Former Angels All-Star pitcher Clyde Wright got to a point a few weeks ago when he could have been afraid to answer the telephone.
He’s a talker, a baseball raconteur and a jokester always ready with a one-liner and a wisecrack delivered with his Tennessee twang. But there wasn’t anything funny about the news that he kept hearing about another teammate or friend passing away or falling ill.
Ed Sukla, Wright’s Angels teammate in 1966, died in Irvine on Sept. 24 at the age of 72. Cy Young winner Dean Chance, an Angel from 1961-66 who was at the ballpark in August to be inducted into the Angels Hall of Fame, died of a heart attack on Oct. 11 at the age of 74.
“Then I heard about what happened to Rod,” said Wright, 72, referring to Hall of Famer and former Angel Rod Carew’s massive heart attack on Sept. 20 while playing golf.
Carew, 70, of Coto de Caza, had appeared in good health. But he skirted death and got a Left Ventricular Assist Device installed in his chest to pump blood and buy him time until he can get a heart transplant.
Carew has been telling everyone who’ll listen to get a heart checkup. Even though everything seemed fine with his ticker, Wright went to see his doctor three weeks ago and got an angiogram.
“Rod saved me. The doctors found that my arteries were all plugged up,” said Wright by phone from his Anaheim home on Friday.
On Dec. 9, Wright had heart bypass surgery at Hoag Hospital Newport Beach. Vessels from his legs were transplanted in chest to restore circulation around the blocked arteries in a three-hour procedure.
He was back at home Dec. 13 to continue his recovery and “think about how crazy this last month has been,” he said.
Like Carew, Wright hadn’t experienced any warning signs of heart trouble. Wright had to work to recall a few moments in the past year when he felt out of breath while walking around Knott’s Berry Farm or taking the stairs at Angel Stadium, where he continues to work with the team’s community relations department.
But Wright figured he was 72 and was probably having indigestion. His test results told a different story.
“You’ve got to be kidding me?” Wright remembered telling cardiac surgeon Anthony Caffarelli upon learning he’d need open-heart surgery.
“Where’d you go to school?” Wright wanted to know.
Caffarelli told Wright, “Stanford.”
“Well, OK, I’ll let you do the surgery since you people have got to be the luckiest around,” said Wright, recalling 13th-ranked Stanford’s last-second, 45-yard field goal to beat No. 4 Notre Dame, 38-36, in the Nov. 28 game that ended the Fighting Irish’s hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff.
The amused surgeon pulled out his cellphone and asked Wright, “You wanna see it go through the goal post again?”
There have been a few moments of levity, like the pals who kidded Wright that there must’ve been a mistake because they didn’t think Wright even had a heart.
“But in all seriousness,” Wright said, “my whole chest is cut open. There’s a big scar in the middle of me. It’s sore but I’m getting around and walking. I’m needing help sometimes but I’m alive!”
One of the first well-wishers to call was Carew.
“I couldn’t believe that he called me, so I got on him, telling him, ‘Of all people, with you in your situation, you pick up the phone and check on me?’” said Wright. “It’s because of Rod that I’m OK now, because I wouldn’t have gone in (to the doctor) if it weren’t for what happened to him.”
Wright played for the Angels from 1966-73, becoming an All-Star in 1970 when he finished with a 22-12 record (2.83 ERA), seven complete games and a no-hitter. Carew, the 18-time All-Star, finished his 19-year career as an Angel from 1979-83.
They’ve become friends, more like brothers in the Angels family. They and their wives regularly attend Angels games during which Wright and Carew talk baseball strategy, reminisce about the old days and pick apart the action on the field “because we’re the experts, you know,” Wright said.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed that we’re going to have some more of those good times.”
The heart surgery has given Wright a greater appreciation for life because he realizes he could have had a heart attack, one that could have taken his life at any moment, maybe even while he was in his backyard tending to his fruit trees and vegetable garden.
“So I walk every day now to get stronger, and I think of Rod when I get to where I’m going, and I think of Rod when I get back home,” he said. “I think of my friends, my wife, my grandchildren, Christmas, and how my wife will spend all my money buying Christmas presents for them!”
Wright was laughing.
He won’t be strong enough to chase his grandkids through the house and wrestle with them like he normally does every Christmas. But in time, he will.
Wright doesn’t complain. He’s grateful. “I understand where I could have been,” he said.
As for Christmas presents, “I don’t need one,” he said. “I got one! I’m here!”
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