ST. LOUIS -- Steve Garvey wasn't thinking about the worst slump of his career when he hopped up behind the first-base dugout at Dodger Stadium that August day in 1977. He was simply meeting an eager fan, and with just a few minutes remaining until game time, he didn't have a lot of time to spare.
By the end of this chance encounter, however, Garvey had made a friend for life.
Annie Ruth, a teenage girl confined to a wheelchair after an accident on a balance beam pinched her spinal cord at age 5 and left her paralyzed from the neck down, was attending the game with her parents. The Dodgers publicity director, Steve Brener, was made aware of the Ruth family's presence near the dugout and encouraged Garvey to meet them.
Mired in an 11-for-79 slump -- a downhill slide that lasted almost the entire month of August, included no home runs and only one extra-base hit and shaved 22 points off his batting average -- Garvey wasn't sure what it would take to snap out of it. He probably knew this wasn't a good time to be promising hits to fans when he wasn't sure he could make good on it. But Garvey looked at Annie, looked at her parents and said, "The first cut's for you, kid."
As Garvey walked away, he looked up at the sky and muttered: "Let me get one hit today. Just one. A bloop, whatever. Please ... just one hit."
In his first at-bat against Cardinals pitcher Bob Forsch, Garvey doubled. He found Annie in the stands and tipped his hat. She smiled back.
The next at-bat, Garvey doubled again. The next at-bat, he hit a grand slam. By the end of the game, Garvey had logged a record-setting day: five extra-base hits (three doubles and two home runs) and five RBIs in an 11-0 rout.
"The greatest single day of my regular-season career," Garvey said. "And a great friendship started between Annie and I."
It started in earnest the very next day.
"He called me at home," Ruth said. "I don't even know how he got my number. He said, 'Thank you for being a good-luck charm.' It was a turning point in both of our lives. It's been great."
Ruth went on to attend the University of Southern California, where she learned to paint. She also obtained her Master's in Business Administration at Pepperdine. Ruth owns her own greeting card and stationary company and paints the designs herself -- with her mouth. She skydives, travels and has participated in a marathon benefiting the Blind Childrens Center on a custom-made cycle.
Ruth and Garvey have kept in touch over the 36 years since their chance meeting on Aug. 28, 1977, and they work together on several charitable causes. She described their friendship as "having a lot of respect for each other," a point driven home by Garvey when he gushes about Ruth's accomplishments.
"What she's overcome ... she owns her own business, she's an inspiration," Garvey said.
Fast forward to earlier this week. The Dodgers were hosting the Cardinals and attempting to stave off elimination in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday afternoon at Dodger Stadium. Garvey picked up the phone and called -- who else? -- the "quintessential good-luck charm."
Ruth and her brother, Bill, watched the game with Garvey, and the Dodgers won, sending the series back to St. Louis for a Game 6.
"We had the best time," Ruth said. "We had lunch and watched the game with him. He gave us a lot of insights about the game. The crowd was great, it was a beautiful day. It could not have been any better."
A chance meeting between a teenage girl and a baseball superstar -- a lifelong friendship that on its face would have been enough if the story ended there. But how's this for a delicious subplot -- Ruth was indirectly involved with Garvey meeting his wife, Candace.
Garvey met Candace at a charity event in 1988 and sparks flew -- well, for him at least. Not so much for Candace. He pursued her, but she resisted, politely declining when he invited her to Washington to attend the inaugural ball for President George H.W. Bush.
Candace instead went house hunting in Palos Verdes, Calif., and casually mentioned there was a man who had invited her to the inauguration, but she said no.
"Who's the guy?" the real estate agent asked.
"Steve Garvey," Candace replied.
The real estate agent's name? Marion Ruth -- Annie's mom. Who better to vouch for Garvey?
"My mom said, 'You have to stop looking at houses right now and go home and pack,'" Annie said.
Her brother was flying to Washington and had one seat left on the plane, and it went to Candace. Marion tracked Garvey down and said, "There will be a surprise waiting for you at the airport."
Steve and Candace married six weeks later and have been together 25 years. And they have the Ruth family to thank for that.
"It's such a small world," Annie said. "He's just a great person. He couldn't be kinder to anyone he meets."
It was that kindness that led to a chance meeting and a lifelong friendship.
"It's what being an athlete and a fan is all about," Garvey said. "She inspires me. For the rest of our lives, we have this relationship."