Ron Polk talks about his near-death experience and love of baseball

 

He remembers standing — detached from his body — at the corner of the surgical table, looking on as the doctors took out the defibrillator paddles. Zap. Zap. ZAP! The body on the table convulsed. “That’s sad,” Polk remembers thinking. “But I didn’t feel much more than that. It wasn’t me on that table. It was just a piece of meat, a corpse. It wasn’t important.

Reported on Aug 26, 2011 in sltrib.com/sltrib/lifestyle also printer friendly version here. - Next thing I know,” Polk says, “I was in the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. It was all light. And music. Music coming from everything, even coming out of me. And — you can’t even imagine, it’s so hard to explain — it was such peace.”His wife was there. His father, too. “And I just wanted to go to them, but I couldn’t,” Polk says. Instead, he was pushed forward into an ever more brilliant light. “And the closer I got, the brighter it got, and the faster I wanted to get there,” he says. “It was total love. It was total perfection.” It was God, he says. “He said to me, ‘My kingdom is vast beyond your ability to comprehend.’” And then Polk was pushed away. “But I didn’t want to go,” he says. “I begged and I begged. ‘Don’t make me go. Please, don’t make me go. Let me stay.’ But I couldn’t stay.” Tears well at the corners of his eyes. “Next thing I know, it’s like I’m slammed back into my body — like I’m slammed into a brick wall at 100 miles an hour. Everything was pain.”

It was as if someone had stitched his real body inside a dead man’s skin. “I didn’t feel like I belonged here anymore,” Polk says. He struggled to understand why he had been sent back. He sometimes worried he had gone crazy. Though many were interested in his story, few seemed to believe him. He felt alone. 

This story begins, as baseball tales have for nearly a century, at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.It ends in an operating room at Salt Lake City’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center. And then, 6 1/2 minutes  later, it begins again.  It’s a story about life, about death, about faith, about a game that just might last forever.

Boy of summer It’s the summer of 1956. A 5-year-old boy is grasping his father’s finger as the pair climbs a flight of stairs and emerges into the blinding sunlight of the upper deck. The boy presses against the railing. His eyes adjust to the light. The dusty diamond comes into view. The ivy along the outfield wall is lush and vibrant. Carl Sandburg’s husky, brawling city of the big shoulders spreads out across the horizon. The fans, more  people than the boy has ever seen packed into one place, are cheering, chanting, buzzing like bees.  But it’s that telltale ballpark smell ­— freshly cut grass, stale beer, mustard-slathered red hots ­— that Ron Polk Jr. remembers most vividly. Baseball still smells like that. And so all Polk needs to do to go back to that day — the day he fell hopelessly in love with this game — is to walk into a ballpark, close his eyes and inhale.

“It still gives me chills,” Polk says as he climbs the concrete steps of Salt Lake City’s Spring Mobile Ballpark on a recent Sunday afternoon. “It’s like I’m that little boy again.” The first inning comes and goes — three up, three down for Tucson; a hit and two walks but no runs for the hometown Bees. Polk, who lives in South Ogden, has seen thousands of games. But he sits at the edge of his seat and watches each pitch expectantly.

He is practically in heaven.

Playing in Panama

 It was an assignment to a Cold War missile-defense unit near Chicago that brought Ron Polk Sr. and his family to Illinois. That, in turn, led the father and his boy to watch the Cubs (by far the worst team in the Senior Circuit that season) lift their famous blue-and-white “W” banner that day over the St. Louis Cardinals.

The next year, the Army ordered a move to Panama. And that’s where Junior’s baseball education really began. “Man, those guys knew how to play,” Polk says. “That’s all they did. All day. It was like, ‘What you doing this morning?’ ‘Playing baseball.’ ‘What you doing tonight?’ ‘Playing baseball.’ ‘What you doing when you go to bed?’ ‘Dreamin’ of playing baseball.’ ”  Polk fit right in. On the field at Spring Mobile, Salt Lake Bees right fielder Reggie Willits watches four pitches — three of them strikes — zip across his belt line to end the second inning. On the mound, a lanky Dominican right-hander named Samuel Deduno nods his head and turns to jog off the field.

From Vietnam to Utah 

Like a lot of boys born in the late 1940s and early ’50s, Polk dreamed of playing alongside the likes of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. And like a lot of boys who came of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Polk’s dreams were set aside by Vietnam. He arrived in that violent quagmire in 1971 and spent 12 months there as a helicopter crew chief in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

He doesn’t regret that year. Not the hardships. Not the killing. “I am an American patriot, after all,” he says.

But he doesn’t like to talk about it, either. “It was nasty,” he says. “And that’s enough about that.”

