By Mike Klis Denver Post Sports Writer
Nov. 25 - There will be a large gathering at the Belinda household in Alexandria, Pa., today.
Stan Belinda might take a few relatives outside for a tour of the farm, where they can check out the barn and horses and cows. Back inside, Lori, Stan's high-school girlfriend and wife of 11 years, will be entertaining the less adventuresome and watching over their three young children.
When the bird is cut and everyone has gathered for the Thanksgiving feast, Stan and Lori won't daydream through the words of grace.
One year after Stan was diagnosed with incurable multiple sclerosis, the Belindas gave birth to their second daughter, Kady. Two months later, Stan's big league pitching career was not only still alive, but it may have received a boost with a trade to the Colorado Rockies.
Pitching at Coors Field has scared the bejeebers out of Andy Ashby and Bryan Rekar, stained the otherwise glittery careers of Bill Swift and Darryl Kile, and marked the beginning of the end for David Nied and Mike Harkey. But if it's possible to prepare for the agony of pitching in Colorado, Belinda's life has taken a good run at it.
"He's the strongest person I know,'' Lori said. "To go through what he did - I didn't care if he ever played baseball again. But learning you have multiple sclerosis and to come back and play baseball again was not only inspirational to me and my family, but everyone.''
It was May 19, 1998, when the Cincinnati Reds were in New York to open a series against the Mets. As he got out of his hotel bed, Belinda felt Ia tingling, numb feeling in his knee. Later at Shea Stadium, the mysterious sensation wouldn't allow him to jog around the outfield. For the next three months, Belinda underwent a battery of tests while performing remarkably well despite pitching in maddening discomfort.
The numbness spread from the knee to feet to stomach to head until finally he was placed on the disabled list in mid-August with inflammation of the spinal cord. Finally, after eliminating all other possibilities, a local neurologist gave the Belindas the news: Stan was suffering from the early stages of MS. He was sent for a second opinion to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where Dr. John Noseworthy confirmed the diagnosis.
"I'm not saying it's the biggest thing that can happen to you - it's not like getting cancer or leukemia or something like that - but any time you're told you have a disease like this, you're never ready for it,'' said Belinda, 33. "You always think the worst at first, but then you learn you can get to a level of dealing with it.''
MS is a rarely fatal disease that affects the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) by attacking the myelin sheath surrounding the nerves. For still unexplained reasons, the disease is more prevalent the farther away one gets from the equator - (one in 500 are stricken in Canada; one in 800 in Colorado; one in 10,000 in New Orleans. Belinda was born, raised and still resides in western Pennsylvania) - and people of Northern European descent (he is part Polish and Czechoslovakian).
In at least 50 percent of the cases, MS is progressive with symptoms ranging from numbness and fatigue to loss of motor functions. But when diagnosed early, as was the case with Belinda, it can be managed so people can lead normal, productive lives.
"The main thing is to not dwell on it,'' Belinda said. "The only time I talk about it is when I do interviews like this. I talk about it then because hopefully people will read about it and become inspired that life doesn't have to stop because you have MS.''
Belinda is medicated and follows a daily routine of fitness and diet. He was never much of a drinker, anyway, so it was hardly a sacrifice to give up alcohol.
Though MS forced Belinda to miss the rest of the 1998 season, he had learned to manage it by the following spring. All was going well until he suffered his usual spring-training malady - biceps tendinitis. It was the arm injury, not MS, that sidelined him through the all-star break.
By that time he returned, the Reds' bullpen was already established as the best in baseball and Belinda was forced to settle into the often difficult mop-up role where hitters are relaxed and aggressive. He posted a 5.72 ERA in 29 games, but his 42 1/3 innings in a 2 1/2-month span lent proof that fatigue was not a problem.
In late October, as Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd was trying to deal left fielder Dante Bichette to the Reds, he was skeptical when Belinda was offered in return, along with outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds. After putting in a call to Noseworthy, though, O'Dowd was reassured that the Rockies wouldn't be getting a pitcher with MS, but a reliever with nine years of big league experience, a 3.89 lifetime ERA, and an impressive strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.17 to 1.
"He had absolutely no symptoms last year, and we're confident he'll be 100 percent healthy as we get into spring training,'' O'Dowd said.
Having worked in all roles from closer of the National League East Division-champion Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 1990s to the middle and set-up spots later in his career, Belinda will be counted on to carry his share of what promises to be a heavy workload for the Rockies' bullpen in 2000.
"What he has is a pain in the ass, and it's unfortunate, but he has it under control,'' said Rockies manager Buddy Bell, who worked with the Reds last season. "This guy was a helluva pitcher who has been through hell the last year-and-ahalf. Hopefully, he gets comfortable again and can get his feel back.''
If he were a weaker man, Belinda might consider this Thanksgiving holiday as someIthing of a bummer.
For a guy who doesn't throw a curveball, he sure has endured a few. A 24-year-old rookie closer for his hometown and division champion Pirates in 1990, Belinda was living the American dream.
Then came the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series. He nearly pitched free of the no-out, bases-loaded jam he inherited, but with two outs, Francisco Cabrera hit a stupid grounder. If the grounder was hit 2 feet closer to shortstop Jay Bell, Belinda would have been celebrating a trip to the World Series. Instead, he took on the burden of a city's disappointment.
"I was young, and to have something like that happen to you, yeah, it was devastating,'' he said. "But I got over that a long time ago.''
Life went on, with all its twists. A few months after the Cabrera hit, Belinda was forced to take the first step toward what would become a journeyman's career when he was traded from home to Kansas City. He then made stops in Boston and Cincinnati and that hotel room in New York when his life changed, probably forever.
And then, as if he hasn't already suffered enough, Belinda was traded to Colorado, where he has to work half his games in the worst pitcher's park in major league history.
"It's been said that God never gives you more than you can handle, but with the MS and the infamous Cabrera hit and everything else, I'm hoping he slows down a little bit,'' Belinda said, his sense of humor intact. "I'm a big believer that God is looking at this as helping me become a better person.''
This is not a weak man. Today, as he mingles with friends and relatives, looks into Lori's eyes, interacts with daughter Maura, 7, and son Wyatt, 5, and takes his turn with 3-month-old Kady, Belinda will be thankful for all he has.