What else could she do? She handled her own feelings by telling herself that all things happen for a reason, however obscure that reason might be. She kept working. The primary goal for a synchronized swimmer is to stay vertical in the water, to create a perfect up-and-down picture. The good swim is the vertical swim. As she entered the solo competition, Kristen suddenly found herself doing her routine as if an internal gyroscope had clicked into action. She was swimming her routine better than she ever had, even before the injury.

"My problem always has been the figures," she says. "They're like the school figures that figure skaters used to have to perform. They always are held on the first day of the three days of competition, and I always have been trailing at the end. This time, though, I came out with the lead. I hit my figures as well as I ever have. I couldn't believe it."

The good news shortly was followed by bad news. The controversy had begun. Frechette's score in the figures was in doubt. A judge from Brazil had given her an 8.7, an inordinately low score for a contender, then tried to change it. The judge's appeal was denied. The press, sniffing the scent of injustice, reacted. Especially the Canadian press. How could Frechette, in the midst of tragedy, be dealt this second blow? All manner of stories appeared. Some of them said that because of a computer failure, the Brazilian judge hadn't had the chance to report a proper score. Others hypothesized that a better score would have put Frechette solidly in the lead. Others talked about undue American influence in the sport's judging. Frechette became the injured party. Kristen became the unworthy benefactor. She hadn't done a thing, but she was in the middle of the buzz. She has her own opinion about what happened.

"The computer wasn't broken," she says. "It was checked. Here's what I think happened. The figures are a long, boring process. There are 50 women coming through, all performing the same movements. This is a subjective sport, and in subjective sports, reputation means a lot. It shouldn't be that way, but it is. My guess is that the Brazilian judge simply lost track of who was performing. She watched the figures and gave the score she thought appropriate. She had two chances to change the score before it was final. She didn't change it. Then the scores came up on the board, and she learned that she was judging Sylvie, and the score was supposed to be higher, and she tried to change it. It's not a rare occurrence. I've had it happen to me."

The debate continued for the final two days of competition. After the figures Frechette was in fourth, .251 of a point behind Kristen. Where would Frechette have been in the standings if the Brazilian judge had been able to change her score? How much higher would the judge's score have been? How would the attitudes of the competitors be changed if the role of leader and follower were reversed? All that is known for sure is what happened. On the final night, Kristen swam her routine, stayed vertical, finished to applause and went to the dressing room. Frechette followed. The final score gave the gold medal to Kristen Babb-Sprague, U.S.A., by .131 of a point over Frechette.

Kristen's joy was tempered by the press conference after the medal ceremony, a press conference that sometimes resembled an inquisition. Hadn't she worked a lifetime for this moment? Hadn't she gone through all of the back pain and then the stress of recovery? Didn't she deserve the gold? She never thought that she didn't, no matter what anybody said.

"What bothered me most was that the press made this an issue of character," she says. "There were so many stories that were flat-out wrong. There wasn't anything wrong with my character. I didn't do anything wrong. There was so much controversy that I didn't even look at the video of the competition for two months. Then, finally, back home, all alone, I watched the video. This is what I saw—I watched the video, and I deserve that medal. I can honestly say that I won it. No one gave me anything."

Ed couldn't watch the performance live on television. He was in Detroit, and the hotel did not have the pay-per-view triple-cast. He couldn't find a television with triplecast anywhere. The final routine took place at dawn in the U.S. He did not learn about Kristen's gold medal until he heard it a few hours later on TV. He let out a shout at the news. A Toronto radio station called him for an interview. Ed was asked about Frechette and the Brazilian judge and all the rest. He did not know about any of it. He became testy when the interviewer persisted.

"The guy asked how I felt the people in Canada would react," Ed said. "I told him I didn't care what anybody thinks. This was my wife. I knew how hard she had worked. I was proud of her."

Kristen flew from the Olympics to Toronto to join her husband. She arrived in time to watch a game at the SkyDome. Ed was booed when he was announced as the next hitter. A sign in the outfield read SPRAGUE: TAKE THE BABE AND LEAVE. He took the babe and left. They traveled with the Blue Jays on a 14-day road trip through the Midwest. That was Ed and Kristen's reunion.

Kristen then returned home for a string of public appearances and obligations as a gold medal winner. She did not see Ed again until the American League playoffs. The Jays went to Oakland to meet the A's in the third game. Kristen waited at the airport at 3 a.m. with Norm. Oh, Norm. He had spent the Olympics at the home of his breeder but now was part of the household again. He also was as big as a house, up to 150 pounds. Ed hadn't seen him since February. Kristen had sent pictures and videotapes, but they couldn't capture the size of the dog.

Norm? Ed's jaw dropped when he saw what his puppy had become.

"I thought I'd get a chance to hit in the World Series," Ed says. "Especially in Atlanta, with the National League rules. You need more pinch hitters. I got a hit in Toronto against Dennis Eckersley in the playoffs, so I knew the manager was thinking about me. I struck out in Oakland against Eckersley, but that was as nervous as I've ever been. I had 30 friends and relatives in the stands. I was determined that if I got a chance in the Series, that wasn't going to happen again."

This was one of those learning years. In 24 games and 47 at bats he hit .234 with one home run. He was with a good team, learning good habits. If there wasn't a future in Toronto, there would be a future somewhere else. He was an attractive prospect, able to play third or first or catch. For a while the controversy about his wife had bothered him. There were different stories about how his family was smug and didn't care about Canada.