He is willing to spend plenty of time on the years that followed. He studied English literature at Whittier College in Southern California. Got married. Had a son. Got divorced. He followed a woman to Paris, lost her and decided to travel around Europe for a while. He toured Austria and then landed in Switzerland, where he lied his way into a gig with the Swiss National Circus. “I was a clown,” he says. “And that’s appropriate.”

He leans forward, forearms resting on his knees, and studies Bees pitcher Eric Junge’s windup. “That’s a ball,” he says before Junge even releases. “Struu-ike!” umpire Takeshi Hirabayashi grunts. Polk calls eight more pitches this way, guessing right on two, complaining about the umpire’s accuracy on the others.

Polk followed his adventures in Europe with a sojourn to Africa, returning to the states in 1983 to live in Los Angeles. He got married again. Had another son. That boy, Chris, was just 10 years old when his mother died at age 43 of a congenital heart defect. Two years later, hijackers commandeered four planes and used the aircraft to perpetuate the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history. Polk was visiting his eldest son, Justin, in Utah at the time. He decided to stay so that his boys could know each other better. With that, a half-century had come and gone. “You know, it’s funny how fast life goes,” Polk says.

For love of the game

The one constant: baseball. Polk never stopped thinking about it. And when he couldn’t compete anymore, he coached.“Along the way, I just had a knack for teaching the game,” he says. “A lot of times you get coaches who were great players. Great pitchers, say. Those guys usually don’t know why they were great, they just were. They can’t explain it, so they can’t coach it.”Polk would have done anything to be great in that way. But he loved the game and so he took to it like a scholar, reading everything he could get his hands on.

On the field, Tucson’s Anthony Rizzo reaches out to slap an outside fastball down the left-field line for a standup double. “That,” Polk says, “is the only kind of hit that really matters.” Anything short of a two-bagger, he argues, fails to put the offense in scoring position and gives the defense more force-out options in the next at-bat. “Until you get to second,” Polk says, “you haven’t done your job — all you’ve done is made the batter’s job harder.” That logic in mind, Polk spent long hours, stopwatch and notebook in hand, watching the game of chicken that plays out any time a runner reaches first base. A fraction of a second for the pitcher to pivot, a fraction more to throw, a fraction for the first baseman to swing in for the tag. It all adds up; the runner almost always wins this game. And the more the pitcher throws to first, the more opportunities he has to lose control of the ball — and the less focus he has on his real opponent, the man with the bat.

At St. Joseph’s Catholic High in Ogden, where he now volunteers as an assistant coach, Polk drills his players to do everything they can to draw the pitcher’s pickoff attempt. Plenty get caught, he says, but plenty more have learned to turn one bag into two — and to give the man at the plate the advantage of a flustered pitcher, to boot. No one questioned his dedication to coaching, but it was a mix-up that got Polk the assignment of his dreams. After they had at first confused him up with another Ron Polk — the College Baseball Hall of Famer and former coach at Mississippi State — Utah’s Polk found his way onto the coaching staff of the Scottish National Baseball Team and managed the Edinburgh Diamond Devils during that team’s entry in the 2003 Confederation of European Baseball Cup — the first time a Scottish team was  represented in the series. European baseball is a decidedly amateur endeavor, but Polk counted his  experience with Team Scotland as one of the highlights of his life.

 And then he died.

The beyond and back 

It was a routine surgery. Rotator-cuff stuff. “In and out,” the doctors told him. But as Polk readied himself for the operation, in May 2010, he was nonetheless nervous — and he told his surgeon so. “He laughed and said, ‘Look, we do six of these a day — what’s the worst that can happen?’ ” In the middle of the surgery, and for reasons that neither he nor his doctors can explain, Polk’s heart stopped. And this is where things get hard to describe, Polk says, because there’s just no way of putting into words what happened in the 400 seconds that followed. “It’s like explaining a sunset to a blind person,” he says. Polk stops to think about this for a  moment. On the mound, Deduno steps against the pitching rubber, sets and then somehow loses control of the ball, which falls to the ground beside him. The balk brings in the Bees’ first run of the night. “No,” Polk says finally. “It’s like trying to explain a sunset to a blind person when you don’t even speak the same  language.” Still, Polk does his best. He remembers standing — detached from his body — at the corner of the surgical table, looking on as the doctors took out the defibrillator paddles. Zap. Zap. ZAP! The body on the table convulsed. “That’s sad,” Polk remembers thinking. “But I didn’t feel much more than that. It wasn’t me on that table. It was just a piece of meat, a corpse. It wasn’t important. “Next thing I know,” Polk says, “I was in the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. It was all light. And music. Music coming from everything, even coming out of me. And — you can’t even imagine, it’s so hard to explain — it was such peace.” His wife was there. His father, too. “And I just wanted to go to them, but I couldn’t,” Polk says. Instead, he was pushed forward into an ever more brilliant light. “And the closer I got, the brighter it got, and the faster I wanted to get there,” he says. “It was total love. It was total perfection.” It was God, he says. “He said to me, ‘My kingdom is vast beyond your ability to comprehend.’ ” And then Polk was pushed away. “But I didn’t want to go,” he says. “I begged and I begged. ‘Don’t make me go. Please, don’t make me go. Let me stay.’ But I couldn’t stay.” Tears well at the corners of his eyes. “Next thing I know, it’s like I’m slammed back into my body — like I’m slammed into a brick wall at 100 miles an hour. Everything was pain.”

