Padres' Ready Handles Horror of Wife's Tragedy

Times Staff Writer

They were married that summer on the only day Randy Ready didn't have a baseball game. It was El Paso, 1982. Ready was a 22-year-old infielder with a passion, and his girl Dorene was someone who understood.

The church was tiny, the congregation numbered two: a buddy and his girlfriend. They doubled as the best man and maid of honor. They kissed the bride. They threw the rice.

And then they pulled up in Ready's beige 1968 Chevy Nova. Into the back climbed Randy and Dorene, and off they went into the West Texas night. If you are a minor league player with a game the next day, that is what is known as a honeymoon.

Their friends drove, Randy and Dorene swigged champagne. They told awful jokes and drank some more. Then somebody slipped a Frank Sinatra cassette into the tape deck and, all together, they sang.

"Sang all of his old songs," Ready recalled. "You know, like that one, 'Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you.' "

It is 6 years later. Ready is sitting in the quiet of a major league clubhouse, and softly, just for a second, he is humming that song, "Young at Heart." Then he suddenly stops. Ready no longer wants to hear about fairy tales, occupied as he is with finishing a second consecutive season burdened by his reality. Baseball, you see, is no longer his work, but his escape. Baseball has become the easiest thing he does.

When he goes home after work, Dorene is not there. She lives a few miles down the highway in an extended-care facility. She has been helpless for more than 2 years, and perhaps indefinitely, because of a serious brain injury. Waiting for Ready are his three young children, Andrew, 5, and twins Colin and Jared, 3.

Ready goes home, where he must be the rock, the one with the will so strong that he is uneasy explaining it.

"You do what you got to do," he says softly.

On June 13, 1986, the day Ready played his first game as a Padre after having been acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers, Dorene collapsed on the floor of their home in Tucson. She was unconscious for 7 to 10 minutes. During much of that time, her brain was deprived of oxygen.

Ready left his team, canceling his season, to care for her and their children.

Dorene never really woke up. Today she lives in a special home in Del Mar, unable to care for herself, unable to walk, her voice never rising above a whisper. Ready lives a few miles away with his sister, Cindy, who helps him with the children.

On the field, much is made of his versatility--he is a second baseman, third baseman, left fielder. Yet that is nothing compared to his roles at home, where he is husband, father and mother.

He visits Dorene every other day. He brings her home for events such as birthday parties. Her condition has improved only enough so that she can initiate five phrases. Ready keeps track. One is, "I love you."

He has done diapers, baby food, sloppy baths and messy breakfasts.

He does the disciplining. Only, this is when the pain is truly shared.

"To be spanking them and hear them shout, 'I want my mommy,' that kills me," Ready said. "What can I tell them, that I want her, too?"

Then he comes to the ballpark. When the Padres finish this weekend in Houston, Ready will likely finish batting about .260, with half a dozen or more homers and more than 30 RBIs. Teammates will say that they are amazed.

"I don't know what's going on in that little man's head, but something is definitely clicking that keeps him going," Tony Gwynn said. "That man is tough ."

He rejoined the team last season and hit .309 with a career-high 12 homers and 54 RBIs. Teammates were so impressed that several, despite having a batting champion and rookie of the year on the same club, quietly wanted him to be voted the team's most valuable player.

They continue to look at him with respect bordering on awe. Ready has come to represent the work ethic and comeback spirit of the 1988 club as no other player has.

"He'll even joke about it--when he leaves the clubhouse he'll look over his shoulder and say, 'Well, I'm headed back to reality,' " Tim Flannery said. "I don't know how he gets by day to day. Honest, I don't."

Ask him how he gets by, and he looks at you as if you've just asked him how he puts on his socks. He just does.

"I guess if you got a problem, you confront it," Ready said. "You be realistic about it, you do what you can, then you rely on your faith for the rest.

"People keep telling me that my life has to get better. I have to believe them."

If the words sound careful, well, this is the first interview he has given on his off-the-field life in more than a year. Throughout the end of last season and this spring, he answered constant questions about his wife by running his finger across his throat. It meant you could ask him anything but that.

He doesn't want to be made a hero. He doesn't want to be made a martyr. All he wants is more starts than benchings, and a few pitchers who aren't afraid to elevate a fastball.

"I don't talk about it in the clubhouse, because I get away from it in the clubhouse," Ready said.

