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Facing Up to Reality : Water Polo and Baseball Star Eric Grove Learns to Handle His Father’s Illness

Times Staff Writer

Ask Eric Grove why he chose water polo. Go ahead, ask him.

“I hate P.E.”

Life is full of simple answers. And harsh realities.

Grove has plenty of both.

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Grove plays goalie for Tustin High School’s water polo team. He’s also a star first baseman in baseball, his first love.

Stanford has sent him letters. The Houston Astros are scouting him. He has many friends and a grade-point average of about 3.7.

He’s talented, popular and intelligent.

What else can a high school senior want?

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How about a break from his reality now and then?

Every day, Grove goes home to reality. His father, George, is dying of emphysema. For the last 2 years, he has been confined to a room.

“What can you do? It’s incurable,” Eric Grove said. “My mom and I try to make Dad as comfortable as we can, but in all honesty, he’s going to die. We’ve already faced that reality.”

George Grove, an engineer, was told he had emphysema in 1978. Eric really didn’t understand his father’s illness until he reached high school. By then, George Grove’s health had deteriorated.

“I remember we used to go shooting in the desert, but after a while we couldn’t do that anymore,” Grove said. “When I started high school, Dad was pretty bad. The last 2 years, it’s been very bad. The doctor comes over and says, ‘Just be patient.’ That’s all he tells us.”

Eric’s mother, Sharon, wanted to move the family to Colorado before Grove began high school, but the decision was put off.

Grove was happy to stay. He was a good baseball player in youth leagues and believed he would get more attention in Southern California.

“This is where the scouts come,” he said. “I don’t know the whole reason why we stayed, but part of it was it would hurt me in athletics.”

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When Eric started at Tustin High, he wanted to play a fall sport. He didn’t like the regular physical education classes.

“To be honest, I get frustrated with people who aren’t athletic,” he said. “I like being in competitive situations. It relieves stress.”

So Grove played water polo in the fall, soccer in the winter and baseball in the spring. Thus, he avoided regular physical education classes.

Things were fine for the first 2 years, but during his junior year, life began getting too real.

Sharon Grove had tried to find live-in help for her husband, but no one had worked out.

“We’d run ads in the paper and have people come in that had medical experience,” Eric said. “We give them money and food and a place to live. But those people, you couldn’t trust. Sometimes they came right off the streets. My mom was shaky with the idea.”

It was time for a simple answer.

Eric quit soccer. He took over chores around the house, hooking up the oxygen tanks and staying home in the afternoon while his mother worked.

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Grove also told Vince Brown, Tustin’s baseball coach, that he wouldn’t be working out with the team until the season started.

“I told him, ‘Go and work things out and don’t worry about baseball,’ ” Brown said. “I wanted to help him any way I could.”

Said Grove: “I really don’t remember much about last year. My dad would get mad, so my mom would get mad. The money was tight. It was just one big stress. I needed some time to myself.”

Grove returned to baseball but started slowly. After the first month of the season, he was hitting .180.

Brown saw that Grove’s mind was not on the game, but he kept him in the lineup.

“It was hurting him,” Brown said. “You couldn’t do anything for him. Then one day in April . . . he got a couple hits and looked like he wanted to play baseball again.”

By the end of the season, he was hitting .380 and was receiving letters from Stanford and an invitation to play for the Houston Astros’ scouting team.

Grove doesn’t know when or why he changed, just that he started concentrating on one thing at a time. That was baseball.

“I just want to try to do one thing perfect or as close to perfect as I can get it,” Grove said. “I made a lot of mistakes last year, most I don’t even remember. I’ll learn from what I need to learn.”

Sharon Grove attends all of her son’s baseball games. Eric knows she’s there. He can hear her.

“Sometimes I hate it, because Mom is loud,” Grove said. “She knows it. But I look at some of my friends, and their parents never show up. It’s sad. My mother must be the most supportive mother around.”

Grove talks to his dad almost every day. Even if there’s nothing to talk about.

“It’s usually just nonsense,” he said. “Like, ‘Well, nothing happened today.’ But I go talk to him after every baseball game. If my dad was well, I know he would help me all he could. He’s hurting from it and I can tell. He’s very interested in how I’m doing.”

It’s likely that Grove’s baseball ability will get him a college scholarship. His grades are good enough to get him into most colleges.

“If you go to Stanford, you can basically do anything you want with the rest of your life,” he said. “It’s like, ‘You went to Stanford, do what you want.’ ”

But going away to college could cause problems.

His only sister doesn’t live at home, so his mother would be left alone. He knows that is something he can’t do.

“If the situation is the same, I won’t be going to college next year,” he said.

“I play sports and have a lot of fun. But I’ve learned that you better take life seriously or it’s going to come up and kick you in the butt.”


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