By Mark Wolf
Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer
Life threw Stan Belinda a wicked change-up. It caught him off-stride, disrupted his rhythm, set him back on his heels. The numbness and tingling that started in his legs during the summer of 1998, when he was pitching for the Cincinnati Reds, initially eluded diagnosis. Nonspecific inflammation of the spinal cord, doctors thought. That pitch was wide.
In September, Belinda was told he has multiple sclerosis, an incurable, chronic, sometimes disabling disease of the central nervous system.
Belinda, who was traded to the Colorado Rockies in the October deal that sent Dante Bichette to the Reds, has relapse-remitting MS, the most common form. He plans to take the mound at Coors Field, a House on Haunted Hill for pitchers under the best of conditions.
A combination of daily injections of the drug Copaxen and changes in his diet and lifestyle have left him symptom-free most of the time.
"I don't get anything like I had when I was first diagnosed, and I haven't had anything for a long time," he said.
He eats little red meat -- a tough choice for a guy who raises beef on his 770-acre farm in Alexandria, Pa. -- has cut back on milk, fried food and saturated fat. He's even more attentive than before to his physical conditioning and getting sufficient rest.
"If I need a couple hours of sleep, I take it," he said. "I conserve my energy for when I really need it. Exercise comes into it in a big way. That way your body works its best. It helps that I'm an athlete."
The progression of MS is frustratingly unpredictable. Most of the more than 300,000 Americans -- about 5,100 in Colorado -- afflicted with the disease can live a normal lifestyle, although some, including celebrities Richard Pryor and Annette Funicello, develop severe disabilities including leg paralysis and loss of vision.
Belinda's definition of a normal life is to stand 60 feet, 6 inches from the best hitters in the game and try to get them out. After returning to the Reds' bullpen last summer, he made 29 appearances and compiled a 5.27 earned run average, although he pitched much better during the season's final half.
"I've tried to do everything I did before," he said. "I'll know when it's time that I can't do it anymore. I'm 33 and there are things that are harder to do than when I was 23, but I can still throw a baseball and play the game right. I'm not a quitter. I don't give up. That's my outlook to life in general.
"There are other afflictions out there that are a lot worse. How you handle it under adversity tells a lot about a person. I can't just stop everything, can't just lay on my bed and be a couch potato. You have to play the hand that's dealt you."
His diagnosis made Belinda a more spiritual person.
"It's got me praying more. I'm more thankful for the things I have: my family, still being able to play, not being stricken with something that's worse," he said.
Belinda participated in a "Strike Out MS" program for the local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society when he pitched for the Reds. For each strikeout he recorded last season, Teva Marion Partners, manufacturers of Copaxen, donated $1,000 to the society. He plans to participate in the program with the Colorado chapter this season.
He has spoken to a few other people with MS, "but I don't want to give anybody any wrong leads," he said. "Not everything works for everybody. You have to find your own recipe for what makes you feel better and have hope that there will be a cure in your lifetime."
Connie Meitin heard that the Rockies had signed a pitcher with MS -- not that she needed a reason to root for the home team. When she left the hospital after being diagnosed with MS in August 1996, her then-boyfriend, now-fiancee Brian Harris brought her a Larry Walker jersey to wear home.
"I was hospitalized about six weeks. It started with paralysis pretty much from the neck down. I couldn't feed myself. It came on within 36 hours. My neurologist said a week after the diagnosis that I would be back to about 99 percent of where I was before, but it took about six months to get to that point," Meitin said.
Little more than a year after her diagnosis, she suffered a relapse that left her blind in her left eye.
She takes a weekly dose of Avonex, one of the so-called ABC drugs (Betaseron and Copaxone are the others) that slow the progression of the disease but can cause side effects including flu-like symptoms, weight gain and even depression.
"I've been real fortunate. I have no side effects from the medication. I love to ski and ride bikes," she said. "I do have some tingling on my left side, mostly my leg being sensitive to touch, but I have no weakness." She also has some problems with balance but attributes part of it to having sight in only one eye.
Most people wouldn't know she had MS unless she told them.
"There have been many articles written titled 'You look so good.' That's a common problem," she said. "People think you're not sick, and they're very judgmental. They just automatically think the worst if you're walking funny or you fall down. Somebody told a girl in our support group, 'Can you spell intoxicated?' She said, 'Can you spell multiple sclerosis?'
"People are afraid to use a cane, because they don't want people to think they need one. You sacrifice safety to look like you don't have a handicap."
Meitin, a project coordinator for general contractor Tandem Enterprises, isn't surprised Belinda will be on the mound for her favorite team.
"Most of my friends with MS are very active," she said. "It's good to know the team is behind him and doesn't assume he can't do the job."
Pitchers survive pitch to pitch. Belinda takes the same approach to living with MS.
"You just have to keep trying different things," said Belinda, who took about four months to find the combination of medication and diet that keep his symptoms at bay.
"When all is said and done, you might have lost a lot of battles, but you came out a winner in God's eyes."
December 1, 1999