Friends, family and faith help ex-pitcher Stone fight cancer
In August 2008, Ricky Stone suffered a seizure and learned he had brain cancer
Former teammates like Brad Lidge and Roy Oswalt gave aid to Stone
Stone pitched for the Houston Astros, San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds
It had been a good day for Ricky Stone.
On Aug. 7, 2008, the Astros were visiting the Reds and Stone, a former relief pitcher for both clubs, spent several hours at Great American Ballpark catching up with old teammates before the game. His wife, Tracey, had accepted a pre-K teaching position that morning and would start the following week.
That evening Ricky, then 33 years old, sat at the kitchen table in his Hamilton, Ohio, home reading the Bible. Tracey had just returned home from running some errands while their children, Lily, then 5, and Riley, then 2, watched television.
At 8 pm Tracey decided that it was bedtime for the kids and took them upstairs for a bath. As she was washing Lily's hair, she had a premonition -- something she'll later attribute to God's Word speaking to her -- that said, "Say his name." Startled by the sensation, she turned the water off in the tub, went to the top of the stairs and called out, "Ricky!"
"All I heard was him gasping," Tracey recalls.
Racing downstairs, Tracey discovered her husband collapsed on the couch, laboring to breathe. She thought Ricky was having a heart attack. She called 911. The operator urged her to get his rigid body on the floor. She propped him on his side, as the operator asked, "Is he breathing? Is he breathing?"
The children had followed Tracey to the living room, and Lily had grabbed Ricky's left hand and for a few moments she kept saying, "Daddy's squeezing my hand. He's squeezing my hand. He's okay."
But his breaths became shorter, until he rolled onto his back and stopped breathing. Tracey thought her husband had died.
As fate would have it, she and Ricky had taken a CPR certification class together at the local Y when Lily was one, so she launched into the life-saving first aid. On the second set of rescue breaths, she revived Ricky, though he was still straining to breathe. Blood vessels all over his face and chest had popped. He had suffered a grand mal seizure.
The paramedics arrived. They told Tracey, "You've done your job, now let us do ours." She took her children outside -- "still naked from the tub," she'll remember later with a laugh -- and sought a neighbor to watch them while she returned to her husband's side in the ambulance where, for several minutes Ricky was breathing on his own but was unresponsive. The paramedics were not optimistic.
"I just remember being in the ambulance," Tracey says, "and praying out loud, 'How did we go from everything's absolutely completely normal to this?' "
Finally, as the ambulance shot down the Bypass 4, halfway to Mercy Hospital, Ricky raised his left arm. Tracey sobbed with joy.
Ricky's last memory before his collapse was of his teeth chattering and his eyes blinking at the onset of the seizure. His next memory is from the ambulance, when he awoke to the image of his wife praying over him, "Bring him back to me. You can't take him from me."
Getting Ricky to the hospital and getting him stabilized was a crucial step, where he and Tracey were joined by his father and by Astros starter Roy Oswalt, who raced to his old teammate's bedside after pitching that evening.
Unfortunately for Ricky, that was only the beginning of his long road. An MRI discovered a malignant brain tumor -- an anaplastic oligodendroglioma -- near the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres. It was a rapidly growing tumor in a delicate area.
Ricky would need brain surgery.
* * *
Ricky Stone's hallmark as a pitcher was a tough sinking fastball. A fourth-round pick out of high school, he slowly progressed through the Dodgers system, reaching Triple-A before being released and signed by Houston. There, he made his major-league debut at age 26 and pitched from 2001-03 with the Astros, throwing 168 innings with a 3.59 ERA, mostly as a middle reliever.
He then bounced briefly to the Padres and then to his hometown Reds, but after pitching only 5 1/3 innings of major league ball in 2006 and '07, Ricky attempted one final comeback in early 2008. He spent spring training with the Reds and then two weeks with their Triple-A affiliate in Louisville. He and his family then moved to Taiwan for a few months that summer to play in a league there, until returning to the States with a hamstring injury.
By leaving the Taiwanese team's employ, he no longer had health insurance. A quirk of the baseball benefits plan is that minor-league players lose their coverage as soon as they are cut, unless they were members of the 40-man roster, in which case the insurance lasts for the entire year. Ricky had not been added to Cincinnati's 40-man roster.
Similarly, Tracey had accepted -- but not started -- her new job. The Stone family was in financial trouble.
Within days, calls from Ricky's friends in baseball started flooding the office of Jim Martin in the executive office of the Baseball Assistance Team (B.A.T.), an organization that in 24 years has raised $19 million to assist down-on-their-luck former ballplayers, scouts, coaches, umpires and front office personnel. Martin then called Tracey and asked, "What can we do to help you?"
That simple question helped change the fortunes for the Stones. B.A.T. picked up the tab for insurance for Tracey and the children, started making their mortgage payments and even began contributing a monthly stipend for groceries.
