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Tug on the heartstrings

Three months after surgery to remove brain tumors, Tug McGraw balances confidence with fear. But he doesn't ask, "Why me?"

Published June 21, 2003

[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Tug McGraw, who had surgery for brain cancer in March, often subconsciously rubs his head and the horseshoe-shaped scar.
[AP photo]
A fan shows her support.

TAMPA - Tug McGraw stood in the middle of the living room in the condominium he and John McManus shared for a while in Belleair Beach. McGraw had just returned from the Philadelphia Phillies' spring training facilities in Clearwater.

He'd arrived at an empty complex save for maintenance workers. He'd known it was a players' off day, but he'd forgotten.

McManus came out of another room. "I said, "What are you doing here?' Tug was all dressed up. He wasn't sure whether he'd gone or not."

The night before, McGraw had cooked a pork roast for some friends. They'd kept asking him, Are you all right? Yeah, yeah, yeah. What are you talking about? He'd been spacing out, going silent in mid sentence, staring blankly at nothing.

He was at it again. "For a number of days," McManus said, "I could tell his brain wasn't functioning right. He was getting pretty weird. I told him, "Tug, you're not working right.' I tried to pound that into his thick skull. He was, "I'm fine.' You know how jocks are."

McManus and McGraw have been friends for years. He has a Ph.D. in psychology from Syracuse, his expertise: human cognition. He'd been a research director at Temple University's medical school. Twenty years ago he took time off to write a book. "I found myself running a restaurant and managing musicians." He changed careers. He's a bartender in Philly. "I really like smoky rooms and saxophones," he said with a gravelly laugh.

Now it was March12, a little before 10a.m. McGraw looked at McManus and stopped denying what had become all too apparent. "I said, "John, something's wrong. I can't go from task to task. I get stuck on things.' Like I was pawing at the towels in the bathroom, like a cat. I couldn't stop.

"Then I went in to check on the coffee and started relieving myself in the middle of the kitchen, wet my pants and everything. I said, "Okay, John, I've got behavior disorders here. Better call someone."'

Debbie Schwab answered her cell phone. She and Randy, her husband, have been friends with McGraw for 20 years. She runs a travel agency in Largo, but she was in Tampa. She called Randy, public works supervisor of Indian Rocks Beach. He drove the 10 minutes from his office, picked up McGraw and McManus and headed to Morton Plant Hospital.

Normal paranoia

Frank Edwin McGraw Jr. is 58 and a special pitching instructor during spring training. His mother nicknamed him Tug because, she said, he used to tug when she breast fed him. He grew to be a left-handed relief pitcher, spent 19 seasons with the Mets and Phillies, won a World Series with each and retired in 1984 with 180 career saves. His "You Gotta Believe!" during the Mets' improbable 1973 pennant chase became their rallying cry and his signature.

Living up to the billing of so many left-handers, he was an admitted screwball. Asked on national television in 1974 whether he preferred grass or AstroTurf, he replied, "I don't know. I never smoked AstroTurf."

When he graduated from St. Vincent's High in Vallejo, Calif., in 1962, he said he thought about going into the seminary. A grin begins to infiltrate his face. "Then I found out you couldn't be a priest in the offseason. A ballplayer priest. "Father McGraw."' Then the punch line: "I'd lead the league in saves, in-season and out."

It is morning in the home McGraw has leased since his discharge from the hospital March22. It's in a gated community in North Tampa. He pads around the kitchen. Once in a great while he stops in mid step for an instant, remembering what he is there for. That - far more often and for longer stretches three months ago - was the first symptom.

He returns to the dinette table with a cup of double ginger tea. Ginger is supposed to help reduce or prevent nausea brought on by chemotherapy. Tea, a bowl of oatmeal, orange juice, that's pretty much his standard breakfast - that and a fistful of pills. He ingests a cocktail of different medications at night.

Seated, he casually, maybe subconsciously, rubs his head. It is hairless, the aftermath of chemo and radiation treatments. The scar on his scalp is horseshoe-shaped. Lucky? He won't argue the point.

After the surgery, everyone was giving him glowing reports about how successful the operation had been, how well the medications and radiation therapy were working. He was riding the wave of good news. No cares, no fears.

"Then I started to suspect people weren't being up front with me. I don't know if it was normal paranoia or the way people were acting. I started asking more pertinent questions; I started getting more pertinent answers. I thought it was just going to go away. I thought they got it."

He'd had two malignant tumors, one on each side of his brain. Both had been removed. The right side had completely healed over, McGraw said. The left one was being troublesome. The vacancy created by the removal of the tumor remained and MRIs showed a bit of something still there.