He agreed to this interview but asked that his privacy be respected with regard to certain details and that he and Cindy be the only ones interviewed. When contacted, Cindy, whom Ready only half-jokingly refers to as a saint, politely declined to be interviewed.

So why has Ready chosen to talk?

"I think he has finally dealt with it now," Flannery said. "It took him 1 1/2 years, but he is finally getting on with his life. The wound never heals, but I think he understands it better now."

Ready does. And he doesn't.

He spoke evenly: "My wife suffered the most severe of head injuries. She needs maximum assistance at every level. It could be that way for the next 30 or 40 years. But meanwhile, my life and our children's lives goes on. I realize that's the way it has to be."

He paused.

"But then there are still times I get home and think about a normal life," he said. "I wonder, just what is a normal life?"

For him, and because of more than just what has happened in the last 2 years, it is a good question.

Normal began in Fremont, about 35 miles south of San Francisco, where his mother was a waitress and his father a carpenter. Their lack of money made Ready the answer to the following trivia questions:

--Who is the only Padre to have worked on the Alaska Pipeline? At 15?

Ready joined his father in Alaska for 3 harsh summers, working 14 hours a day in wilderness camps, with almost every penny going to his mother when he returned home in the fall.

One summer, he arrived in Fairbanks and learned that his mandatory Alaska residency card had not yet been processed. He couldn't work until it was. With just a few dollars in his pocket, he spent the next week living in the front seat of an abandoned truck across from the union hall until the card arrived. He was 16.

"I guess I grew up kind of quick," he said.

--Who is the only Padre to have worked a graveyard shift at a doughnut shop? While still attending high school?

Ready did this to keep the family fed because, when he was 16, his father died. Max Ready was planning to drive down from Alaska to take Randy and his brother to Hawaii for a vacation. At 4 a.m. the day before the scheduled trip, they got the phone call.

That was when he learned about grief and how something as simple as baseball can help ease you out of that grief.

"I didn't want to grieve, so I played baseball, played all the time, and eventually it got better," Ready said. "Of course, some things, I don't know if you ever get over them.

"My dad was not a big guy, but he was scrappy, a perfectionist, never quit. Not a big guy, but tough."

Ready needed those same traits to make it through his senior year at Kennedy High School. It was the doughnut shop from midnight to 8 a.m. School from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Baseball from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Dinner, bedtime, and then, a few hours later, the doughnut shop again.

"It was in high school that I learned how to take power naps," Ready said.

After 3 good years at Cal State Hayward and Mesa College in Grand Junction, Colo., the Milwaukee Brewers made him a fifth-round pick in the June draft of 1980. But in Milwaukee, he had a problem. As a second baseman, he was stuck behind Jim Gantner. As a third baseman, behind Paul Molitor. He could play shortstop, too, but in those days, so could Robin Yount.

In all, before being traded to the Padres, he spent parts of 7 years with the Brewer organization and ended up playing 120 big league games.

The best thing that happened to Ready during those years happened at a fast-food restaurant.

It was the end of spring training, 1981, when the Brewer minor leaguers had just returned to their motel in Phoenix. There were several young women by the pool, and most of the players rushed off the bus to gawk.

Not Ready, who by that time had seen too much of life to gawk. He walked over to the hamburger joint, where he was standing in line when one of the women, swimsuit-clad and soaking wet, appeared at his side.

"Didn't I see you by the pool?" he asked.

"What was your first clue?" Dorene said.

"Right then," Ready recalled, "I realized she was one of those tough girls. I liked that."

They were married a year later, had their first child a year after that and settled into a life of defined roles.

"I played baseball, and she was the rock," Ready said.

It was Dorene who worked two jobs during the winters so he could be with the children.

It was Dorene who once convinced him to remain home with the kids a few extra days one winter instead of reporting to the Brewers' training camp early. Good thing, because some of the Brewers who reported early were injured in a clubhouse explosion.

Finally, Dorene insisted that Ready visit the Brewer bosses in the late spring of 1984 and demand to know if he had made the big league team.

"She told me, 'I've got a family to run, I need to know,' " Ready recalled. He was so inspired that on the way to Manager Rene Lachemann's office, he backed his car into the team bus.

