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He’s About to Try the Biggest of All Spring Comebacks

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Sometime in the next two weeks, Tony Muser, third base coach of the Milwaukee Brewers, will go out and take up his position in the coaching box for the 1987 season and get ready to wig-wag signals to the batter, keep an eye peeled for outfield defenses, and check the terrain for possible passing baserunners.

No big deal, you say?

Very big deal.

Because, you see, Tony Muser melted down about a year ago to the day at that very spring training site. Tony very nearly became a large spot of grease on the training room floor.

It was a very warm day and Tony paid almost no attention to the young workman standing on a box purging the gas line of a ceiling heater. Tony was walking around the locker room only half-clothed as third base coaches are very wont to do in the early hours before the regulars show up.

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Tony hardly even noticed when the workman stuck in a match to start the pilot light.

What happened next got Tony’s complete attention. There was a flash, an explosion--and the room filled with this bright orange flame. Tony remembers there were little curlicues of blue in it like 100-watt snakes.

It flung him into a wall from which he ricochetted and went to one knee. He was stunned. He was also on fire.

He heard another explosion. He heard the young worker moaning “God, please help me!” and Tony remembers thinking “I gotta help him.”

It was Tony who needed God more than the young technician. Someone was in the room stamping out the fire on the young man. It was Harry Dalton, the general manager of the team, and George Bamberger, the manager.

Muser tried to grab a door to pull himself out in the corridor. That’s when he noticed to his horror that he was running out of hands. The flesh was peeling off. “I’m melting!” he thought. He wondered what his face looked like. “It was like one of those creature movies, I expected people to cover up their eyes and scream when they looked at me.”

He heard someone yell, “Who’s in there?” “Tony Muser,” came the answer. “Well, tell him to get up and get out of there.”

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The trouble was, Tony Muser was afraid to get up, afraid he would leave part of him there. He could feel his back melting. He had called for wet towels because of the heat on his back but was afraid to remove them because they might come off with part of his back sticking to them.

Meanwhile, he couldn’t lift his head. And the broken pipes began to fill the room with water. “Now, I’m gonna drown,” Tony remembers thinking. It didn’t seem like all that bad an idea at the time.

They strapped him onto a board. The pain began to slip through the shock. “I wanted to stop thinking about it, but I was afraid if I stopped thinking, I’d stop breathing.”

A few moments later, he found himself folded into a helicopter. “I remember thinking ‘Oh, boy, if I’m being taken by helicopter, it must be bad!’ ”

It was. Muser began to swell up before his very eyes. “I must have weighed 191 when I went in the clubhouse that morning, I weighed 220 when I got to the hospital. I had no neck. My arm looked like a watermelon.”

Burns are the most dastardly of nature’s afflictions. They take their sweet time. You cannot even measure their damage accurately until weeks after the incident. They often wait weeks to kill you, as a lot of late race drivers could tell you. Third-degree burns are the worst, they’re the ones that penetrate deepest into the skin’s cells. A rule of thumb is that, if you have third-degree burns over 40% of your body, you die. Or wish you would. They attack not only the skin but the liver, kidneys and other vital seats of life.

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Tony Muser was burned over 50% of his body but had third-degree burns over 17%.

That was the good news. The bad news was, the treatment for that kind of catastrophic burning seemed like the kind of thing they reserve for captured spies. This included such refinements as slitting open the arm from shoulder down to wrists and scraping off dead skin with what felt like wire brushes. Eating was completely out of the question. Living didn’t seem like too good an idea. Sleeping was done 20 minutes at a time. Every four hours. Bleeding was the thing you did best. “I remember weeks later standing with my arms outstretched and blood running right off them onto the floor.”

You spent most of your time screaming. “I could just feel all the macho draining out of me. You’re taught to play with pain, but this could hardly be called pain. You couldn’t play with this. Sometimes, you could hardly breathe with it. I felt worse two months after the burning than I did two days after. I remember thinking ‘If it’s just going to get worse, what’s it going to be 10 years from now? I didn’t want to find out.”

He had been transferred to the highly skilled burn unit at the UC Irvine Medical Center, where all they did was save his life. But it didn’t feel like it. “Days were 24 hours long. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, I was a mass of exposed nerve endings. I would hallucinate. I plotted an escape on a bicycle when I couldn’t ride a wheelchair. I went from a 39-year-old man to a 65-year-old man in two months. I finally got fed up and I asked the Lord to make a deal--either take me or get me well.”

Recalls Muser: “One day I heard the best news I ever heard in my life. The therapist said, ‘Hey, I see some little buds coming out! Your skin’s starting to come back!’ It was like seeing land when you’ve been two months in a lifeboat without food and water.”

The burns retreat slowly like an army scorching the earth behind it, meanwhile fighting a determined rear-guard action. The itching followed, then, the skin grafts. But then Tony recalls a day in which he was waiting for a ride to therapy and suddenly decided to try to make it on foot. “I made it around the block! I felt as if I’d just won a triathlon!”

Don’t ask Tony Muser to light your barbecue for you or check the pilot on your gas range. But, if you want to send a runner from first to third or second to home with less than two out, Tony might be one of the big league’s best traffic cops at the hot corner.

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Tony was a journeyman ballplayer with Boston, the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore (he did hit .291 once). So, he never got to face a Bob Gibson or a Tom Seaver with a Series on the line. But sending Paul Molitor home on a shallow hit--or facing Seaver in the bottom of the ninth--he says is not his idea of pressure. Pressure is going down into a whirlpool bath to soak what’s left of a back that looks like a fresh-baked pizza. Pressure is going into a basement treatment room when you’d really rather be jumping off the top of the building.

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