FEBRUARY 21, 2000
TUCSON, Ariz. -- Staring down a clutch hitter while trying to protect a one-run lead with the bases loaded in the ninth inning at Coors Field is one of baseball's scariest challenges.
Try staring down multiple sclerosis.
Stan Belinda has done both and said there's really no comparison.
Belinda, a righthanded reliever who is bidding for a spot on the Colorado Rockies roster this spring, has fashioned a unique perspective on baseball and on life since being diagnosed with the degenerative nerve disease in September 1998.
"I want to win with this disease, and I want to win as a team," Belinda, 33, said on Monday. "I think I can do both."
Belinda's troubles began when he woke up in a New York hotel room in mid-May 1998 with tingling and numbness in his leg.
"That was just the one thing that started it, and it just escalated from there," he said.
The numbness spread over most of his body. Then came the diagnosis in September that he was in the early stages of MS.
"You can't prepare yourself for something like that," Belinda said.
There is no known cure for MS, but if caught early and with proper diet, exercise and medication, victims can live a normal lifestyle. Some MS sufferers develop severe disabilities including loss of motor function and blindness.
Belinda resumed pitching midway through the 1999 season, and he has been mostly symptom-free since his treatment began.
"I hope some people find inspiration from this," he said. "My inspiration is my family (wife Lori and three children) and God.
"Unfortunately for me, I got some bad news, but I'm dealing with it and I'm just trying to stay upbeat and trying to perform. God willing, I'm going to finish my career the way I want to finish it, and that's to go out on top."
Belinda, acquired by Colorado in the Oct. 30 trade with Cincinnati that also brought outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds to the Rockies for Dante Bichette, is part of a glut of righthanded relievers on the Rockies' spring roster.
Typically, he accepts his situation magnanimously.
"There's a lot of us, aren't there?" he said.
So many, in fact, that they might squeeze out some lefthander candidates, possibly leaving Colorado with only one lefty in the bullpen. Still, some of the righthanded relievers won't earn a job here. One of them could be Belinda.
"That doesn't bother me," he said. "The team has to make its decision. If things don't work out here -- not just for me but for any of these other righties who are capable of doing what they can do on the field -- they're going to have jobs in other places. I just have to go out on the field and perform the way I'm capable of performing."
In 11 major-league seasons, Belinda has compiled a 40-34 record and 3.89 ERA, but his abbreviated 1999 campaign was sub-par, which he attributes to lingering concern over his illness.
"Mentally, I wasn't prepared like I should have been in spring training," he said. "And physically, I didn't put much effort into it the winter before. I didn't get myself prepared for spring training like I did in years' past just because I was trying to get my head on straight."
His progress early in 1999 was hampered by biceps tendinitis, which Belinda has a history of.
"By the time I was ready to pitch in June, our bullpen was set," he said. "There were times when I didn't pitch for 10 to 12 days. As a reliever, that's the seal of death."
Belinda was 3-1 with two saves and a 5.27 ERA in 29 games for the Reds.
Belinda went about his preparation differently this winter. Besides maintaining a diet without red meat and low in saturated fats, he pitched off a mound for the first time during the offseason in an effort to strengthen his shoulder.
"I feel really good right now," he said. "My arm feels great."
He insists that pitching in Coors Field simply requires a pitcher to make his pitches "and see what happens. A lot of guys mentally beat themselves before they even go on the mound."
Belinda has experienced lows before. He threw the pitch that Atlanta's Francisco Cabrera hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the NLCS in 1992 that sent the Braves to the World Series.
"That haunted me for years," Belinda said, "but MS puts everything in