Moorad's life changed by rare disease

Moorad's life changed by rare disease

SAN DIEGO -- The task of rebuilding the San Diego Padres into a contender may be daunting, but it is a walk in the "Park at the Park" for the team's new owner-operator and chief executive.

Nearly 12 years ago, during his days as one of baseball's most successful player agents, a battery of doctors saved the life of Jeff Moorad from a rapidly-moving infectious disease, ultimately sending him on the path to successive ownership in two Major League teams.

"Did it have anything to do with that experience? It really did," Moorad said during a recent lunch in a restaurant within walking distance of PETCO Park, where the "Park at the Park" is one of the main attractions. "As I came away from it I began to think about what the second half of my life should look like. Honestly, I envisioned something more, but at the time I didn't know exactly what that meant."

Right now, it means taking control of the Padres over a five-year period from majority owner John Moores. That process, which began with the purchase of one-third of the club this past March, followed Moorad's nearly five-year foray as a general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It was in Phoenix that Moorad made the unlikely, but successful, transition from his position as an agent to an executive. Moorad credits Commissioner Bud Selig with helping guide the way for him to join the Arizona ownership group and the fellowship at large.

"It was obviously an unusual transition," said Selig, when reached by phone at his Milwaukee office. "He was very sincere. He's been a voracious listener. I think he understands the difference in going from an agent to a front-office executive. He continues to be making that transition. I appreciate him giving me the credit for that, and I think it's worked out quite well."

There was a moment in time when all of this might not have happened. During the winter after the 1997 season, and right in the blush of the free-agent market, Moorad was hit by a sudden fever and a nagging pain that felt suspiciously like a pulled groin muscle.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I associate the two," Moorad said. "But they turned out to be linked. It was a deadly combination."

Moorad called Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros, then one of his clients, and asked him: "What the heck do you do for a groin pull? I can hardly walk on my right leg."

"I'm no doctor and he was asking me about treatment," Karros recalled. "I told him to ice, stretch a little and take it from there. That's all he thought it was, but obviously it turned out to be a lot worse."

It was hardly a groin pull. Moorad's temperature kept rising over a 48-hour period, critical timing for what he ultimately learned was a vicious flesh-eating disease called necrotizing fasciitis. The bacterial infection eats through the skin, races through the body and shuts down organs one by one. If it is not aggressively treated within 72 hours, the fatality rate is 100 percent.

By the time Moorad's body temperature had reached a dangerous 106 degrees and he went to the emergency room, he barely made it under the wire. "If we didn't catch it at the 72nd hour it couldn't have been any closer," he said.

But he remained in denial. "I said, 'OK, I'll go,' but I had work to do and didn't have time," Moorad said. "December is a busy month and I was working hard."

Moorad and his wife arrived at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif., in the dead of night. During the next 10 days, doctors feverishly worked to save his life. At first, since his white blood-cell count was so high, the initial diagnosis was leukemia. But an infectious disease specialist, Dr. Martin Fee, diagnosed the real culprit.

"He was the doctor who really saved my life," Moorad said. "He said he hadn't seen a case of necrotizing fasciitis since he was a resident at the University California Medical Center. But he said my symptoms were awfully close to that disease."

Fee monitored him that day, which Moorad, 42 at the time, spent encased in an MRI tube. Technicians injected an iodine solution to identify the infected area.

"And sure enough, my right leg lit up like a Christmas tree," Moorad said. "He pulled me out of the tube and said, 'We need to take you into surgery immediately.'"

Moorad still wasn't convinced and said he first decided to make a couple of phone calls. He reached out to Leigh Steinberg, his partner in their then famous agency, and Dr. Lewis Yocum, the renowned orthopedic surgeon, who is the team physician of the Angels.

"Here I was still thinking I had an orthopedic issue," Moorad said. "But even Lew said I needed to listen to the doctor and go into surgery immediately. That's the last thing I largely remember for the next nine days."

Surgeons cut Moorad up his leg and into his right waist. He still bears the scar. The way the disease is treated is to cut out the dead cells and bombard the body heavily with antibiotics. The patient, though, has to be left with the wound gaping open.

