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PETE REDFERN : Stikeouts Used To Be His Specialty ... Right Now, He Would Settle for a Walk

March 29, 1985|STEVE SPRINGER | Times Staff Writer

Effort sweats from every pore on Pete Redfern's face. His jaw stretches, his muscles strain and his eyes bulge.

"This is a lot tougher than wind sprints," he says between heavy breaths.

And just what is it that is so taxing Redfern, former star pitcher at Sylmar High, an All-American at USC and a seven-year major league veteran?

The simple act of taking a step.

It isn't simple for Redfern. Nothing is. Not since one tragic October afternoon in 1983 when he broke his neck diving into shallow water off Balboa Island and was paralyzed from the neck down.

Once it was thought such a step would not be possible, when, in the first traumatic hours after the accident, a doctor termed the paralysis permanent.

Redfern's wife, Tina, didn't believe it.

"The doctor told me Pete would be lucky if he could ever even sit up in a chair," she says. "I thought it was just too soon for him to know that. I know he's a doctor, I told myself, but he's not God."

So Tina demanded a second opinion.

And got new hope.

And today, slowly, step by step, that hope is turning into reality at the Institute For Living wing of the Northridge Hospital Foundation Medical Center, where Redfern is undergoing therapy.

He can walk 10 feet between parallel bars with the aid of three therapists and at the cost of a lot of perspiration.

"I work as hard at walking again," he says, "as I once did at striking out Reggie Jackson."

When Pete Redfern stood on a 4-foot sea wall on Oct. 29, 1983, he was a man poised at a crucial point in his baseball career.

His fastball and slider had always blown down every obstacle before him. He was L.A. City Player of the Year as a senior at Sylmar. He had a 7-3 record as a sophomore with USC in 1974 and returned in 1975 with a 9-3 mark, a 1.24 earned-run average and a conference-leading 120 strikeouts in 108 innings.

The Minnesota Twins chose him first in the secondary phase of the 1976 free-agent draft. It was a seven-year struggle. He never produced a better record than his 7-3 mark of 1979 or an ERA better than his 3.50 the same year. His career record was 42-48.

Things got really serious in 1982 when an elbow injury resulted in postseason surgery that required relocation of the ulnar nerve.

He came back as a free agent in '83, signed at mid-season with the Dodgers and attempted a comeback in the bullpen of the club's Albuquerque farm team. "In Albuquerque, my arm started feeling real good," Redfern says.

On the day of the accident, however, his mail included his release notice from the Dodgers.

So much for the small problems.

"I was ready for his career to end," Tina says, recalling her emotions the day the Redferns and several friends went down to Newport Beach for a few days of boating. "I was tired of the traveling. I didn't want to have to keep pulling our son, Chad, in and out of school and I wasn't all that happy living in Minnesota after coming from Southern California."

But neither Tina nor anyone else was ready for the way her husband's career ended.

"My friends were out sailing," Pete says. "I could see them from the wall and I decided to dive off from there to help them out."

It wasn't until he was in the air that he knew he had made a potentially fatal mistake. The water was no more than a foot or two deep. The best he could do was draw his knees up to his chest before he hit.

"It all happened so fast," Redfern says. "I'm not sure to this day how I landed. Everything went numb. I could see my hand barely resting on the bottom. I was trying to get the arm to move, but I couldn't. I thought, 'Oh no, I've messed my back up. I've ruptured a disc.' "

If only it had been so simple.

He was floating face down in the water, and his friends figured he was just fooling around. Paralyzed, he couldn't turn over. He couldn't do anything. And he was rapidly running out of air.

"I must have held my breath for two minutes," he says. "I was about ready to give up."

Almost literally at the last second, one of his friends, Scott Swett, became concerned, walked up and turned him over.

When the paramedics and the fire department arrived, Redfern's hands were placed on his chest. They kept falling off.

"That was when we realized it was very serious," Tina remembers. "That's when it became very real. A paramedic told me he broke his neck. I couldn't believe it was happening. In the past, he'd had injuries and he'd always gotten better. I was sure he would again once we got to the hospital."

At the hospital, though, the best Redfern could do was move his left hand a little.

"That was it," he says. "They checked my reflexes and I had none. The doctor told Tina, 'What you see is the way he is going to be.' He didn't give us much hope. Fortunately, Tina said, 'No way.' She got another opinion. Her spirit is what lifted mine. I don't think I'd be here today if not for her. She took control of the whole situation."

Not at first.

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