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Bruce Newman
April 17, 1989
Opening Day 1989 was special for White Sox first baseman Greg Walker. Eight months ago he thought he had died
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April 17, 1989

Just Happy To Be Here

Opening Day 1989 was special for White Sox first baseman Greg Walker. Eight months ago he thought he had died

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On opening day at Anaheim Stadium last week, Greg Walker lay on the ground in the middle of the infield, and for what seemed like a very long time, no matter how hard he tried, he could not get up, could not move a muscle. And he could not have been happier. In his first game back since suffering a brain seizure on the field at Comiskey Park eight months ago, the Chicago White Sox first baseman found himself once again flat on his back and totally helpless. The difference this time was that he was on the bottom of a pile of bodies in a bench-clearing brawl with the California Angels, and when the fighting was over he bounced up and ripped a double down the rightfield line.

Santa Ana winds—seldom felt in the spring in Southern California—blew in off the desert last week, raising the temperature to nearly 100� in Anaheim. It was a day much like the scorcher in Chicago last July 30 when the 28-year-old Walker very nearly died. Early on that summer morning, Walker awoke at home in the Chicago suburb of Palos Heights, ate breakfast with his wife, Carman, and their two daughters, then drove to the ballpark.

By getting an early start, Walker, as is his custom, was among the first players to arrive at the White Sox clubhouse, where he methodically went about his preparation for the game. "I don't like to be rushed," he says. "There's so much you have to think about when you play baseball every day that during the season it takes practically all the energy I've got."

On this particular morning, baseball seemed to be taking an unusually heavy toll on Walker. "When I got to the park I was real, real tired," he says. "I lay down on the trainer's table for a while." Walker felt so weary he decided not to take any ground balls during batting practice. A converted catcher who had never played first base until he reached the minor leagues, Walker spent six years in the bushes learning the position. He religiously takes dozens of grounders before every game and broods over any defensive lapse. "It was always a struggle for me," he says. So it didn't help that when the White Sox finally made him the Opening Day first baseman in the spring of 1983, Walker butchered two chances in the first inning of that game. "I'd been a starting first baseman in the big leagues for about three pitches," he says, "and I already had two errors. It was in every paper in the country the next day."

Walker finally roused himself from the training table on that morning last July, and he decided to take infield practice after all. "I had made an error the night before," he says, "so I decided to go out and take a few to get myself going." Under the morning sun, the 6'3", 210-pound Walker retrieved ground ball after ground ball after ground ball in the standard deep infield position off first base. Then coach Eddie Brinkman motioned to him to move up and field some more while coming off the bag. "It was hot, real hot," Walker says. "When he hit the next ball," Walker says, "I kind of bounced off the bag, and as soon as my right leg planted, I felt a sharp sensation in my hip. I thought. Oh no, I've got a hip pointer. Then I felt my right leg buckle, and I knew something was bad wrong. It was too severe to be some little something. I called over to [second baseman] Donnie Hill to get me some help. I thought I was having a heart attack. This all flashed through my mind in milliseconds."

Walker crumpled to the ground and lay on his back. His muscles contracted and heaved as he went into convulsions, his body twisting into a violent arc and then straightening again, like the lash of a whip. His face had contorted into a grotesque mask of confusion: How could this be happening to me? He could not speak, could not breathe.

"For an instant," writes William Faulkner in the novel As I Lay Dying, "before the jerk comes onto his arms he sees his whole body earth-free, horizontal, whipping snake-limber...." This was how Walker saw himself now—unweighted and earth-free. All of the discipline and order that had brought him to this place was suddenly gone. "I was out of control, lying there, no way to stop myself," he says. "I remember looking up and seeing the blue sky. And as I looked up, I thought, I'm dead."

Most of the players who ran to the spot where he had fallen did nothing; many of them were simply terrified to see this large, powerful man writhing helplessly. White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen was the first to try to help; Walker was clutching desperately at his own throat while gasping for air, and Guillen tried to pull his hands away. "He almost killed himself with his own hands," says Guillen. Walker grabbed Guillen by the arm and tossed him away like a doll. "He almost broke my wrist," Guillen says. "I've never been so scared."

"A seizure is a very powerful thing to see." says Angel trainer Rick Smith, who helped steady Walker's head that day. "It's scary to watch somebody go through that, but it's also kind of moving to see all the power coming out of a guy like that." Chicago second baseman Steve Lyons says when he reached Walker "the look on his face was like something from The Exorcist." Lyons ran into the visiting clubhouse to call for an ambulance. "When I got back on the field, he still wasn't breathing."

Brinkman, meanwhile, had gone to the White Sox clubhouse, where he began screaming for trainer Herm Schneider to come quickly. "You got a lot of guys running in and out of the clubhouse yelling stuff all the time," Schneider says. "This was different. There was fear in his voice." Schneider raced onto the field and found the other players gathered in a circle around Walker. "It was an ugly, ugly situation," Schneider says. "Walk was blue, his lips were purple, his eyes had rolled back in his head. Guys were going in to throw up at the sight of it. Some guys just went into the clubhouse probably because they didn't want to see him die. When I got to him, on a scale of one to 10, he was nine-plus dead."

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