Stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease, Greg Podgorny gets thrill of seeing his son play baseball
They couldn’t explain the sunset, the sudden, orange-soaked reprieve from the dust and smoke and wind; they couldn’t explain the three ground balls on three pitches that had just dribbled to the second baseman who entered the game that inning, and whose dad was battling Lou Gehrig’s disease.
They couldn’t explain how, in the final inning of the Jason Lopez Memorial Tournament championship in Montrose on Sunday, June 24, Slater Podgorny of the Fruita Storm U-12 baseball team had entered in the fourth and final inning against the Grand Junction Gators and flipped emotions and created a memory, both unexplainable and so appropriate.
Appropriate because of Slater’s relationship with his terminally ill father, Greg Podgorny, both of whom live in Hotchkiss.
“It was perfect,” said Moni Slater-Podgorny, wife of Greg and mother of Slater, “considering the way (Greg) and Slater have a connection through baseball and everything else. It was so appropriate. Beautiful.”
Maybe this is what happens when athletes play for something bigger than themselves. “I” disappears, and “others” becomes a focus, and that, it seems, opens a gap for magic.
During a practice at Central High School the Friday before the team left for Mesa Sports Complex, Fruita Storm coach Craig Morrill asked the players if they’d mind taking on another player, Slater, who had not been playing on a team in part because of soccer obligations.
Morrill had heard from one of his players — Eric Norton, a friend of Slater’s — about Greg Podgorny’s medical situation. He explained it to his players.
“A couple boys said, ‘Let’s go win it for (Greg and Slater),’ ” Fruita Storm team manager Chuck Parrish said.
And they did.
They hit 15 home runs during the three-day, six-game tournament, with four of those home runs coming in the 11-0 championship victory over the Gators in a game shortened by the 10-run rule.
They won the championship with a perfect game thrown by Jonathan Gonzalez.
Slater, however, had played in only three innings prior to the championship game.
He struck out in his only at-bat in the top of the fourth inning.
Greg Podgorny, who walks with the support of a cane and sometimes his wife, left the bleachers and stood behind the plate for the at-bat.
“It was such a low,” he said.
That’s because his son expected to perform at a high level for his new team. But he’d struck out.
And Greg Podgorny was not coaching his son during the summer for the first time in eight years.
In February, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Nerve cells waste away or die and can no longer send messages to muscles. As a result, the muscle becomes continually weaker, and there is no known cure for the disease that, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, affects approximately five out of every 100,000 people worldwide.
None of that mattered in Greg’s mind during the bottom of the fourth inning.
Slater replaced Pauly Salazar at second base.
Gonzalez began spotting the outside part of the plate, causing Gators batters to slap pitches toward Slater.
The first pitch was hit and reportedly sent Slater diving to his left. Slater said he stopped the ball, then threw the runner out from his knees.
“I began to loosen up,” Greg Podgorny said.
The second pitch was slapped to Slater again. He said it was a ground ball in the hole, but he made a routine throw to first for the out.
“It was surreal,” Greg Podgorny said.
“I saw his dad sitting by the fence,” Parrish said of Greg Podgorny. “He was beaming from ear to ear.”
And with two pitches, Slater’s disappointment from the strikeout, and the fact that he said he’d never sat the bench before in baseball, was fading.
“I was about over it,” he said.
And on the third pitch of the inning, Slater made yet another routine ground-ball out.
Three pitches, three outs, perfect game, championship.
“Then (sadness) was behind me,” Slater said, “and I didn’t think of it again.”
He’d made his dad proud.
“I think that my dad is the closest guy I’ll ever get to,” Slater said. “He’s an amazing guy. And I love to impress him.”
“It was just surreal,” Greg Podgorny said. “Just the baseball gods didn’t want the kid to get down too much.”
After the Fruita Storm won the championship, the players and coaches lined up at the third-base line to receive their championship plaque, which they gave to Greg Podgorny, who reportedly is constantly seen smiling.
Some reportedly were crying.
And then, some said, it was as if everyone stopped and looked upward.
“And you couldn’t have asked for a better sunset in the world,” Parrish said. “Everything had been kind of smoky from all the fire in Colorado, and it was one of the best, orange sunsets you’ll ever see. The wind was not blowing at all, and it had been windy, gusty and hot and dirty all day.”
They could not explain what had happened in the course of about 10 minutes.
“People were in awe,” Morrill said. “A higher creation or something else had stepped on that field.”
“It was a little ‘V’ of a sunset,” Greg Podgorny recalled. “A little window.”