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The Sons Also Rise : Kirkpatrick Rallies to Thrive, Not Just Survive, on the Diamond

May 08, 1985|SARAH SMITH | Times Staff Writer

She also is the rare mother who readily quotes Yogi Berra and always is willing to help her sons practice baseball.

"She could hit a mean fly ball," David said admiringly. Friends credit her with sustaining the Kirkpatricks' "amazingly close family" under potentially heartbreaking circumstances.

"If you look backward, Ed's doing wonderfully," she says.

Ed Kirkpatrick steers his chair by gripping a bar with the fingers of his right hand, once so accustomed to the lower grip of a baseball bat. A large, handsome man, he typically arrives at David's games dressed in a golf sweater and a jaunty driving cap.

He has retained his big-leaguer's sense of humor, a strong spirit and a mostly unmarred memory.

But paralysis of the left side of his body makes speech an effort. Behind the sunglasses, one eye sometimes fails to respond to his will, making it difficult for him to see parts of the field. He has a habit of frequently checking his watch, as if he fears being late for an important appointment.

He makes the most of a few laborious words, an occasional grin and descriptive gestures with his right hand. The fingers--his only means of communication during the first months of recovery--indicate the score, the outs or the ball-strike count.

That saves him the frustration of being misunderstood or having to ask Judy to provide a translation of his words. She understands him very well and gracefully fills puzzling gaps in the conversation.

When David comes to bat, he can hear his father encouraging and coaching him from behind the backstop, although the voice is not as loud as the other fathers'. Kirkpatrick recycles some of the advice he was given in Kansas City by the late Charlie Lau, one of the game's finest batting instructors.

"I can tell him, but I can't show him," Ed Kirkpatrick said. "He has a quick bat, good power and a good (throwing) arm."

David's fielding?

"Average at best," Ed laughs after his son, who would prefer to play the infield, slightly misplays a ball in left field.

"He's really enthusiastic," David said of his father. "He loves the game. He's always telling me, 'Top hand! Remember, top hand!' I can hear him over there saying it, no matter what I do. He's really proud."

Ed Kirkpatrick jokes about the weight that confinement has added to his athletic body. But he still looks capable of standing up at any moment to send a towering drive over the center-field wall--or down a fairway.

That appearance is deceptive.

His last athletic event, apart from twice-weekly Nautilus therapy, was Nov. 23, 1981, at Rick Burleson's charity golf tournament on the Hacienda Country Club at La Habra. The event benefitted a charity for brain-injured children.

On his return, he was two miles from home on the 405 freeway near Laguna Niguel when his van apparently ran onto the shoulder. As he corrected, pulling the van back onto the freeway, it was hit by a tractor-trailer.

The exact circumstances of the accident are unclear because Kirkpatrick cannot remember a period of time prior to the accident. A legal suit on his behalf is pending.

His doctors that night believed he had escaped the accident with only cuts and bruises. But Judy Kirkpatrick recalls feeling worried that something wasn't right about her husband. She insisted that he remain hospitalized overnight for observation.

Her intuition was frighteningly accurate. In fact, a blood clot had developed under a bruise in his neck. It migrated to his brain the next morning, and Ed began losing consciousness.

A few weeks later, while entering surgery to relieve swelling of his brain, he suffered a heart attack in reaction to anesthesia. He slipped into a coma. It lasted six months.

"They didn't know if he ever would come out of the coma and if he did, whether he would know us," Judy said.

The family--including David's brothers, Steve and Jeff--kept a daily vigil at the hospital. All three boys were attending Mater Dei High School, but David remembers missing more than attending.

Life was not just interrupted, it was suspended for a year, until his father regained some ability to speak and was able to leave the hospital.

Jeff, a junior, maintained his flying lessons and an interest in marine biology. Steve, then a sophomore, now on a baseball scholarship at Pepperdine University, was on his way to prep stardom as a speedy, left-handed-hitting center fielder.

But David, a freshman, reacted with a sense of shock and denial that refused to subside. He became "a little withdrawn," Judy Kirkpatrick said.

"It hit David the hardest because he and his Dad were the closest," said Ickes, who knew all three boys at Mater Dei and is a family friend.

"For a while, he just quit everything. He didn't know whether he wanted to go on anymore. It was like he felt his Dad had hurt him. It was as if he said, 'Why get good grades anymore? Why be the good guy?' "

David began his first high school baseball season a few months after the accident and ran head-on into conflict with the junior varsity baseball coaches.

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