"I was sent back to my room and laid out like a piece of steak," Moorad said. "I was so out of it that I never really saw it. But I heard about it from enough people."

Moorad had to endure seven surgeries in nine days. The greatest crisis came about 3 o'clock one morning when he was bleeding and an intensive care nurse was concerned that the infection was growing close to a key artery.

"A vascular surgeon came in that night with a very poor bedside manner," Moorad said. "I remember this discussion like it was yesterday. She said, 'I want to tell you that this is a very serious surgery and we may have to take your leg. Time is of the essence.' I said, 'If time is of the essence please stop talking and get me in there.'

"Apparently it was a five-hour surgery, and the first thing I did when I woke up was feel for that leg and it was still there. The whole experience was really, really scary."

He spent 30 days in the hospital, and during the recovery the doctors told Moorad that they thought they had lost him twice.

"You never really anticipate near-death experiences, and I certainly didn't anticipate this one," Moorad said. "But I really feel like I'm better for it. I came out of the experience with a stronger sense of my faith, of my priorities in life, and to this day I'm guided by lessons I've learned from it."

Karros, who was one of the first visitors to see Moorad in the hospital along with Shawn Green and Darin Erstad, said he's seen the difference in his close friend.

"If anything positive came out of the experience, I think he just slowed down a little bit," Karros said. "He learned to appreciate things more than he did before the incident. Let's put it this way: Who gets a flesh-eating disease? Where did that come from? It had to be a complete shocker."

By all accounts, Moorad is a tenacious businessman, but someone who is generally sympathetic to people. He was hands-on in his position of chief executive of the D-backs, and is now involved in every facet of restructuring the Padres on and off the field.

"In my time, most owners I know -- and that includes myself -- don't think we have the knowledge or expertise to run a ballclub," said Moores, who has owned the Padres since just prior to the 1995 season. "But Jeff is a little different. He's going to be very much both -- a chief executive and an owner -- and that's going to be a tremendous benefit."

In Arizona, Moorad was one of five general partners. He was invited into the mix in 2004 by Ken Kendrick, the managing general partner, after Jerry Colangelo sold his stake in the franchise. Moorad was awarded the task of overseeing the day-to-day operations, while Major League Baseball phased him in as a minority owner.

The D-backs had just lost a franchise-worst 111 games and were in dire financial straits. A decision was made to sell nearly $100 million in limited partnerships paid out over a 10-year period mostly to offset deferred player debt. By 2007, relying mostly on a young roster, the D-backs were back in the playoffs, losing to the Rockies in the National League Championship Series.

By most measures, Moorad's tenure there has been deemed a success.

"In conjunction with Ken, Jeff brought in all the key players in the front office and created a very talented staff," said Derrick Hall, who replaced Moorad earlier this year as chief executive. "He made it clear that he wanted to be in baseball and make a difference. He certainly did a fine job here."

In his transition to the Padres, Moorad took only one front office person with him: Tom Garfinkel, an executive vice president in Arizona and now the San Diego president. Garfinkel cited his relationship with Moorad as the primary reason for the move.

"I've known Jeff for more than five years," Garfinkel said. "As I got to know him as a business person and a friend, Jeff is someone I've learned to trust a great deal. It was evident that we had very similar values -- judgment in decision-making, how we think about family, loyalty, how we treat employees, players sponsors and fans, how to build a winning organization. That made this opportunity a very special one for me and my family."

Another incident during their Arizona days involving Moorad impressed Garfinkel. Moorad spent half a day advising one of his former lower-level clients about financial matters.

"He did it because Jeff had made a commitment to this former client many years ago that he would be there for him," Garfinkel said.

That's the kind of principles on which Moorad tries to live. Now 54, he is in it for the long haul. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he says owning and running the Padres is what he plans to do for the remainder of his life. Through it all, he said he's been shaped by his near-death experience.

"To this day I'm certainly not perfect," he said. "But I aspire to live my life focusing in on morals and the kind of integrity that's expected."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.