"Finally I went to Dave Winfield," Ed says. "I asked him for some advice. I respect Dave Winfield as much as anyone in baseball. He told me I could do one of two things: I could call a press conference and battle it out, or I could just wait and it would blow over. I thought about the press conference, but I waited. It finally quieted down."

Ed already had won a gold medal in Seoul and had been a member of two NCAA championship teams at Stanford, so big-time baseball was not a new experience. He also had strong baseball genes. His father, Ed Sr., was a major league pitcher with four different teams in nine years and had been part of Cincinnati's Big Red Machine. Ed Jr. has memories of running around the field at Riverfront Stadium with the sons of Pete Rose and Hal McRae and of swinging a bat as a teenager in batting practice against professional pitching when his dad owned a minor league team in Stockton, Calif., and his stepmother, Michele, owned another team in nearby Lodi. Playing baseball was natural. Playing baseball was what he was supposed to do.

"It's funny, but I always thought I'd be a major leaguer," he says. "I just accepted it as fact. Now I see how naive I was, how hard it is to make it, but I never thought about that. My dad played. I would play. It somehow worked out."

His World Series chance came in Game 2 in Atlanta. The Braves, who had won the first game 3-1, were ahead 4-3 in the ninth inning. The bottom of the lineup was coming to bat, and Ed was told before the inning started that he would be a pinch hitter, batting third. He had suspected as much, but now he had time to plan. The pitcher was Atlanta closer Jeff Reardon. Ed had watched Reardon lead oil the three previous Blue Jay hitters with fastballs and had been warned by veteran Rance Mulliniks to lay off the high fastball and look for the low one.

There were no nerves, no jitters. In fact Ed had told teammate John Olerud in batting practice before the first game that he hoped he would hit because he felt "locked in." Locked in? It was the same feeling his wife had had when she found it so easy to stay vertical. Who knows why these feelings arrive when they arrive? They simply do. Ed looked for a low fastball. Reardon threw it on the first pitch, with a runner on first. Ed hit the ball out of the park.

"I knew I had hit the ball well, and if this were the minor leagues, I probably would have put my head down and gone into a trot," he says. "But here I looked up and couldn't see anything because of the lights. Then I saw Deion Sanders turned around in leftfield, looking up. I said to myself, 'No way. No way I just did that.' That was exactly how I felt. It was the home run everyone dreams of hitting. I just started running."

Kristen was in the stands at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. She was determined to get a picture of Ed's first swing in the World Series. Who knew it would be a home run to win the game 5-4? She clicked a shot that later, when developed, showed the ball just leaving the bat. She was engulfed by people and noise. What happened? Finally she saw him circling the bases. She was shown on national television wiping away tears—this pretty woman in a stars-and-stripes jacket. Her coach, Gail Emery, back in Walnut Creek, was watching. She said she saw the same look of pride in Kristen's eyes that she had seen two months earlier on the victory stand in Barcelona.

The home run grew in succeeding days. The big World Series moment is never really determined until the Series is finished. The Jays won in six games. The pivotal game, in retrospect, was the second, when they broke serve to win in Atlanta and gain control. The big hit was Ed's. He was the unlikely hero of October.

Kristen is now retired. She mostly wants to be a ballplayer's wife, though she does a consumer report once a week on local TV. She laughs and says she would not mind being Martha Stewart, the arbiter of suburban decorating trends. What could be better? Stay at home and entertain and be paid. Kristen says that "Hillary Clinton would probably slap me upside the head for saying this," but she is ready to be domestic.

As for Ed, he was protected in the expansion draft. His name has been mentioned in various trade rumors, but he still is a Blue Jay. There is no winter ball this year for him. He has been playing a lot of golf. He and Kristen have built a new house, in Stockton, and will move in January. The house is on a golf course. He envisions playing even more golf.

The controversy in Canada has died at last. It resurfaced, of course, in the moments after Ed's homer, commentators saying that the trade of a gold medal for a World Series win probably was a very good deal. The front page of the next day's Toronto Sun, with the headline ONE TIME CANADA BASHER ED SPRAGUE IS NOW A NATIONAL HERO, is framed and hanging on a wall in a hallway. The ball, returned by a fan, is in a dresser drawer. Kristen's gold medal was sent to a jeweler for framing.

Norm? He is adjusting to having these two humans around all the time. One of the big adjustments came when Kristen went into the small swimming pool in the backyard one hot, late summer day. Norm started barking like crazy. He never had seen her in the pool. Why should he have? She had never been in the pool, spending all of her time away from the house in a bigger pool. She had to convince Norm that she was not drowning.

"He was worried about me," Kristen says, rubbing the top of his head. "He's a good dog, still growing. He's had a busy year."

Yes, he has.

PHOTOJOHN MCDERMOTTEd and Kristen designed their new house with plenty of room for Norm to stretch out. PHOTOEven at three, Kristen was practicing the strokes that would earn her a gold medal in Barcelona. PHOTOKEN LEVINE/ALLSPORT USA[See caption above.] PHOTOEd needs only nine more postseason homers to equal the total of an early idol, Johnny Bench. PHOTOJOHN IACONO[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRAFour years after Ed got his gold as a member of Team USA, Kristen won her controversial medal. PHOTOBEBETO MATTHEWS/AP[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN MCDERMOTTThe new house in Stockton is home to two victorious athletes... PHOTOSTAN BEHAL/THE TORONTO SUN...but Kristen will now have to settle for merely being Ed's fan.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)