But by his senior year the Cleveland Indians were sending scouts to watch him, and colleges were offering only baseball scholarships. The Atlanta Braves selected Urban in the 13th round of the 1982 draft, and a week after graduation he boarded a Pan Am jet for rookie ball in Bradenton, Fla. He was 17, the youngest player taken in the entire draft, and soon miserable. He was homesick and hitless when a rogue grounder smacked him in the face. One eye swollen shut, he found a pay phone and called Ashtabula in tears. He told his dad that he was through with baseball.
"You're never welcome in this house again," Bud said. "There's no such thing as a quitter in the Meyer household. Do you understand me?" Urban was speechless. "Your mother will want to talk to you," Bud added. "Make sure you give her a call at Christmas."
Urban hung up—and tried harder. He took extra infield and batting practice. He slept with his arm wrapped in a sweatshirt to protect it from the air conditioning. He was in bed by 9 p.m.; if he'd forgotten to do his nightly 300 push-ups and 400 dips, the guilt would wake him and he'd do them bleary-eyed. But nothing helped. He finished his season of rookie ball hitting .170, and the next year told him all he needed to know.
One of his Gulf Coast League roommates in 1983 was a hall-of-fame carouser whose nightly diet consisted of alcohol, women and four hours of sleep. The day after hearing him stumble in at 3 a.m., Meyer struck out three times and made two errors. His roomie bombed two home runs, then plopped down on the bench. His eyes were slits, and in the 100º swelter the stink of booze rose off his skin. "Hey, man," the roomie said, "you ought to try what I do. That other stuff isn't working."
By season's end Urban's arm was shot. He left baseball with little to show: a release letter signed by Hank Aaron, some epic Ping-Pong wins over future big leaguers Fred McGriff and Mark Lemke, and his first taste of failure. Mostly, baseball taught Urban what he missed. At the first hint of autumn those two years, he longed for the feel of pads cracking, even the punishment of two-a-days. He wasn't playing football, and the very idea broke him. So he'd cry.
Everyone knows: Bud was the tough one. In all the retellings, Gisela is the cream puff, the one who sneaked Urban meals when he was sent to his room, who doled out all the affection her husband didn't, the sloppy hugs and warm encouragement. Ever since Urban became famous, Gigi has seen stories about her parents harden into cliché: "The hard-ass and the softy," she says.
But at his core, Bud had nothing on his wife. He wasn't the one whose father was arrested in his small Bavarian town of Muppberg and shipped to Siberia, to return a torture-wracked, 80-pound shell. Bud's family wasn't the one advised by a Soviet guard to leave behind all their possessions, immediately, before East Germany was sealed off for good and they were sent to a work camp. "If you're going," the guard said to Gisela's mother, "you should leave now."
It was 1949. Gisela Gumpert was 13, and her world had been crumbling for years. First came Germany's crushing defeat in World War II, then the extension of the U.S.S.R.'s footprint all the way to Muppberg. The Gumperts had been one of the region's most prominent families; their mansion was seized and Gisela's papa, the town's mayor, was hauled away. Gisela cried so often, so heavily, that for a time she became cross-eyed.
Escape from Soviet occupation was easier then. The heavy fortifications on the frontier between East and West Germany had yet to be built. To flee, all Gisela and her remaining family—her mother, brother and sister—had to do was wait until dark, swallow hard and wade across a stream into the West. They spent a few weeks in a refugee center in Coburg, and within months Gisela's mother became lady-in-waiting to a duchess.
Gisela graduated from culinary school in Switzerland in 1954, moved to London and then to Paris. She sailed for New York City on the SS Bremen in November 1959, an immigrant expecting the fabled streets paved with gold. But the city was plagued by strikes; garbage piled up in streets roamed by rats the size of raccoons. She would never forget the smell.