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Aase Once Again Full of Hope and Optimism

The Washington Post

There were prayers that were answered and prayers that weren’t in 1987, tears of joy and tears of pain. Finally, there was hope and optimism. With Don Aase, it always gets back to that: hope and optimism.

He had it in 1972 when he began his pro career by going 0-10 for a Boston Red Sox rookie team. He had it in 1982 when Los Angeles surgeon Dr. Lewis Yocum patched his right elbow back together with a piece of tendon from his left wrist.

And he certainly had it last year, although he admits there were times when it looked as if the world around him was crumbling in a dozen different directions.

“I did a lot of praying,” he said while sitting on an exercise bike in the middle of the Baltimore Orioles’ spring clubhouse. “I suffered through the worst three months of my life. Nothing else I’ve experienced has come close.”

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Where does he start? He starts with a miracle. They had one child, but were unable to conceive another on their own, so he and wife Judy adopted a daughter in late 1985. Then came the miracle when, in mid-1986, Judy became pregnant.

But six months after that, a doctor sat them down and soberly informed them their new baby probably would suffer from cystic fibrosis, a usually fatal disease that attacks a child’s respiratory system. At the very least, he had a problem with his bowels that would require complicated surgery at birth.

The terrible irony is that when Aase moved to Baltimore in 1985, he began doing volunteer work for the local chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. He had visited sick kids in hospitals and at parties. He had seen their breathing problems, and he had been with one young girl the day before she died. He said the memory of that rail-thin child gasping for breath is etched into his memory.

“I knew about the disease,” he said. “I knew what we were talking about. We’d been planning a vacation, and a doctor said, ‘Go on the vacation like nothing has happened.’ I couldn’t believe he was saying that. I didn’t know what to do, but I couldn’t think about a vacation.”

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Aase’s problems hit those in the Oriole organization hard, not only because it was serious, but because it concerned two very popular people--the quiet, likeable reliever and his wife. There were team prayers and probably a few individual prayers, and offers for help all around.

Aase showed up at spring training last year with all of this on his mind, and on March 13, received word that the baby was about to be born. He hopped a Miami-to-Los Angeles flight, and while airborn, Judy gave birth to a strapping baby boy--Alexander Kelby.

Incredibly, his health was perfect, and today, the Aases have a busy house with six-year-old Kyle and infants of 26 months and 11 months.

“We were astounded, happy, you name it,” Aase said. “It’s one of those things you can’t talk about because words just don’t describe what you feel.”

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So with a miracle in his pocket, he began the 1987 season, which turned out like a lot of the others in his 10-year career: He got hurt and ended up on an operating table, and his career is again in limbo.

It’s a desperately important question for the Orioles. Aase saved a club-record 34 games in 1986, and the Orioles believe that, all their other problems notwithstanding, a healthy Don Aase might have saved their 1986 season.

They finished 67-95, and as bad as the starting pitching was, a respectable bullpen might have saved them. The evidence is that Oriole relievers blew 24 leads--18 in the seventh inning or later. Worse, they lost 10 games in which they were leading in the seventh or later, which could easily have turned 67-95 to 77-85 and something akin to respectability.

In a season when they used 18 different pitchers--the most by an Oriole team in 20 years--10 different relievers were credited with at least one save. When they left South Florida last spring, their basic plan was to get a lead and give the ball to Aase in the eighth and ninth innings. Instead, he pitched in seven games, saving only two.

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Aase’s season pretty much ended after the second game of the season. The Orioles flew to Cleveland that night, and when Aase awoke the next morning, he could barely move his right arm. He ended up on the active roster for only 23 days, and underwent shoulder surgery on July 30. The surgery was a 40-minute procedure to repair tears in the labrum, which is the band of cartilage that rings the shoulder. It was serious enough that Aase didn’t pick up a ball until December, and the Orioles still have no idea when he’ll be 100%.

They don’t expect him to be ready opening day, and a lot of their hopes for 1988 include him being healthy before the all-star break and combining with Tom Niedenfuer, Doug Sisk, Mark Williamson and Dave Schmidt to form a bullpen that should be more than respectable.

“The big thing right now is getting back the stamina and strength in the shoulder,” he said. “I’m going to play it by ear. I feel fine, but the main thing I have to keep from doing is rushing back. I want to build up gradually and be back when I’m back. Doing it right may only be a matter of two weeks, and that’s not much in the context of a long season.”


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