Negro League Hero Shut In By Parkinson’s Finds His Way Back Through Baseball
A few years ago I was seeing a 75-year-old physical therapy patient with Parkinson’s and early Alzheimer’s. We’ll call him Bob. I performed the visit in his home since he was completely bedridden and homebound.
According to his family, he hadn’t been able to stand, walk, or talk for over a year. Parkinson’s causes an erosion of motor skills, and Alzheimer’s degrades cognitive abilities, so Bob had a bad combination.
As he lay in the hospital bed in his living room I could tell he was a big guy, about 6’3″…maybe 220 lbs.
When I interviewed his daughter, she reported that her biggest challenge was getting from his bed to the garage, which was about 40 feet away, so she could put him in the car for Doctors’ appointments. She also mentioned he had been a ballplayer in the Negro Leagues when he was a young man–a power hitting first baseman.
I was immediately intrigued.
She had me at “ballplayer.”
Bob could make eye contact but couldn’t respond when I questioned him or when I asked him to move his body parts. Since I couldn’t test his strength in the pure sense, I had no idea what he might or might not be capable of. Whenever I’m faced with a case like this the best treatment option is to get the patient moving. Any movement is better than none.
Wrestling him to the edge of the bed, I pulled Bob to a sitting position, feet dangling to the floor. After helping him gain his sitting balance I said, “Well, let’s see if you can stand up.” I secured a safety belt around his torso and took up a position in front of him. My feet were spread in a staggered stance offering a wide base of support. I reached around and placed my hands on the belt behind him and rocked his body forward so he could get a feel for moving his center of gravity forward–a crucial component of the sit to stand maneuver. After 3-4 rocks I helped him lift his bottom off the bed and noticed him using his legs to bear his weight. Encouraged by his participation, I assisted him to an upright posture. After he settled into standing, I helped him learn to shift his weight from side to side. You have to be able to shift your weight from one leg to the other if you’re going to walk.
We began taking steps toward the garage. Actually, I began dragging him toward the garage. It’s what’s known in physical therapy as maximum assistance. His stride length was short, and he shuffled his feet. He was very unsteady and if not for my hands on the safety belt, he would have fallen several times.
His daughter was thrilled to see him up. Apparently, there had been other therapists out to the home over the past year but intimidated by his size, all were afraid to attempt to stand or walk with him. With immense difficulty, we managed to overcome the doorway threshold. In the garage, we both began to fatigue, so I leaned him against a workbench to rest. On the bench, I saw an old worn out baseball glove like they used in the 1940s or 50s. It was made in a classic style with wide padded fingers and 2 strips of leather for the web. It reminded me of an oven mitt. I picked it up to admire it, and Bob reached feebly toward me.
“Is this your glove?”, I asked as I placed it on his left hand. His eyes twinkled like someone who is smiling, but his facial expression remained flat (a classic symptom of Parkinson’s.) Suddenly, I had an idea. “Wait here,” I told him and scurried off toward my truck in the driveway. After 3 steps, I stopped dead in my tracks and turned to his daughter “Don’t let him fall.” He was still propped against the workbench. I sprinted out to the bed of my truck, opened the tailgate and grabbed a catcher’s mitt and a ball…. (Of course I had a mitt and a ball in my truck! Do you know who I am?) I then hustled back into the garage and positioned myself about 5 feet in front of him. I held the ball in my bare hand, bobbed it up and down a few times with an underhand motion, and said the only thing I could think of.
His hands came together and his eyes widened. I lobbed the ball in a low arc toward his glove as if I were playing ring toss at the carnival. He lurched slightly as the ball approached his glove … and he caught it!
I was shocked! I let out a “Woo!” and gave an overzealous fist pump. The corners of Bob’s mouth twitched slightly upward in the beginnings if a smile. I glanced over to see his daughter’s eyes welling up with tears. After a moment of silence, none of us really knowing what to do next, I pounded my glove a few times, flexed into a ready position.
“Throw it back!” I said.
It was an awful throw! It bounced off my right foot and rolled under the Chevy Malibu behind me. I gleefully dropped to my knees and crawled under the car, dodging an old oil spill to retrieve the ball.
We played catch for about 10 minutes, and eventually, he was able to stand without the support of the workbench. We repeated the catch and toss over and over again, his balance improving with every turn. At one point I tried to give him a high five. But he couldn’t raise his arms above his shoulders, so after an awkward attempt we compromised and settled on a man hug. I’m pretty sure I heard him chuckle a little during that exchange.
By now his daughter was laughing through her tears.
Bob walked back into his house with only handheld assistance. We both sat on the bed, and his daughter squeezed between us. She flipped through a scrapbook of pictures and newspaper articles of him during his playing days. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. This man had given so much to the game of baseball, and now baseball was rescuing him from his darkness and pulling him into the light. I saw Bob several more times over the next few weeks. He eventually learned to walk out to the car with a wheeled walker and only standby assistance.
I think about this story often when I’m working with pitchers and hitters at The Florida Baseball Ranch®. It keeps me aware of one of the scientific fundamentals of our program: THE MOTOR LEARNING DOMAIN IS BEST ACCESSED THROUGH KINESTHETIC, NOT COGNITIVE PATHWAYS.
Words and/or verbal cues are extremely weak and ineffective tools for teaching motor skills. In fact, more often than not, the words get in the way and inhibit both learning and performance. We’ve all seen and heard it.
“Stay back”, “Get on top of the ball”, “Don’t rush” “Your arm is dragging.”
To most athletes, those words don’t mean anything.
Empty words create kinesthetic confusion. Pitchers don’t learn through words, THEY LEARN THROUGH FEEL. THEY LEARN THROUGH EXPERIENCE. THEY LEARN THROUGH SELF-ORGANIZATION.
Our job as coaches and instructors is to identify possible constraints or inefficiency, and then create a learning environment that uses one or more of 6 different motor learning techniques to influence a movement pattern.
This is the process we use every day and we’ll be ’using it during our Complete Game Summer Training Program.
Our understanding of these key motor learning concepts improves our players’ return on training time (ROTT) and maximizes their results.
The Early Bird Discount expires on April 15 — jus 10 days from now. CLICK HERE to register and reserve your spot. Add velo. Improve command. Eliminate arm pain. Develop filthy off-speed stuff. Dominate hitters.
We can’t wait to see you there.
Randy Sullivan, MPT, CSCS