"I was floored beyond words," Tracey says. "They were coming to help us at a time when, who knows what we would have done?"
Adds Ricky, "I had donated to them when I was playing in the big leagues. I always thought that was a great thing, to invest in the people that needed help. Obviously I would need help later, but I didn't know that at the time."
One particularly supportive player was Brad Lidge, a former Astros teammate. Now the Phillies closer, Lidge has been such a significant supporter of B.A.T. that he will receive the organization's Big BAT/Frank Slocum Award, given annually for continuous financial generosity. He will receive that award Tuesday evening as part of B.A.T.'s annual fundraising dinner in New York City.
It's guys like Ricky that have inspired Lidge to continue giving. He met Ricky when he was invited to his first big-league camp in spring 2002. "He was one of those guys that let you know the ropes, was friendly about things and was giving good information to a rookie," Lidge says.
Their friendship grew when Lidge was promoted to the majors, and they spent the entirety of the 2003 season together. To pass the time during the early innings, the Astros bullpen took to flicking pumpkin seeds. Ricky, Lidge recalls, was the team's undisputed champ -- Ricky says he could top out at 75 feet -- and that the mindless activity helped settle their nerves and idle energy, but also gave the relievers time to become good friends.
"It's like going fishing with a guy, when you're out there on the water and a chance to talk about everything," Lidge says. "Flicking pumpkin seeds for the first couple of innings was like that."
* * *
The doctors offered no explanation as to how or why Ricky got the tumor, saying only that it had been there for years because of calcification that had occurred. Though Ricky's name appeared in the Mitchell Report, Tracey denied the allegation that her husband used a banned substance. She pointed out that, unlike other players included in the report, there was no hard evidence against Ricky, such as a canceled check, and attributed the inclusion of his name to "hanging around the wrong people." Also contrary to the report, she says Ricky was never contacted by anyone involved with Mitchell's investigation.
With the support of the baseball community, Ricky began treatment for the tumor. Two weeks after its discovery, he underwent surgery, but doctors could only remove 90 percent of the mass because of its location in the brain.
When Ricky awoke after the initial operation, he was unable to speak. The condition, known as aphasia, required speech therapy to overcome. In all, he went to three sessions per week for nine months.
"You know how when you want to say something and it's on the tip of your tongue, but you can't say it?" he says. "That's how I was."
To curb the growth of the 10 percent left behind, Ricky endured 33 radiation treatments, Monday through Friday, for six and a half weeks. Fitted with a mask that screwed down to the table, he couldn't move for 30 minutes.
He also had 12 rounds of chemotherapy in four-week cycles (five days on, 23 days off), wrapping up his last one in November.
Ricky flies to Houston every other month to see a neuro-oncologist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
For a time he couldn't be left alone, for fear of a relapse. In the six months after his seizure, Ricky was unable to drive, per Ohio law. Tracey's niece Kalynn, then a senior in high school, frequently babysat the children while Tracey drove Ricky anywhere he needed to go. Ricky had lost his independence.
"I've been through a lot of stuff," he says.
* * *
Slowly the pieces are falling back into place. Six months to the day after the seizure, Ricky grabbed the car keys, looked at Tracey and said, "I will see you later." He didn't drive far, but that wasn't the point.
In addition to the financial assistance of B.A.T., the Stones have received support every step of the way, much of it from the baseball family. On the regular trips to Houston, they typically stay with Carla and Johnny Baker, the parents of Lance Berkman's wife, Cara.
Cara Berkman also joined fellow Astros player wives Nicole Oswalt and Kory Blum in establishing the Helping Hands Ministry to help cover Ricky's medical expenses. They've collected memorabilia from hundreds of ballplayers and auctioned it off.
Ricky was eventually approved for disability coverage from the government in March 2009.
Ricky and Tracey, high school sweethearts married more than a decade, regularly volunteer at their church, Princeton Pike Church of God. They attend Bible study and serve meals at a homeless shelter. Lily, now six, is in first grade, and Riley is four, so they keep Ricky busy too.
He's working out again, running and feeling pretty much "back to normal" physically, he says.
And the tumor? It's "virtually nonexistent," reports Tracey. She says the 10 percent the neurosurgeon had to leave behind shrank under the barrage of chemo and radiation and that the latest MRI showed only a hint of where it had been.
"If I didn't have God, I wouldn't have anything," Ricky says. "My wife saved my life by doing CPR on me. I think I'm protected by someone, and I think that's God."
Ricky often studies the Bible three or four hours per day. His short-term memory isn't as sharp as it once was, but he's a copious note taker, jotting down everything in spiral-bound notebooks, which he regularly reads and reviews. His materials are spread across the kitchen table, where in the evening Ricky once again sits, happy to enjoy another good day.