The Bees’ Freddy Sandoval cracks a line drive into right field, bringing Gil Velazquez home to extend the local team’s lead. Thousands of fans jump to their feet to cheer. Polk remains seated, but he puts his hands together in a slow, deliberate and appreciative celebration of the run. His tears are gone. Cathedral of baseball It was as if someone had stitched his real body inside a dead man’s skin. “I didn’t feel like I belonged here anymore,” Polk says. He struggled to understand why he had been sent back. He sometimes worried he had gone crazy. Though many were interested in his story, few seemed to believe him. He felt alone. That’s not uncommon for those who share Polk’s experience, says Janice Holden, a professor of counseling at the University of North Texas and the editor of the International Journal of Near-Death Studies. “Our culture is very rationality-oriented,” Holden says. “And near-death experiences are a transrational phenomenon. People are limited in their ability to comprehend by our understanding of space and time, by our culture and even our language.”

And as a result, she says, many react with disbelief. Others discount the stories of those who claim to have visited the afterlife (perhaps a quarter of all those who experience a brush with death, Holden estimates) as a consequence of anesthesia, lack of oxygen or some other physiological effect. Others seek to diagnose these “visions,” attributing the stories to mental illness. And still others, often those of religious conviction, demonize the situation. “They perceive the experience to be of the devil,” Holden says, “or in some other way religiously invalid.” It was that last group of naysayers that Polk, a lifelong Catholic, was saddened by most. “Here everyone is looking for God,” Polk says, “and I’ve seen him and they don’t want anything to do with me.”

The one thing that made him feel at ease? Baseball. This is where I’m most at peace. I mean look at this, look at all of this. ...” He points down at Rizzo. “Look at that kid on first — doesn’t he look like he just stepped off the ‘Field of Dreams’? How could anyone say that God isn’t here?” As if on cue, Rizzo — a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma who made his Major League debut with the San Diego Padres earlier this season — pounds a fist into his mitt and spits in the dirt. “Church is church,” Polk says, and laughs. “This is better.” His situation is unusual, of course, but his feelings about this game are by no means unique. Other games may be more popular, but none is so steeped in séance, majesty, myth and awe, says Joe Price, who teachers a course on the intersection of religion and sports at Whittier College and is the author of Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America.

In baseball, as in religion, “it is possible to be assured that the rules will remain the same,” Price says. And a game played perfectly could theoretically last forever. “It is a game that is not time bound,” he says.

There is constancy and comfort in such ideas, he says, whether they come from a church or from a ball field.

Philip Lowry agrees. “Why is baseball such a religious experience? Partly is its timelessness,” says Lowry, whose book, Green Cathedrals, is a comprehensive listing of every ballpark where a Major League game (including Negro League matchups) has been played. “When you go to the park, you have no idea as to how long the game will last.” Such is baseball. And life. 

Baseball heaven 

Top of the seventh: Rizzo has Junge’s number today, taking a high fastball deep over the right-field fence for a solo home run. But Tucson remains a run down. Top of the ninth: Polk is standing in the concourse — his legs cramp up if he stays in the stadium seats for too long — and once again he focuses on the pitcher’s windup. Bees reliever Ryan Brasier leans back and cocks his arm. “That’s a ball,” Polk says before the right-hander releases. Tucson’s Everth Cabrera steps back as the pitch misses low and inside. Brasier winds up again. “Strike,” Polk says. “Struu-ike!” Hirabayashi confirms. “Ball.” “Ball.” “Ball.” Three pitches miss low and Cabrera takes first base. Polk correctly predicts another four called pitches in a row — all before Brasier’s release — until Rizzo’s sacrifice fly to left scores Cabrera, knotting the game at 2. Polk lifts his cane to do a self-satisfied little jig. “See? What did I tell you? I’m not crazy,” he says with a laugh. “I know this game.”

God’s kingdom might indeed be vast beyond Polk’s ability to comprehend. And the old coach’s purpose here might indeed be unclear. But he knows this game. And that keeps him going. Bottom of the ninth: The Bees load the bases but fail to score. There’s nothing in this life that is like heaven, he says, “but among all things, this comes closest.” Polk, a 60-year-old fan of the game far more than any team, slaps his hands together and smiles contentedly. “Extra innings,” he beams. “What more could you ask for?” Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University.

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