He's uncertain whether he has passed the worst. This week he met with the surgeons. What is that bit of something? Benign? Malignant? Scar tissue? No one knows for sure. "For the first time it really hit me that I have cancer."

Have. Present tense.

Something between concern and fear has crept into McGraw's mind. Still, he remains confident. Save for the weariness, the twinkle in his mischievous eyes hasn't diminished. He still is quick with a quip, cracking wise about an insidious disease. "If you can't laugh at it, you can't live with it."

"A little abrupt'

They got to Morton Plant's emergency room a little after 10a.m., Debbie a bit later. She says nobody examined McGraw for about six hours.

McManus picked it up there. "Damned ER doctor. He'd done an examination and couldn't find anything. He was looking for something physical and was waiting for blood work. I went up to him, introduced myself as Dr. So-and-So, told him my field and said, "You'd better look at his brain. I can see the thing's not functioning right.'

"When he got the results back, the (expletive) doctor told him he was going to die, gave him three weeks," McManus said. "I'd gone off to call his kids. I missed the part where Tug freaked out."

McGraw smiled weakly at the memory. "I'd say it was a little abrupt. It wasn't a lie. Their style was just a little, um, abusive. We had to get with people who knew what they were doing. But just to balance that out, a month later, Randy (Schwab) had triple-bypass surgery there. They didn't do brain very well but they're among the best at heart."

Matthew McGraw is 7 and lives with his mother in Philadelphia. Cari, 29, and her husband are starting a drive-through coffee business in California. Mark, 31, is a paramedic fireman in Colorado. Tim, 36, and his wife, Faith Hill, are popular country music singers.

The next day, Tug McGraw's older brother, Hank, and Tug's four children were at Morton Plant. Hank is living with and caring for Tug in North Tampa. After a family conference it was Tim who made the decision to get his father out of Morton Plant, and fast.

He called Hill, asked her to network with friends and find the best brain cancer neurosurgeon. She came up with names in Baltimore, Houston, San Francisco, and Dr. Steven Brem at the H.Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

Tim performed at the St. Pete Times Forum on March14. Shortly after midnight, Tug in an ambulance, friends and family in a caravan, left Morton Plant for Moffitt. "Dr. Brem was waiting for me at 1 in the moring," Tug said. "He did tests, MRIs, started in on me right away to figure out what the deal was. The next day, Dr. Brem and his surgical team put dozens of (electrodes) all over my scalp to create three-dimensional images to guide them where to cut."

This is hearsay from McGraw. He remembers none of it, and Brem was unavailable for an interview. McGraw vaguely remembers visits by Brooks Robinson, Harmon Killebrew, friends, teammates, calls from friends when he was a child, from nuns and priests who taught at St. Vincent's. He received countless cards and letters, many with prayers, numerous religious items, "even dirt from some shrine." He still has them all.

McGraw isn't clear about anything at Moffitt until a day or two before March21, when he was discharged. "There was a lot of swelling, a lot of medication."

He paid his dues

Life now is a good night's sleep, two naps a day, gentle walking and stretching exercises, healthy food, seizure medication, steroids (there's still some swelling in the brain, he said), periodic checkups by Brem and Drs. Susan Snodgrass (postsurgery treatment) and James Pearlman (radiation therapy).

Nothing strenuous, nothing stressful. McGraw won't even think about what he always has wanted to do but hasn't done. "I can't say, "Hurry up, get well, do this or that.' Even that'll create stress."

He'll return home to Philadelphia in a couple of weeks. He'll reorder his priorities, maybe focus a bit more on his children and theirs (they always came first, anyway), a little less on public appearances, coaching and his newborn You Gotta Believe in Baseball campaign to regenerate fan interest and revenue.

"At some point I'll probably become a poster child for some neurological cancer charity," he said, failing to suppress a wicked grin. "It would be premature to do that now. I could be dead within a year. They'd have to draw that red circle with the line through it on my face."

Athletes, like children, probably more than the rest of us, tend to think they're immortal until injury, the death of a contemporary or something else pierces that belief. "I'm starting to go through that now," McGraw said.

Despite his newfound familiarity with mortality, he said, there's one question he has never asked himself or anyone else: Why me?

"I know it's going to happen to me. You never know why or when or how, but you know something's going to get you. "Why me?' is whining. I'm not a whiner. I don't know why most people don't have that attitude. "Why me?' Well, why not you?

"Life has finally caught up with me." His eyes glaze over for an instant, but with good reason. Tug McGraw is reminiscing. "I paid some dues for these tumors and (expletive). I've earned everything I've got and everything I don't have."

[Last modified June 21, 2003, 06:21:52]

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