I5 weeks after health collapse, coach back in beloved routine

Joe Williams
Sentinel Staff Writer

March 19, 2006

EUSTIS -- The sounds of baseball were all around Chet Lemon and it was music to his ears.

The repeated thwack of metal-alloy bats striking baseballs during batting practice rang out. The chatter of coaches and players, working on bunt coverage and pickoff plays, filled the air.

"I think one of the best things that has happened for me was being able to come back out here. This is therapeutic for me," Lemon said Thursday, sitting in the dugout at Stuart Cottrell Field during Eustis High School's practice. "Coming out here gives me an opportunity to forget and not think about myself."

For Lemon, returning as the head coach of Eustis' baseball team is like a new chance at life.

It was just five weeks ago that the former major-league ballplayer became ill and began vomiting blood in a hotel room in Clearwater, after traveling there to help put on an Amateur Athletic Union baseball tournament that his wife, Gigi, had been running. Chet Lemon also is president of Florida AAU.

That was the beginning of a horrific journey -- one that included a cross-state trip in a small plane between two hospitals that doctors were not sure he would survive and a stay in an intensive-care unit after he had lost more than 60 percent of his blood. Lemon admitted that he wasn't certain he was going to make it.

Lemon suffers from a rare incurable blood disorder, polycythemia vera, that causes his body's bone marrow to produce too many red blood cells.

It is a disorder that affects fewer than three in 100,000 individuals, according to information from the Myeloproliferative Disorders Foundation, a not-for-profit research organization that looks into a group of malignancies, including polycythemia vera, where the bone marrow that develops blood cells functions improperly.

However, Bob Rosen, founder and president of the foundation, thinks the disorder may be more widespread than those numbers show and is sponsoring a new study by a Yale University researcher. Rosen said he hopes the results from that new study are completed by the end of the year.

Rosen also is hoping that Lemon, a former major-league all-star and World Series champion, will become a spokesman for the foundation.

"In order to promote the research that we are doing, having a well-known person as a spokesperson as Chet is will help to promote the organization," said Rosen, who was diagnosed in 1999 with polycythemia vera. "Anything that will give us public attention is a help."

Easing back in

Lemon, who coached Eustis to the Class 4A state championship in 2003, has returned to Panthers' dugout for games and is attending practices now. But he is careful to not overexert himself. He is not coaching on third base and tries to hold his emotions in check, being careful not to elevate his blood pressure.

During practice, he lays out the game plan for the day, meets with the players before practice, and then turns practice over to his assistant coaches. His assistants, including Paul Niles and David Westgate, have helped navigate Eustis to an 11-3 record and the No. 8 ranking in the state's Class 4A poll, heading into Friday night's game at Lake Mary.

But, at times, it is difficult for Lemon to keep his competitive emotions under wrap.

In one of his first games back in the dugout, a game against South Lake, Lemon wasn't even in uniform, wearing a Eustis jogging suit, when before his assistant coaches knew it, Lemon had jumped up, called timeout and was heading to the pitcher's mound.

"It's tough," Lemon said. "You want to do so many things, but you have to hold back."

A normal day

The day had started off normally enough with Lemon coaching Eustis to an 8-0 victory over Celebration in a game Feb. 11 in Bishop Moore's preseason tournament. Then Lemon and his son Marcus, a senior shortstop for the Panthers, drove to Clearwater, where they joined Gigi, who also is on the board of Florida AAU.

Lemon said he felt fine all day, but in the evening started feeling sick to his stomach. He didn't realize at the time that two blood vessels had ruptured and his stomach was filling with blood.

About 2 the next morning -- his 51st birthday -- he began vomiting.

He was rushed by ambulance to Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater and a few days later was flown to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, where he had been treated in the past for polycythemia vera. His body lost more than 60 percent of its blood, and he was placed on a ventilator and breathing tube.

"All the time I was traveling they had me on a machine to help my breathing," Lemon said. "When they took me off the machine, I couldn't breathe. I literally felt like I was suffocating. I remember looking at the clock on the wall and thinking that I wasn't going to make it.

