More MS news articles for July 2001

Out to the ball game: Like the Mets, MS patients donít give up

Sunday, July 29 2001
By Michael Howerton
Staff Writer

NEW YORK - Dozens of Fairfield County residents with multiple sclerosis and their families climbed gingerly off charter buses at Shea Stadium on Thursday to take part in MS Day at the ballpark.

Stamford resident Wendy Greer, 52, smiled from her wheelchair and told friends she hoped the Mets would play better than they have been. A longtime fan, she said she has been disappointed to see the defending National League Champions close to the bottom of their division.

"I hope they hit a lot of home runs," she said. "They haven't been doing so well lately." Greer, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years ago, attended Rippowam High School in Stamford when Mets Manager Bobby Valentine was also a student there. She praised Valentine for becoming an advocate for the Multiple Sclerosis Society and helping to host MS Day at Shea for the past five years.

As she entered the stadium with her mother and two nieces, Mets players and their opponents, the Philadelphia Phillies, were warming up on the field. The Phillies' fortunes this year have been the reverse of the Mets. After finishing last in the division last year, the Phillies were a game out of first place before Thursday's game.

Sharon Stewart, 54, of Norwalk, was diagnosed with MS 15 years ago. Although she can still walk, the disease has taken its toll on her stamina and concentration. She pushed Greer through the stadium, and the two families sat together in the wheelchair section for the game.

"MS is very debilitating," Stewart said. "But I want to still be as active as I can possibly be. I'm not a big baseball fan, but I'm here to be social and support the MS Society."

Her husband of nine months, Gene Stewart, said it is a challenge for family members to help care for those stricken with the disease.

"We go day by day," he said. "We are still learning."

"At first it's so hard," Sharon Stewart said. "It's like someone took your life away from you. But after awhile, you learn about the illness and you see you are not alone. You see there is hope for the future. It makes you happy to still do the things that you can do."

Multiple sclerosis deteriorates the central nervous system and prevents body control. It usually appears in young adults. The symptoms can vary widely and can include paralysis, blindness, imbalance and fatigue.

About 700 Multiple Sclerosis Society members and families from around the area watched Thursday's game at Shea. They filled most of the bleachers in the picnic area. Close to 200 people from the Western Connecticut chapter attended with others from the Westchester County and North New Jersey chapters.

The Western Connecticut chapter, which includes Fairfield and Litchfield counties, has about 1,200 members.

An estimated 350,000 people are known to have the disease in the United States, said Betty Fairbanks, executive director of the local chapter. She said the actual number of people afflicted could be twice that much.

Like many MS sufferers who attended the game, John Falzone's appearance does not betray his condition. His fatigue and weak legs have improved with the drug Avonex.

"I've been lucky," said Falzone, 46, who has had MS for 16 years. "So many people get multiple sclerosis and are paralyzed in two years, and with others, like me, you'd never know we had it."

Before the game, Valentine shook hands with members of the group and signed autographs. Valentine also hosts an annual fund-raiser in Stamford for the society.

"I've had friends who are afflicted," Valentine said. "We give back in whatever ways we can."

Valentine joined a few of the representatives from the chapters on the field for a pre-game ceremony. As he rolled onto the soft grass behind home plate, Larry Karas from the North Jersey chapter looked up at the stands from his wheelchair. The stadium glowed in the artificial light as daylight waned. A few ball players completed their warm-up on the infield.

"So, this is what it feels like to be on the field," Karas said.

Stamford resident Gene Monte, vice president of Crystal Rock and a Western Connecticut chapter board member, threw out the game's first pitch.

During the game, many in the left field bleachers sat with their hands resting on canes and walked with the help of loved ones. The game was close.

The bleachers erupted in cheers when Mets pitcher Rick Reed got out of a bases-loaded and one-out situation to end the top of the seventh inning and preserve a 1-1 tie. Many of the families celebrated by dancing and clapping through the seventh-inning stretch.

The cheers continued as the Mets scored in the bottom of the inning to take the lead. The chant "Let's Go Mets" spread through the MS Day section.

The excitement was short-lived. The Phillies scored twice in the top of the eighth to take the lead for good. Although Valentine sent pitch-hitter Mike Piazza to the plate with a man on base and one out in the ninth, a move that was greeted with a surge of applause, the slugger flied out to left field.

Joe Abbott, 63, of Fairfield, groaned with the final out and stood with the help of his cane to head for the exit.

"I wanted Mike Piazza to hit a home run," said Abbott, a board member of the Western Connecticut chapter. "I wanted the Mets to win. But it was too much fun to be disappointed. We'll have to wait for tomorrow. We don't give up."