The Padre Ballplayer in the Bullpen : In Wake of Father's Death No Regrets for Ron Oglesby

Times Staff Writer

It's still with Ron Oglesby, sometimes showing up in the strangest places, such as last weekend in the far corner of an empty Astrodome dugout.

"My dad always dreamed I'd be a big-league player, and it never happened," said the Padres bullpen catcher. "But in these last few years, watching me do what I do . . . do you know he used to wear a Padres cap? . . . I think he died a happy man."

It was early evening, batting practice was finished. The Houston Astros were taking grounders, the Padres were in the clubhouse putting on their uniforms.

Oglesby, alone in the dugout, eyes red, spit out bits of his chaw of tobacco and sobbed.

This season has been a bit of hell for everyone associated with the Padres. But the longest summer has belonged to Oglesby, 37, the mustached and hard-faced employee who runs the Padres bullpen.

He's No. 55, his name is on the back of his uniform like everyone else. Both at home and on the road, he is a batting-practice pitcher and catcher of relief pitchers and the one who answers the bullpen phone. He's been doing it full-time for three years. He has a 1984 World Series ring.

But his name is not in your program, or your media guide. And if it wasn't for his increasingly pale complexion or the 12 games he missed, some of the players might never have understood.

In January, his 68-year-old father, a retired construction worker from Riverside named Jim Oglesby, was diagnosed as having inoperable lung cancer. Jim was given six months to a year to live.

By June, he required 24-hour supervision. It was suggested that he be moved to a hospital. But the family--Ron, his mother and two sisters--decided, no.

"He had given us most of 68 years of his life, so at least we could give a couple of months to him," Ron said. "We saw what it was like in some places, where he would be in a room with three other guys dying of cancer, and we said 'No way."'

So they bought a hospital bed and placed it in the den of their modest Riverside home. The sisters took leaves from their jobs as secretaries and stood by their father on separate shifts from 8 a.m. to midnight.

Then it would be Ron's turn. After every home game, he would drive 1 1/2 hours north to Riverside, arriving around midnight. He would sit by his father until 8 a.m. He would take care of his father's toilet needs. He would cool him with compresses. He might need to bathe him, shave him, or just make him laugh.

When a sister arrived to take over, Ron would sleep for a couple of hours, and drive back just in time for the next night's game.

Or sometimes he would just stay. Twice, he missed an e three-game home series because his father thought the end was near and wanted his son there.

Then there were the times the Padres would go on the road. Oglesby had to accompany them, but couldn't stop thinking about his father until he returned home.

"I was hit with guilt for not being with him, then hit with guilt for not giving my full attention to my job, which my father would have wanted," Oglesby said. "It was tearing me apart, mentally."

He put more than 6,000 miles on his car. He put so much wear on himself, one day he might snap at a player and the next day he would be sullen and uncommunicative.

"Ronnie would walk in here and you could tell," Tim Flannery said. "He was wiped out."

On the afternoon of Aug. 4, while in Atlanta, Oglesby received a call. His father was drifting into a coma. The next morning Ron flew home.

"My father pointed at me when I came in the door," he said. "I think he was waiting to see me."

Two days later, on Aug. 7, Jim Oglesby died. The day after the funeral, Ron returned to San Diego for a home game against the Atlanta Braves. He looked out on the field to discover nothing had changed. Except him.

"I realized how lucky we were that we could do that for our father," he said. "Some people have regrets the rest of their lives because they don't. We won't.

"I sat there in the dugout and realized, the game will always be here. Your family won't. I've put the game ahead of a lot of things in my life. Maybe it won't happen so much anymore."

This is not a story for the movies, or the talk shows, or even for your tears.

It is a story of a father who used to come home from eight hours of laying concrete, put on a glove, and play catch with his son.

Many years later the son, while being paid to play catch, was faced with a chance to pay the father back. And he did.

