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Not Taken for Granted : Keough Now Knows How Close End Was

February 27, 1993|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They exchanged pleasantries and probably chatted about the weather or the latest Angel defeat when they met for lunch one fine day last summer.

Then Dr. Gordon Deen told Matt Keough how close he had come to dying March 16, to not seeing the birth of his third child and to never again embracing his oldest son, Shane, and daughter, Kara.

Keough had "blocked out the death part" of being struck on the head by a line drive in the Angels' dugout while waiting to pitch in an exhibition against the San Francisco Giants, a freak accident that sent him to Scottsdale Memorial Hospital for emergency brain surgery. As his hair grew back and covered the scars on the back of his head and his right temple, his mind covered the horror of his ordeal by refusing to fully acknowledge it.

That was shattered when Deen, in clinical words and unemotional tones, mentioned that if Scottsdale Stadium had not been across the street from the hospital--and if Deen himself hadn't happened to be there to operate on a 6-year-old boy who had been in a car accident--Keough would not have been sitting at that lunch table.

"He was just so matter of fact," Keough said. "I don't remember the exact numbers, but he said something like, 'You had 3 minutes and 47 seconds before you would have been dead, so I had to do a craniotomy, and your heart rate was down in the 30s.' He says it like you're talking about a guy's batting average, when you're talking about a life. When you talk to somebody like that, it really hits you."

Keough, who will scout the American League and the National League East for the Angels this season, in addition to special scouting assignments, knew he was hurt when the ball came off John Patterson's bat and hit him. But his reaction, then and for the next few minutes, was anger, not fear.

After sitting out the entire 1991 season because of rotator-cuff surgery, Keough, at 36, had made a remarkable comeback last spring. A former Corona del Mar High star, he had pitched for the Athletics, Yankees, Cardinals, Cubs and Astros and spent four seasons in Japan before signing with the Angels. By March 16, when he was to follow Don Robinson to the mound at the Giants' new $7-million spring home, the only question was whether he would work in relief or as the Angels' fifth starter.

"I don't think there would have been a problem, as far as me fitting in with the pitching staff, especially with the problems Chuck Crim was having early," Keough said. "And we didn't have a right-hander out of the bullpen. With three left-handed starters, that becomes a premium position.

"All the way until I went into the coma, I was just frustrated about being injured. That shows you how strange the mind of an athlete works."

He had had the presence of mind, earlier that day, to recall his father's warning about the proximity of the dugouts to the batter's box and to move down the third-base line. He even had worn his glove as protection after Marty Keough, the western regional scouting supervisor for the Cardinals, had criticized the stadium's design and predicted that someone would get hurt.

That someone was his son. And it happened before Marty Keough's eyes.

"My dad told me, 'When you go to that ballpark, you're not going to believe how close to home plate you are,' " Matt recalled. "When I got there, initially I sat near the bat rack, which is near home plate, when the pitcher was warming up. When I saw how close I was, I said, 'Geez,' so I moved. I went and moved down to get hit.

"You can drive yourself crazy thinking about all the strange things that went into this."

Because Keough remained conscious and lucid, he at first appeared to have suffered nothing worse than a concussion.

"I answered questions I guarantee most players couldn't answer on a daily basis--like where I was and what day it was," Keough said. "It wasn't until they jostled me putting me into the CAT-scan machine that I lost it. They told me later I was hemorrhaging back through my spinal cord. At the time, the only thing I knew was it hurt a lot. . . .

"I've heard other people talking about what accidents are like, and it was just like that. It was almost like it all happened in slow motion, as far as seeing the ball coming at me. It's like you're in a dream and you're trying to run and you're going slowly. You hear people talking to you, but they're talking slowly."

After he lapsed into a coma, Deen performed the craniotomy, removing a piece of skull to relieve the pressure on Keough's brain.

Less than 24 hours later, Keough was sitting up in his hospital bed, perusing box scores in the newspaper. Five days later, with his wife Jeana--then seven months pregnant--he flew home to Coto de Caza, in southern Orange County. The pressure and altitude changes on the flight were agonizing, but the worst was yet to come.

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