It’s a cold Sunday morning in late February, time for joys and concerns during the service at West Nashville United Methodist Church. One person asks the congregation to pray for a loved one in the hospital. Another requests “traveling mercies” for family members on the road. Then, from halfway back on the right side of the sanctuary begins a series of electronic toots and beeps in the dot-dot-dash rhythm of Morse code. For at least 30 seconds, everyone listens in complete silence. Then they turn toward a woman in a wheelchair.
Her name is Kathie and those who have long been part of the little congregation on Charlotte Avenue can guess what message is coming. “Pitchers and catchers report this week,” says the synthesized voice. It’s an annual announcement.
March is Kathie’s favorite month. March means spring training, spring training means a new baseball season will soon arrive, and Kathie Hormby may be Nashville’s most ardent baseball fan.
Kathie follows the Los Angeles Dodgers, her hometown team, with a devotion that makes you believe it’s possible to bleed blue. But she’ll tell you that her love of baseball always comes first. “Baseball,” she says, “is my passion.”
What Advent is to Christmas, spring training is to baseball. Ask Kathie at any time during December or January, and she can tell you how many days remain until hurlers and receivers arrive at preseason camps. She knows that each passing winter day brings her closer to redeeming the promise of spring, when nature gives everything a new chance and the Dodgers always start in a tie for first place.
She’ll tell you the number of days left in the countdown through the voice processor that’s hooked to a laptop computer. The computer is rigged to the wheelchair where she has been confined since ALSLou Gehrig’s diseasetook away her ability to walk a decade ago. (Kathie wryly notes the irony that her illness is named for a ballplayer. “If I’m going to die,” she writes, “at least it has something to do with baseball.”)
ALS leaves the mind intact, trapped inside a body that gradually, cruelly, becomes paralyzed. But Kathie, a former federal public defender, can still move her head slightly and wiggle a toe. Through these meager motions and the computer’s enabling technology, she can peck out sentences in Morse code, which she learned as a Navy cryptography officer. The laptop translates Morse into spoken Englishthe voice of the machine clips each spoken syllableand that means Kathie can always talk baseball.
Ask about the Dodgers’ chances this year and she’ll tell you. “We have a pow-er-hit-ting sec-ond base-man now.” Dots and dashes later, she notes that “Ke-vin Brown is back.” (The team’s ace has recovered from last year’s injury.) When someone suggests that the Dodgers might benefit from the San Francisco Giants’ failure to keep Dusty Baker, widely regarded as the major leagues’ best manager, her reply forms right away. “They’re i-di-ots.”
Kathie began playing baseball at age three, when her dad let her umpire family games in the front yard. As an adult, she played slow-pitch softballalways wearing number 22 for her Dodger hero, Sandy Koufaxuntil the ALS set in. “Kathie is the only woman I know who could throw a slider and a knuckleball,” says her husband Dave. Early in their marriage, she and Davewho grew up a Phillies fan but now considers himself a “Dodger-in-law”spent many evenings watching minor-league, industrial-league, even little-league games, and made several pilgrimages to ballparks around the country during vacations.
Except for occasional outings to Greer Stadium, Kathie can no longer travel to ballparks. But through her laptop, and her head- and toe-wiggles, she remains as connected to the game as ever. Besides using her computer to speak, she carries on an active e-mail correspondence and writes an occasional column, “Kathie’s Hot Corner,” for the church newsletter. And, of course, she keeps up with the Dodgers. “I read the Los Angeles Times sports page online every day during the season,” Kathie writes. “I also visit several Dodger Web sites, including one by a disabled woman. I watch every Dodger game that’s on TV. We just found out we can get Dodger games through Comcast audio, so I will be spending many nights listening to Vin Scully this year.”
Baseball’s unique source of strength, Bill Veeck once said, “is the fan’s memory of the times his daddy took him to the game to see the great players of his youth.” Or hers. Kathie can vouch for that. She remembers accompanying her father to games at downtown L.A.’s Wrigley Fielda replica of the one in Chicago, but with lightsto see the Los Angeles Angels and the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. “It was the closest thing to heaven I could imagine,” she recalls. She remembers seeing Denny McLain on his way up to the majors, Jimmy Pearsall on his way down, and, one night, the great Satchel Paige, who sat in a rocking chair beside the visitor’s dugout.
When the Dodgers moved to L.A., they became Kathie’s team. She recalls watching them play in the Coliseum, their temporary home, and bubbling with excitement when their new stadium opened in Chavez Ravine. “I can still see my father, sitting in Dodger Stadium, totally relaxed, scorecard in his lap,” Kathie writes. It was there, one hot Sunday afternoon, he taught her how to score the game herself. “Real fans,” he told her, “keep score.”
She also remembers an Opening Day, years later, when her father lay dying of cancer. Chemotherapy would be painful and would only prolong his life by a few months, but the man who never left a game early chose it anyway. “I want to see another World Series,” he said.
He didn’t get his wish, but his philosophy lives in his daughter. Kathie was first diagnosed with ALS 15 years ago. Virtually no one lives this long with the disease. She has defied every expectation except, perhaps, her own. Like her father, she does not believe in leaving early. “In Kathie’s book,” says Dave, “the biggest sin in baseball is to strike out looking. You take your swings. You don’t quit. You play the game till the last out.”
And as long as you keep getting on base, or even just foul off pitches, you can play forever. In baseball parlance, you’re staying alive.
How it looks from the La-Z-Boy
NCAA Tournament Edition, Slightly Revised
Men’s East Region: Oklahoma over Butler; Syracuse over Auburn. Elite Eight: Syracuse over Oklahoma.
South: Texas over Connecticut; Maryland over Michigan St. Elite Eight: Texas over Maryland.
Midwest: Kentucky over Wisconsin; Pittsburgh over Marquette. Elite Eight: Kentucky over Pittsburgh.
West: Arizona over Notre Dame; Duke over Kansas. Elite Eight: Arizona over Duke.
Final Four: Texas over Syracuse; Kentucky over Arizona.
Championship: Kentucky over Texas.