"This was the first time that I have experienced being conscious and realizing that I might not make it."

'A way of life'

It was quite a different image than Lemon has presented for much of his life. He spent 18 seasons playing professional baseball, splitting his major-league career between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. He was three-time American League all-star and won a World Series championship with the Tigers.

Lemon was diagnosed with the blood disorder during a preseason physical in 1990. It contributed to his retirement from baseball the same year.

Since then, he had his spleen removed in 2001 because it was enlarged from trying to recycle the overabundance of red blood cells being produced by his bone marrow and also has had blood clots in his abdomen.

"I think that I have finally realized that this is going to be a way of life," Lemon said, while 7-year-old daughter Brianna, a second-grader at Lake Mary Prep, sat next to her father on the Eustis bench. "You have to understand that you are sick. You have to live your life accordingly.

"I think I know that I am a long way away from being healthy."

Rosen, while not being privy to all the details of Lemon's condition, said what happened to him is fairly common among patients with polycythemia vera.

"I don't know Chet's case, but it's a blood disease characterized by bleeding and clotting," Rosen said. "I tell you that the biggest danger with these diseases is that they can commute into other things, such as acute leukemia."

Rosen said patients need to have their blood counts monitored closely by a doctor and have their medications and treatments adjusted accordingly.

All about the numbers

Most of Lemon's life has been surrounded by numbers.

He was a first-round draft pick -- the 22nd overall selection -- by the Oakland Athletics in the 1972 amateur draft. He made his major-league debut with the White Sox on Sept. 9, 1975, and played his last game on Sept. 30, 1990.

He was a centerfielder who set an American League record in 1977 for the most putouts made by an outfielder with 512 and set the record in the majors for most seasons with 400 or more putouts at seven.

His career batting numbers include a lifetime .273 batting average with 396 doubles, 61 triples and 215 home runs.

But now those statistics have been replaced in his life by more important numbers. It's a world of hemoglobin counts and blood pressure numbers these days.

"My hemoglobin is at 9 right now. I was down to about 7 when I was in the hospital. It should be at 14 or 15," Lemon said. "That's why they said I am tired all the time. They keep telling me to just lay down and let your body make blood.

"I have some days that are good and I have some days that are bad. Four or five days ago, I couldn't carry on a long conversation without feeling tired."

Family time

Lemon now is going into the AAU office in Sanford only one day a week, and it is usually only for a half day at that. He also is restricting his activities around the baseball team, but the free time has given him a chance to spend some quality time with daughter Bianna, who was home from school on spring break.

"Bri gets up and she says, 'Dad, you going to take me out on my bike when you go for your walk?'," Lemon said. "I try to walk two miles every day. Then we go to eat breakfast and we go home and Bri will watch a couple of movies and I will lay down for a while.

"I think I have learned a lot. I saw the valuable time that I missed with my two older sons when David and Chet Jr. were growing up. They saw me as a celebrity, not as Dad."

Lemon said he is thankful for all the well-wishers and for all the people who have been saying prayers for him. He said he has heard from players who were his contemporaries when he was in the majors, and from players he has coached on Eustis' team as well as on Chet Lemon's Juice, one of the nation's top AAU baseball programs that he runs.

"I really am grateful for the well-wishers, the e-mails, the cards that I have received," Lemon said. "I got a voice mail from [University of Florida head coach] Pat McMahon. All the people in the baseball community have been calling and checking on me. That has always meant so much to me."

Life lessons

Now, Lemon knows he will have to slow down the pace of his life. But he wants to be at Eustis' games where Marcus, who already has signed a baseball scholarship to NCAA national champion Texas, is being scouted by pro scouts and could, like his dad, be an early round draft pick in the amateur draft this June.

"Obviously, I love coaching the Eustis program and the Juice program," Lemon said. "I want to be a part of that as much as I can. People don't understand the kind of impact you can have on a kid as a coach. There are so many life lessons that you can learn in baseball.

"Where else can you fail 70 percent of the time and still be considered great?"

Joe Williams can be reached at
jwilliams@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5921.

Copyright © 2006, Orlando Sentinel

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