Even while his strong and hard 170-pound build was shrinking to 80 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame, Jim Oglesby would watch the Padres games on cable television. He was the only person in the country hoping for a camera shot of the back of the Padre bullpen.

When he was healthy, he would visit his son for several games during every homestand, sitting with the coaches' families, quietly pointing out his catcher son at every opportunity.

Of course, Oglesby is not a player, not even a coach. He is paid very little. He's single and spends his season living out of a San Diego Circle-8 Motel.

"But it is the big leagues, my Dad knew that much," he said. "And he knew I was giving it all I could, which is all he ever asked."

Oglesby, who got as far as Triple-A ball, hurt his arm in 1972 while with Salt Lake City in the California Angels farm system.

He credits his father with helping him get that far.

Jim Oglesby would come home after work and crouch down 40 feet away from the homemade pitcher's mound in the backyard and catch for his son. For two years, he managed his son's Little League team in Riverside.

"He made me do things other kids didn't have to do," Ron recalled. "We didn't have a catcher, so for two years, I had to play catcher. He was always tough like that. Quiet, but tough."

By the time Ron was the star pitcher for Ramona High in Riverside, his father would leave the construction sites early to watch him play. But one of his happiest times was the day he came late.

"He gets off work early, and gets to the game about 4, and it's already over with," Ron remembered. "The other kid had thrown a two-hitter, I had thrown a one-hitter, we won 1-0, it took 55 minutes. I still remember him not believing the coach. My dad and I, I guess there was always some kind of bond there."

It was one of the last times his father saw him play. In 1968, after a 14-1 record his senior season, Ron turned down scholarship offers to USC and Brigham Young to sign with the Twins as a 10th-round pick.

With his bonus money he bought a Dodge Charger, which his father proudly drove around town.

It took Ron six years and six cities and two countries to make him realize he didn't have it, but that wasn't the worst of it. Not once during that time could his father afford to travel to see him pitch.

"He wanted so badly to see me in the pros, and never did . . . that's why what am doing now is so important to him," Ron said.

Oglesby ended his career in 1972 on the dirt fields of the Mexican League, then returned home to do what his father had done, to lay concrete.

For the next seven years Ron poured the cement, hating the heat and early morning hours and everything but the money. He finally caught on with the California Angels as a batting practice pitcher and then through connections with Eric Show, who went to the same high school, and others, landed in San Diego. He began there as a batting practice pitcher in 1983, and since 1985 has traveled with the team.

And all was going well, his thoughts were dominated with becoming a full-time coach one day.

Until last January, when his father entered the hospital with what Ron thought was pneumonia.

"It wasn't anything big, but then all of a sudden they told us he had cancer," Oglesby said. "The family got together and decided, I would be the one to tell him. We waited a couple of days. It was the hardest thing I've ever done."

He decided to do it just like he was talking to one of the Padres pitchers.

"Pop," he said, "it's cancer, and it's not going to get any better." At first, Jim Oglesby didn't believe it.

"He would say stuff like, 'Maybe I have it, maybe I'll get rid of it,' " Ron said. "Then it finally hit him. And I can say that not once in the next seven months did he complain."

The final realization hit both men the last weekend in March, when the Padres played the Angels in four games in Palm Springs. Increasingly weak, Jim still insisted on a visit.

"He really wanted to see me, like he knew it would be the last good time," Ron said. "So we hung around together for three days. He would go to the ballpark and after the game we would go to dinner. By then he was ready for bed.

"It was no big deal. But it was three whole days with him. I'll never forget them."

Nor will he forget one of the last things his father said about him, in the middle of one night in July.

"I had been there a couple of hours when dad woke up," Ron recalled. "He looked at me and said, 'Who are you?' He didn't recognize me. I told him I was his son. And you know what he said?

"He said, 'Yeah, I had a son. He was a ballplayer.' "

As he tells of this, Oglesby is wiping his eyes again.

"Now what I do might not seem like much to a lot of people," he said. "But my dad, it was good enough for him."

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