In a springtraining game against the San Francisco Giants on March 7, Doug Brocail neededonly seven pitches to retire three batters. Though he was hitting a crisp 90mph on the radar gun, the San Diego Padres reliever knew something was wrong."It looked easy, but everything was exhausting," the 39-year-oldBrocail said last week while sitting in the home dugout at PETCO Park."When I came into the game, I was running but had to stop halfway and walk.Then, when it was over, I barely made it to the dugout."
Brocail, in fact,hadn't felt right all winter, but he never suspected it had anything to do withhis heart. The burning sensation in his shoulder when he sneezed? Probably anallergic reaction to the family's cats. Winded after only two 10-yard sprints?Likely his asthma acting up. The heaviness he felt in his chest? Perhaps a sideeffect of the medication he was taking for an infected tooth.
After the March 7game, Padres trainer Todd Hutcheson and team doctor Harry Albers orderedBrocail to take a stress test on a treadmill, which the pitcher failed. Albersthen injected a dye into Brocail that on X-rays revealed a 99% blockage in theleft anterior descending artery. Albers told Brocail that he could drop dead atany moment and instructed him to rush to Boswell Memorial Hospital in Sun City,Ariz., near the Padres' spring training site. The player teammates call Brokeheeded the order but only after a detour to his apartment to fetch hiscellphone charger. "Typical Broke," says Hutcheson. "That's why myjob can be hard."
Four days laterDr. Manoj Rawal inserted a small balloon to expand and clear the blockedartery, then inserted a stent to keep it open. "When it was closed, itlooked like the end of a shoelace, like nothing could get through," saysBrocail, who watched the procedure on a monitor. "After the blockage wascleared, I felt a warmness all over my body."
His ordeal,however, was not over. He opened the season on the disabled list, but afterwatching the Padres get swept by the Colorado Rockies in the first week, hecomplained of chest pains to a friend, who insisted that he check into ScrippsGreen Hospital outside San Diego. Doctors told Brocail that he needed a second,more complex angioplasty, one that would eventually require the insertion ofthree stents.
After the secondprocedure, doctors at Scripps Green debated whether Brocail could ever pitchagain. Athletes had run marathons after an angioplasty, but returning to playbaseball was another matter. One concern was that Brocail could get hit in thehead by a batted ball. The blood thinners he has had to take after theangioplasties might prevent his blood from clotting properly should he sufferinternal bleeding. "There was some talk of him wearing a helmet,"Hutcheson says.
"I'd beenthrough two Tommy John surgeries, numerous elbow clean-outs, so I saw this asjust another thing," says the insouciant Brocail, who has made 10 trips tothe disabled list in his 12 seasons as a major leaguer. "I told the doctorsthat an injury to my arm might knock me out of the game, but not this."
His doctorseventually consented, and on July 14 Brocail returned to the mound, against theAtlanta Braves. "I stepped out of the bullpen and my heart was pumping andI felt great," he says. His fastball hit 93 mph as he retired all threebatters he faced, two on strikeouts. Through Sunday he was 2--0 with a 5.11 ERAin 12 1/3 innings. "He's been great for us," manager Bruce Bochy says."He's changed his lifestyle, his diet and no more tobacco [which he hadchewed for 25 years]. But otherwise he's the same ol' Broke."
The surest signthat Brocail is in the pink is that his teammates are teasing him about hisheart. "When he comes out of the bullpen, we yell, 'Get the defibrillatorready,'" says pitcher Scott Linebrink.
Brocail hopes topitch next year and beyond before he retires to Houston with his wife, Lisa,and their five daughters (ages five to 16). "Every angel up there waslooking after me or I would be dead," he says. "But now I got new pipesand I feel great and I want to keep pitching."
Key Comebacks, 2006
Jim Thome, White Sox
A strained back and an elbow injury limited Thome to 59 games in '05. At week'send he had played in 99 games this season and was second in the AL in HRs (33)and eighth in RBIs (84) while flirting with a .300 average.
Curt Schilling, Red Sox
Boston's ace spent most of '05 recovering from surgery to fix his famous rightankle. Through Sunday he had already topped last year's win total (14 to eight)while lopping nearly two runs off his ERA.
Scott Rolen, Cardinals
Playing with screws in his reconstructed left shoulder, Rolen has bounced backfrom a largely lost 2005 (.235 avg., 5 HRs, 28 RBIs) by hitting .316 with 15HRs and 71 RBIs.
Frank Thomas, A's
The Big Hurt has stayed healthy in Oakland after missing all but 34 games inhis final season with the White Sox, during which he hit .219 with 12 HRs andan on-base percentage of .315, 110 points below his career average. This yearhe's hitting .259 with 24 home runs and a .380 OBP.
Two heart procedures and four stents later, Brocail is in the thick of apennant race with the Padres.