A Washington writer bats for Bowie

2019-01-19 micahbowie
Micah Bowie on the mound for the Nationals.

Someone in the mainstream sports press, as opposed to just one obscure blog writer like me, has taken up Micah Bowie’s battle. Thom Loverro, of the Washington Times, was able to talk to the former pitcher for the Nationals and four other clubs for a profile on Bowie’s battle to get help from the Major League Baseball Players Association to stay alive in the first place.

I wrote about Bowie earlier this month. Not long after I published my piece, Douglas Gladstone, the journalist who’s taken up the cause of 1947-1979 players aced out of a pension plan change and thus denied even small pension dollars, and who’s also taken up Bowie’s battle for help from his union and other baseball assistance sources, provided me Bowie’s telephone number.

But I couldn’t bring myself to dial it. I admit it. It may sound foolish now but I remain haunted by the boyhood experience of trying to talk to a father dying of lung cancer. There were too many days when just saying hello to him when I came home from school and hearing him strain further and further to reply were too much. I couldn’t tell anyone I feared I might be the one responsible for the final outcome that finally happened in June 1966.

Somehow, Loverro had the guts I lost and called Bowie. And it turned out that I had nothing to fear, after all. Bowie is on 24/7 oxygen; as Lovarro describes it from Bowie’s own words, “the levels he needs per minute now are hospice-level care to help his lungs, severely damaged from back surgery he had that went wrong to relieve pain from baseball injuries he suffered.” But the former pitcher could talk. And, did.

Bowie’s pitching related injuries included elbow, hip, shoulder, and groin injuries; I was unaware at the time I wrote that the ruptured diaphragm he has since suffered traces to a back surgery gone wrong, a surgery he underwent to relieve as much as possible of the pain those injuries inflicted on him.

“The pitching had really taken its toll on my lumbar,” Bowie was able to tell Navarro. “Once I got done with baseball, and the pain became unbearable and unmanageable, we had a spinal cord stimulator put in in August 2016 to help with the pain and to try to get me ready for some fusions that were necessary because of baseball. Not long after we had some complications from the surgery the battery bounced around, created some damage. I ended up with both lungs being damaged and my diaphragm being ruptured. I’ve had multiple surgeries to try to correct that damage.”

Bowie hoped to convince the players’ union to vest his medical disability benefit far sooner than the age-62 vesting age. Lacking the full four years’ major league service time, Bowie told Loverro, he applied based on his back issues tying directly to his major league injuries. He and his family started a lengthy appeals process after the union first turned him down, and they were denied again. The benefit would equal $5,000 a month.

“I called the union,” Bowie told Loverro. “I talked to a member of the pension committee, one of the guys who had declined my benefits, and he informed me he didn’t even read my case. He just read from the attorney for the pension plan that they could deny it, so without looking at my stuff they just denied me. I said how in the world can you deny me and not read my appeal. I haven’t gotten anywhere with the union or any pension committee members since that point. It is very disheartening to know this. Because I played major league baseball, I am going to bankrupt my family with the injuries it has left me. That’s not right.”

I noted when writing of Bowie earlier that the players’ union had no problem granting an early disability vesting to one-time Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Norris, who underwent spinal surgery in 1999 to correct cervical myelopathy, and asked for and received an early vesting of his $89,000 annual family disability benefit a decade after his surgery.

Unlike Bowie, Norris wasn’t in palliative care, said Gladstone, who added that he couldn’t fathom why the players’ union agreed to vest Norris early but not Bowie.

Loverro writes that Bowie has had to sell off assets and make other somewhat radical changes just to try keeping up with his medical expenses. Medical malpractise? “Texas malpractice laws have a cap on damages that can be awarded,” Loverro writes,  “and Bowie said that cap would have been lower than the costs of him pursuing a lawsuit. The union somehow reversing their decision may be his only hope to keep him from losing everything — including his life.”

“We’ve done a lot to try to keep me alive as we navigate through the medical system,” Bowie told him. “Unless the situation changes dramatically, it bankrupts my family for me to live. That’s very hard for me to say publicly.”

Having seen a harrowing YouTube video of him in his struggle, I couldn’t bring myself to call him. Every time I picked up my phone to dial his number, I could see only my father, in his oxygen tent, struggling for whatever breath was left to him, remembering my own anxiety not to tax him further (and we’d had a difficult enough relationship before his illness as it was), and despite the removal of five decades and almost three years I thought only that I couldn’t tax Bowie that way.

That was hard enough for me to admit publicly. (Well, as publicly as this still-obscure journal might be.) But I’m glad that somebody had the guts to call him and sorry that I didn’t. I hope someone in the players’ union has the guts to reverse their refusal and give Bowie and the family who love him the relief they deserve.

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