Dick Kaegel had a request for this story, and he delivered it in a manner you'd expect from a longtime writer and editor. "Downplay Kaegel," he said, "and play up the need for organ donors." And right there, you have the basis for all you need to know about Dick Kaegel, MLB.com's Kansas City Royals reporter.More
You see, in one sense, he doesn't want this story written. Because this is a story, as you might have gathered, about Dick Kaegel, and that inherently runs against the grain for a man who has spent his career chronicling the lives of others. But Dick, who just turned 72, did something this year that even the most hard-working, Marriott-point-hoarding ball scribes rarely accomplish in this day and age. Something that even he, in more than 40 years of writing about baseball for various outlets, including the last eight seasons for MLB.com, had never done. Dick covered every single game on the Royals' 2011 schedule. People who read that and understand the time and travel necessary to be there for every inning, every rain delay, every Ned Yost interview and Eric Hosmer homer and Joakim Soria save are going to think awfully nice things about Dick. Some, undoubtedly, will call or e-mail him to tell him how impressed they are. Dick, though, didn't agree to have this story written because he wanted to tout his bout with the beast that is the 162-game schedule. No, this story is being written because, five years ago, Dick was given a death sentence. He was diagnosed with liver cancer and told he had mere months to live. Yet because some stranger graciously decided to become an organ donor before he or she passed away, Dick has not only survived but thrived. So when you read this, think about Dick, sure. What he's done would be impressive for a man half his age. It's a true show of dedication to a job he still sincerely loves, decades after he filed his first notebook. But also think about all the people -- more than 112,000, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -- on an organ donor waiting list right now. Waiting for that life-saving call that might not come. Waiting for that ticket to a life fully lived.
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Kim Harbur knows how agonizing that wait can be.
Her son, Luke, was born with a failing liver. When Luke was just five months old, he was placed on the national waiting list for a transplant, and Kim and her husband, Nate, were told that if Luke didn't receive it, he wouldn't live to see his second birthday.
A few months later, the Drake family from Olathe, Kan., was on vacation in the Ozarks when their 8-year-old son, Aaron, suffered an allergic reaction and died. As fate would have it, a client at the dance studio Kim owned knew about Luke's need and also knew the Drakes, and he approached the Drakes directly about donating Aaron's liver, which could be trimmed down to fit Luke's tiny body.
Recognizing that some good could come out of their grief, the Drakes agreed.
Luke is now a healthy, active 16-year-old, and he has the Drakes to thank. The two families have remained close. When Aaron's older brother, Tim, got married earlier this year, he asked Luke and his brother, Cole, to be in the wedding party.
"We have this great picture of Luke and Cole walking Aaron's parents down the aisle," Kim said.
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Shortly after the conclusion of the 2006 season, Dick had gone to the doctor for routine blood work, and what he was told after the fact wasn't routine at all. Dick had three cancerous masses in his liver. His doctor told him he had three to six months to live and that his condition was inoperable. The tumors were too large for Dick to receive a transplant, and a transplant was his only hope of survival.
Dick's wife, Betty, a Mexican-born bundle of love and faith, respected the doctor, but she wasn't buying into this particular prognosis.
"I believe in a supreme being way above us who will dictate who stays and who goes," Betty said.
Betty's mother was a 10-year cancer survivor who never gave up the fight against the disease. So Betty, who works for the Royals as their director of community outreach, firmly believed that her husband could overcome this. Yet she wasn't sure if he would prefer to just head to Acapulco and spend his remaining days watching the sun rise and set.
She soon learned, however, that her husband's faith was just as strong as her own.
"Betty," he told her, "I want to be exactly like your mother. I want to fight this, because I believe I still have reasons to live."
And so they fought.
At first, Dick was a little leery of the organ transplant process.
"It sounds so foreign to get a transplant from somebody else's body," he said.
But he knew it was necessary. And so, for the next three months, he waited. Until finally, one day in February of '07, Dick was driving home from a press conference announcing Denny Matthews as the winner of that year's Ford C. Frick Award, and the call came from the University of Kansas Hospital.
They had a liver for him.
"You just turn around, head to the hospital and pray and hope for the best," Dick recalled.
Betty remembers it a little bit differently.
"It was one of the scariest calls he ever received," she said. "When he called me, I could tell he was shaken. I could detect it in his voice. And I felt mixed emotions. I was happy to hear about the transplant but scared about what is next. But we both put on a strong face. I had to be strong to let him know I was there for him."
Six hours after he arrived at KU Med, after the liver had been transported from another facility, Dick went in for surgery. It lasted all night and into the morning, and Dick fought for his life in those initial hours after the transplant was complete and his body adjusted.
But he pulled through. And it wasn't long before he was thinking about covering baseball again.
"The doctors told me I probably wouldn't be able to get back to work until the All-Star break," he said. "But I was back to work by the end of May. I guess I fooled them."
