Remember, this is a man who pointed to strangers in a lobby as examples of people who are better than he is. If you think Van Slyke is on a soapbox, feeling smugly superior, you have him all wrong. So why does he open his mouth at all? The answer may lie in an allusion Van Slyke makes that again melds the sports world and the real world.
"John 3:16 gets all the attention," he says of the biblical bedsheets that are ubiquitous in televised sports. "But I think people should look at John 3:17, too." The verse goes like this: God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
Again, Van Slyke's God is benevolent. "I think what Magic is confused about is that he thinks he was chosen by God to get AIDS," says Van Slyke. "Does that mean that God also chooses other people to get cancer? Is that what that means?"
Where's the rim shot? What's the punch line? A funny little kicker, perhaps, for the Quotables column in tomorrow's sports section? Sorry. Van Slyke is dead serious on the subject of life's fragility.
The Van Slykes were visiting Lauri's mother at her home in a Bradenton, Fla., residential complex on Feb. 28. In fact they were not far from the Pirate City spring training site, which Van Slyke calls Hiroshima. As he lay on the floor watching television before dinner, "Rigor mortis was setting in," Van Slyke remembers. "It does every spring training, but this spring it was worse."
He was enduring what he calls a headache in his back. He had felt others in previous years, but this spring the headaches in his back had become constant migraines. To swing a bat was excruciating. It hurt Van Slyke to pull his socks on. "I really thought that maybe his career was over," says Lauri.
Van Slyke remembers hearing a siren, but in this retirement community, he heard them all the time. He didn't know that the ambulance was responding to a call at the community pool, three blocks away. There, five-year-old Scott Van Slyke had reached into the hot tub to retrieve what he thought was a sunken toy and realized that it was Jared, his three-year-old brother, blue and unconscious.
Scott weighs only 53 pounds, but somehow he pulled his 33-pound brother from the tub. While a neighbor called 911 and Lauri's brother began CPR, Andy's oldest son, eight-year-old A.J., raced his bike back to his grandmother's house and announced, "Jared drowned."
"By the time I had absorbed what A.J. said," recalls Lauri, "Andy was already at the ambulance."
"It is unbelievable what goes through your mind," says Andy. "All I heard was, Jared drowned. As I'm running, I'm thinking. How come I don't feel any pain? How is it that I'm able to run like this? And I tell you, if Jared had been five miles away, I could have run it that day. It was the strangest feeling, like my feet weren't hitting the ground."