By DON BOSTROM Of The Morning Call
PHILADELPHIA -- Cincinnati Reds pitcher Stan Belinda was a confused, scared individual a year ago. His finely tuned body was betraying him and he didn't know why.
At first there was tingling and numbness in his feet and legs. Those sensations began creeping up his body, into his back.
Belinda, fortunately, had daily access to some of the finest medical professionals in the world. Tests revealed an inflamed spinal cord and he was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.
Because it was caught in its early stages, Belinda, only 32, was put on medication and able to make lifestyle changes to control things.
"It was actually a relief to know what was going on with my body," Belinda said. "I'm a competitor and my attitude was, "Let's get on with it!' '
Belinda noted it is human nature to wonder "Why me?" in any crisis situation. He was no different.
Even though he was devastated by the news that he had MS, it is his strong belief now that God chose him for a reason. As a high profile professional athlete, Belinda has a national media platform to raise awareness about MS.
It's one thing to have your face on a bubble gum card. It's quite another to be the poster boy for an incurable disease. Belinda was initially reluctant to assume that role because he was coming to terms with it himself and its impact on his wife Lori, 7-year-old daughter Maura and 4-year-old son Wyatt.
"There were a lot of tears shed," Belinda said. "It was a very personal thing that I had to deal with internally. I had to be able face myself each day in the mirror before I could go out and talk to reporters or make other people understand."
The fierce competitor in him surfaced.
"When I signed to play ball at age 19, I said that I wanted to play until they took the uniform off my back. I don't see any reason for that to change," said Belinda, who led all major league relievers with 114 strikeouts in 1997.
Striking out MS and helping save those afflicted with it became as much a crusade for Belinda as the one for the World Series championship.
Belinda is the focal point of a "Strike Out MS" program that is a partnership between the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and Teva Marion Partners, makers of an FDA-approved drug that modifies the immune processes thought to be responsible for relapsing-remitting MS. Teva Marion is donating $1,000 for every batter Belinda strikes out this season.
Private citizens and other corporations around the country have joined in. Many Reds teammates have quietly, without publicity or fanfare, made generous donations.
All of the money raised, hopefully, will enable some smart scientist to do the research that will come up with a cure.
Belinda has raised over $42,000 already while going 2-1 with one save and a 5.17 ERA in 21 appearances for the Reds.
More importantly, Belinda wants people to be aware of MS, the "quiet" disease that can take different forms with different people.
Belinda said the warning signal for one person might be blurred vision. For another, achy knees. Some have slurred speech. Others get a tingling in the arm similar to the one you get when you whack a funny bone. Or, you could simply feel tired and fatigued.
"MS is something you can't see," Belinda said softly. "You'd never know by looking at me that I had it."
It is also something that should not be ignored. He said it's imperative to seek medical help if a symptom is present. Belinda says to not be afraid. The quality of your life may be altered forever by each delay in diagnosis.
For many years, people with multiple sclerosis were told to quit their jobs, rest and avoid stress.
Stress fills up most of the job description for a relief pitcher, let alone a fireman on a team in the thick of a pennant race.
"I can't let little things bother me anymore," said Belinda, best remembered as the Pirate pitcher who lost Game 7 of an NLCS in the bottom of the ninth to the Atlanta Braves. "I used to get hung up about giving up a home run. I can't do that anymore."
Belinda says some stress is even good for the body because it gets the adrenaline flowing.
"I think competitive stress is good for me. I actually feel better after throwing. I look forward to getting out of those 1st-and-3rd situations," he said.
Belinda has modified his diet. Gone are red meats and french fries. Foods with lots of fiber are now a staple. So are vegetables, lean meats and fish. Breakfast is no longer optional.
He'll take occasional naps.
He will mentally prepare himself for the game to be played.
Most of all he takes a daily injection of Copaxone, which helps reduce the frequency of relapses.
Belinda likes to take it each night before he goes to bed. The injection feels like a little bee sting and there is some occassional soreness in the injection spot the next day. He admits it's a hassle, but also a small price to pay in order to remain a big leaguer.< The only other major league baseball player known to have multiple sclerosis was Jack Brittin, a relief pitcher who saw limited action in 1950 and 1951 with the Phillies. He experienced unexplained numbness in his legs that caused him to retire in 1952. Two years later he was diagnosed with MS.
Belinda is a pioneer. He is the first major league player diagnosed with MS to compete.
Belinda insists he is not a hero. He wants to be an inspiration for the 350,000 known MS patients in the country.
"If it wasn't for baseball, you guys wouldn't be talking to me about this," Belinda said.
That's why Belinda hopes to compete for a long time, so he can use baseball as a forum for awareness.
Since going public, Belinda has received a lot of mail. Sadly, a lot of it is grim. So grim that his wife now screens the letters before passing them on.
"You can't put a happy face on a lot of this," Belinda said. "Death is rare, but MS can become very debilitating. I try not to think about what might happen."
Roughly 25 percent of MS patients wind up in a wheelchair.
Since he is in relapse-remittance, Belinda is never sure when the dark side will raise its ugly head again. He might be able to pitch another five years. He might no be able to pitch a week from now. Giving up the game that has been the focal point of his life since high school is a concern.
"There's a very real fear because I don't know what is around the corner," Belinda said. "The way I look at it, no one really knows. I just put my life in God's hand and that's helped me a lot. I try to make the most of each day and make it a productive and quality day for me and everyone I encounter. You never know what tomorrow might bring. You could get run over by a tractor-trailer. I just try to be as upbeat as possible."
Mentally, Belinda is ready for every obstacle in his path. Can he physically meet the demands that lie ahead?
Belinda doesn't want any sympathy or pity. He doesn't want any opposing batter to fan on purpose in order to make a tax deductible donation. He wants those hitters to determine how much longer he'll be able to pitch by challenging him --hard--every time out.
Belinda's wife gave birth to an eight-pound baby girl on August 21st.
"Yeah, I felt like I landed a bass," Belinda laughed.
He's a country farmer in the off-season. A true Pennsylvanian, Belinda keeps up on how Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions are doing each Saturday.
Belinda wants every day to be as normal as possible.
He wants to be on the mound this October with the whole world watching. That would be the perfect stage to show that life can indeed go on in a meaningful, rewarding way, even for someone with MS.
It will be his ultimate save situation.
For more information about multiple sclerosis, call 1-800- FIGHTMS or
contact Shared Solutions Free MC Patient Support Line at 1-800-887-8100.