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Angels' resurgence is a boost for fan fighting ALS

For John Rountree, each Angels game down the stretch is becoming be a late entry into a lifetime memory bank.

August 24, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • Angels catcher Jeff Mathis, No. 5, and Mike Trout slap hands to celebrate their 8-0 win against the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday.
Angels catcher Jeff Mathis, No. 5, and Mike Trout slap hands to celebrate… (Victor Decolongon / Getty…)

It was a week ago that the Angels badly needed a boost. So did John Rountree.

The Angels had lost seven of their previous eight games, the most recent three to the team they were chasing in the American League West race, the Texas Rangers. After a 4-3 loss Aug. 17 at Angel Stadium, they trailed the Rangers by seven games with 38 to go. Not insurmountable, but the fat lady was warming up her voice.

Fans were writing them off. Columnists too. Such as this one.

Rountree actually needed more than a boost, more like a miracle. But a boost would do.

Less than a year ago, he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. His ALS turned out to be the fast-moving kind. Suffice to say, John Rountree did not consider himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.

He was at the retirement age but was hardly the retiring type. He had run businesses, been a community leader for years in Claremont, could sell peanuts to a peanut vendor without being pushy or obnoxious and could, until a year or so ago, occasionally hit a golf ball 300 yards.

He is a West Point graduate and was a captain in Vietnam. He has written a book titled "Short Tour — Vietnam Memoir: From Front to Rear." It won't be on the New York Times' bestseller list, but in a better place — the bookshelves of his six grandchildren.

While he was a top executive of companies and even a hospital, he found time to run a charity event for 25 years, raising millions for a specialty program for the Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation in Pomona.

Oh, yes. He is also an Angels fan. How weird. The sport of the namesake of his incurable disease would become one of his final pleasures.

When word got out about his ALS, it was quickly clear that he had about 400 best friends. They came from all over the country and are still coming. I figured I was in there somewhere and thought it might help if I would watch some Angels games with him on TV. He thought, because I was a sportswriter, that he would get some extra insight. Fooled him too.

So we watched and talked — progressively, me more than him, because deteriorating speech is among the curses of this horrible disease. I came to realize it was my "Tuesdays With Morrie," only I wasn't Mitch Albom and I was sure Rountree would hold out for having Brad Pitt play him in the movie.

It was kind of a guys' thing. Angels With John.

When the talking got tougher, the nodding was just as good. Peter Bourjos goes first to third when the ball dribbles 20 feet past the first baseman on a pickoff attempt. Nod and smile. Mark Trumbo hits a home run halfway up the rocks in center field. Wide-eyed nod. Torii Hunter takes a home run off the right-field wall. Mouth agape, nod.

One of the most recent sentences I got, with full understanding, was when Rountree said, "There's not one guy on this team I don't like."

Seeing a game in person became a goal.

So there we were, Thursday night, Aug. 18, wheelchair full speed ahead, as the Angels tried to salvage one game of the four with the Rangers.

The weather was perfect, magical. The night would be too.

Because of swallowing difficulty, Rountree now eats mostly softer, healthier food. So, of course, he demanded a hot dog. When questioned about his choice, his response was a look easily translated to: "Gee, do you think it'll kill me?"

Shortly after the hot dog came the big cheese. Angels Manager Mike Scioscia, a former neighbor of Rountree's in Claremont, came by for a chat. This wasn't sports-hero-visits-sick-child-in-hospital. This was one friend saying goodbye to another.

Then came the game. Jered Weaver did what he almost always does — string up a bunch of zeroes for the other team on the scoreboard. The Rangers' pitcher was doing the same. Quickly, it was clear that Rountree badly wanted the Angels to win. This was more than just being a fan. This was to be a late entry into a lifetime memory bank.

First, the worst happened. Former Angel Mike Napoli hit a home run that landed somewhere near the 57 Freeway.

Then came the Angels' ninth, trailing 1-0. Rountree pointed to Hunter at bat. His gesture meant that Hunter, one of his favorites, would take care of this. He did, singling to right-center. Next came Trumbo, tall, strong, powerful. Being a knowledgeable veteran sportswriter, I suggested Scioscia should have Trumbo bunt.

Rountree gestured wildly with his left arm, his right arm long rendered inoperable. I took the gesture, pointing down the third-base line toward the left-field stands, to mean: 1. Are you nuts? 2. Are all sportswriters as stupid as you? 3. See those left-field bleachers? That's where he's going to hit it.

And so Trumbo did. It was a walk-off homer, a rocket that curled around the left-field foul pole and probably left a dent in whichever seat it hit. The place went wild. All around, people stood and cheered, arms in the air.

Rountree's left arm was up too, and just for an instant, the right arm lifted off the wheelchair.

Postscript: The Angels have not lost since. They beat the Chicago White Sox, 8-0, on Wednesday night, are 2½ games out of first place and have won six in a row. Around our house, we are calling it the Rountree Run.

I talked to Rountree on the phone Tuesday. I was able to understand the words "Will you speak at my funeral?" I told him I would block out time in 2025. He said I should focus on October.

We laughed, then I hung up and cried.

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