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At the conclusion of that '07 season and the two that followed, Dick would invariably find himself in the hospital, still dealing with the side effects of his medications. But when the 2010 season concluded and a hospital visit was not necessary, he knew he had cleared a huge hurdle. And he began to put plans in place for a huge goal he had in mind.
You see, as far back as he can remember, Dick had always wanted to be a baseball writer. He grew up in Belleville, Ill., and was about 10 years old when he pointed to the old Belleville Hotel in the city square and told his mother, "When I grow up, I'm going to travel the country, stay in fancy hotels and write about baseball."
So the job has always been a passion for Dick, and he wanted to use that passion to inspire others going through the organ transplant process.
"Not that I was looking for any publicity," he said, "but if I could push myself to cover 162 games, which I don't think a lot of writers do anymore, I could use myself as an example of what could be done."
Ultimately, it was Dinn Mann, MLB.com's executive vice president and editor-in-chief, who had to sign off on Dick's idea, and he did so on the condition that Dick was not jeopardizing his health.
"He didn't want to make a big deal about this, and that's admirable," Mann said. "But come on, really? It is a big deal."
Dick got the go-ahead from his bosses and his doctors, and he reported to Spring Training, ready for the long haul.
A wide variety of obstacles are placed in front of the reporter on such a mission, from rain delays to cancelled flights to day games after night games to unexpected news announcements that eat up so-called "off days." Dick handled them all, and, aside from the docs, his bosses and his wife, didn't tell a soul what he was up to. He just kept showing up to work, day in and day out, reporting and filing the hundreds upon hundreds of stories that told the tale of the Royals' 2011 season. All along, MLB.com had what Mann called a "steady bullpen of relief reporters" to pitch in, if needed, but Kaegel never made the call to the 'pen.
"He set an extraordinary example, was under no pressure to do so and went about the business of this accomplishment because he cares deeply about the game and about the fans who follow the Royals," Mann said. "One season before Kansas City plays host to the Midsummer Classic, we all were treated to an All-Star effort by a determined, professional sportswriter who also happens to be a brave, humble human being."
Yes, it was another losing season for the Royals. And yes, that forces a writer like Dick to, in his words, "call on all your talent" to make the games sound interesting, at times.
But the team also had a way of inspiring him.
"Being around all these young players, they help keep me young," he said. "They're so full of life and energy and so much fun to watch. This group this year played so hard. It's a team on the rise, and you get excited about that, too. There's no cheering in the press box, no rooting for the team you cover, but you feel good when these kids accomplish something and do well."
Dick, meanwhile, had Betty rooting him on every step of the way, and he said he couldn't have done this without her unfailing support.
"He's really taken this like he has a new life," Betty said. "How many years? Nobody knows how many years we're going to be here. But I just think it's important that anybody who receives the gift of life makes use of that gift. Live to your full potential."
Dick doesn't know who or where his liver came from. He doesn't know who died so that he could live. But he prays for that person and his or her family every day. And with a disciplined diet and energetic approach to life and work, he has shown a great appreciation for that gift bestowed upon him.
Now, Dick has 162 examples for others who might be as leery of the organ transplant notion as he once was. He'll be calling on that experience in his new role as a Gift of Life volunteer, dispatched to area hospitals to talk with families going through what he once did.
"I want to show people that when you get through this and start to heal," he said, "you can resume your normal life and even go beyond what people expect of you and what you expect of yourself."
And that's why this was written. Not for Dick, but for those who might be inspired by his story. Those who will give the gift of life, and those who will receive it.
For more information on becoming an organ donor, visit organdonor.gov. For more information on Gift of Life, visit giftdonor.org.
For so many others, the story doesn't end this well. According to information from the United Network of Organ Sharing, 18 people in the U.S. die each day while waiting for a transplant. The organization estimates that one organ donor can save up to eight lives. With those numbers and their own experience in mind, Kim and Nate helped start Gift of Life, a Kansas City-based non-profit organization whose mission statement is "to raise awareness of the need for organ and tissue donation and provide assistance to transplant patients, their families and living donors." One element of Gift of Life is education, and Kim spends a lot of time speaking with high school students ready to get their driver's license about what it means, exactly, to be an organ donor and how much it can help somebody in need. "Organ donation is a gift with no expectations, no strings attached," she said. "You do it out of the goodness of your heart, out of a situation that is very difficult. It's more than just signing your driver's license. That's our message. Any death under the age of 18, someone in the family is going to make that decision for their loved one, even if they have it on their license. And over the age of 18, if [the decision to be a donor] is not on [the license], the decision finds its way back to the family." That's why Gift of Life and other organ donor awareness groups stress the need to inform your family members about your intentions, should you pass on. If you want to make certain your organs and tissue are donated, make that wish known. Somebody's life just might be saved by that conversation. Somebody like Dick Kaegel.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less