Baseball's latest tragedy

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

Baseball is supposed to be about life.

Not the hackneyed Game of Life.

Biological life, burgeoning in spring, flourishing through summer, ebbing in fall, fallow in winter as it quietly marshals itself, away from view, for the great rebirth.

JAGGED

"There's no crying in baseball," an incredulous Tom Hanks bellowed in the baseball movie A League Of Their Own.

Baseball has no clock.

There's not supposed to be any dying, either.

That's what makes the news about John Cerutti's death on baseball's final day of the regular season feel so jagged.

Cerutti, 44, was a trim ex-jock, a gracious, studious guy. To everyone he met, Cerutti was untouched by the fatty self-abuse that comes with the good life. He was a father of three and died for no obvious reason in bed Sunday, separated from baseball, even in death, by a few feet of wall at the Renaisssance Hotel.

The truth, of course, is that as many people die young in baseball as in life insurance and maybe even long-distance trucking.

Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, just 23, died of organ failure after suffering heatstroke last spring.

The summer before, they found 33-year-old St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile dead in his hotel room in Chicago after he had enjoyed dinner with his brother and some friends. He had a bad heart.

No one knew.

Same with Tony Lazzeri, the great Yankees second baseman of the Babe Ruth era. His wife found him dead in their home at the age of 42.

Heart attack.

A bum ticker took Al Cowens, a pretty good outfielder for more than a dozen years, at 50 and Clay Kirby, a portly, fearless reliever for the Cincinnati Reds, at the age of 43. A bad heart took genial Los Angeles Dodger Don Drysdale, the most feared pitcher of his era, at 56.

Carl Morton, a one-time ace of the Montreal Expos, fell over dead while jogging. He was 39. A heart attack took New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies reliever Nino Espinosa at 34. Gil Hodges, the steel backbone of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, fell at 47.

His teammate, Jackie Robinson, the greatest man baseball ever gave the world and one of the game's greatest players, left at 53.

For what it's worth, there are explanations.

Athleticism may be life elevated, but John Cerutti's sad story reminds us it is not to be confused with immortality.

One explanation, wrote Barry Franklin of the American College of Sports Medicine, "Lies in the erroneous assumption that people who are fit are also healthy."

"Because a story like this is unusual, it almost always receives attention," e-mailed Kathleen W. Wilson MD, an American expert on heart disease and the author of Dying Young.

She lists a litany of possible causes, from the thickened heart muscle common to athletes to genetic heart defects that go undetected through an athletic career. (It took an autopsy to reveal basketball star Pete Maravich, who died at 40 after a pickup game, had only one working coronary artery).

"Sudden death in a young person may not be due to the heart," Wilson wrote.

"A ruptured aneurysm in the brain is an example of a non-cardiac cause."

All this is true, but they are supposed to give you three strikes in baseball.

Maybe that's what grates.

Greater talents but lesser men -- Mantle, Ruth come to mind -- were afforded countless chances.

NO REASONS

Not so for the profoundly decent John Cerutti and there are no reasons given.

All we know is there was a conference near the mound sometime Sunday morning and the manager had made up his mind to take John Cerutti.

Here's to hope, baseball's golden commodity, and the thought John Cerutti only traded one Renaissance Hotel for another.


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