"So I walked in to see Lach, and I asked, 'Am I on the team or not?' Lachemann told me I would have to ask the general manager (Harry Dalton). So I said, 'Get Harry in here.'

"Harry walks in and says, 'Congratulations.' "

Three months later, he was sent to triple-A, but he still hasn't forgotten the inspiration. After again sharing time between Milwaukee and triple-A Vancouver in 1985, he was finally able to pay Dorene back on June 12, 1986. After being sent down to triple-A for a second consecutive year, he received the phone call in Milwaukee that he was being traded to San Diego. It was a city near their home in Tucson, a city with sun, her dream city.

"San Diego! San Diego!" she screamed upon hearing the news. "We're going to San Diego!"

She was so excited that she woke up the children. The next day, a Friday, Ready flew to San Diego. She flew to Tucson with plans to join him in San Diego on Saturday.

Ready reported to San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, started at third base that night against Fernando Valenzuela of the Dodgers. In his first at-bat, he struck out on four pitches. He also botched a bunt.

He returned to the hotel that night wondering what else could go wrong. He called Dorene, they talked, he felt better. But an hour later, he had a call from home, and it wasn't Dorene. It was her cousin. Dorene had been found on the floor, unconscious. She had had a brain aneurysm--a weakening of a blood-cell wall--that erupted. She had been rushed to a hospital in a coma. He had to get home.

It was too late for a flight, but he rushed to the San Diego airport anyway. There, in the longest night of his life, he waited.

"I was on the phone all night, trying to figure things out," Ready said. "I called one of my friends, who started a prayer chain for me. I called anybody I could."

The first plane left around 7 a.m. He walked into Dorene's room at Tucson's El Dorado Hospital about 10:30 a.m.

"I looked at her, all hooked up to everything . . . and I said, 'Whoaaa.' " Ready recalled. "I could not believe my eyes. There was shock. There were tears. Everything."

A doctor called him out into the hall and asked him a question he had never heard anyone ask before, not even in the movies.

"He told me I had 48 hours to decide whether or not I wanted to terminate my wife," Ready recalled. "The man laid it right on the line."

Ready barely paused.

"I told him, 'That's not my department,' " Ready said. " 'That's not my decision.' "

Three weeks later, after his wife had stabilized and his children were put in the care of his mother-in-law, Ready returned to the Padres. They sent him to triple-A Las Vegas on a rehabilitation option to find his swing. He played in 10 games, getting at least 1 hit in each, and then the Stars traveled to play Tucson.

He stepped off the plane, drove to his home, walked in his front door, and couldn't believe it was the same house. In the eyes of his children he saw confusion, fear, uncertainty. Andrew, then 2, was not getting to bed until midnight. Then he was waking up at 6 a.m., crying for his mother.

In the series opener against Tucson that night, he didn't get a hit. He packed his duffel bag, drove home again and didn't pick up another baseball for 6 months.

"I quit because I realized my wife was the rock, and the rock was gone, so I had to be the new rock," Ready said. "I had to be here with the children until we all knew what direction we were headed. I could not play baseball with all this other stuff happening."

He tended to the children during the day, then visited a health club at night, working out from 10:30 to midnight. By the next spring, he was in top shape, and it showed. He ended the season with 8 homers in his last 24 games, despite a torn rib cage.

"With all he went through, his season was amazing," Flannery said.

Last winter, he went back to the same ritual, but it was more difficult. Dorene, after having spent the season in an experimental treatment center in Bakersfield and then with her mother, was moved back into his house.

"It was no problem, except in the morning," Ready said. "The morning is the piranha hour. All the kids--the little ankle-biters--wanting breakfast, while we have to give Dorene her shower, which takes 2 hours right there."

When he left for spring training, his wife was taken to the facility in Del Mar. Ready is genuinely feeling better about things now. Dorene is well cared for, even if it is costing him hundreds of dollars a month after insurance. His children are growing up nicely.

"Thanks a lot to my sister, the kids have manners," Ready said. "They know how to act in other people's houses. I'm proud of them."

He's proud of most everything but an occasional thought when he wants to think just about himself. It is a normal thought, a human thought.

"It's a terrible thing to say," Ready said in a voice just above a whisper, "but it's harder this way than if Dorene had just died."

He scuffed at the clubhouse carpet and quickly changed gears.

"But you do what you've got to do."

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