Thursday, October 16, 2014

Royal pain

(Published May 28, 2006):
Put yourself in Denny Matthews' place.
The "Voice of the Royals" was there in 1969, the beginning. He was there when the outfield fountains first splashed. When Brett reached for .400 and legions of fans, Nebraskans included, calculated his average on their game programs.
Matthews saw Saberhagen win 23 games in one year. He watched Bo snap ash over his knee and smash cowhide deep into the summer night. He called Game 6 in '85.
On Thursday afternoon, Matthews sounded like Bob Uecker in "Major League, " a man in need of a drink.
The Royals, losers of 12 straight at the time, had scored six runs in the first inning against the league's best team. By the eighth, Detroit had tied it.
Then came the ninth. One Tiger home run, then another. 10-8. Matthews' voice never deviated from monotone. Had a driver been nodding off on I-80, neither home run call would've woke him.
Pudge Rodriguez stepped in with two on, two out. Crack. Another bomb into the fountains. The ball had barely splashed when Matthews paused for station identification. What else can you say?
"How they sit there and not be critical I have no idea, " says Pete Theoharis, a 35-year-old teacher and Royals fan in Hastings.
At some point, Theoharis expects Matthews' teeth to let go of his tongue. He expects to hear, "What in God's name is Angel Berroa doing?"
Put yourself in Theoharis' place. He's one of the remaining Nebraskans who religiously cheers the boys in blue, who are on pace to lose a major league record 124 games.
Twenty years ago, the Cornhusker State was practically a baseball colony of Kansas City. Now Theoharis hears people chuckle at the Royal mess, at desperate souls like him and Jason Jorgensen and Paul Fey, who cling to memories of 1985.
How bad are the Royals? Consider the following:
Kansas City is on a comfortable pace for three straight seasons with at least 100 losses. No non-expansion franchise since the 1952-54 Pirates has matched that.
Kansas City has suffered two losing streaks in excess of 10 games during the first 50 games of the season. Only three teams since 1920 have ever done the same.
The Royals' opening day starters the past three seasons -- Brian Anderson, Jose Lima, Scott Elarton -- won two combined games in April and May of their respective seasons. That's six months of pitching and two wins. Arizona's Brandon Webb has eight wins in April and May of this year alone.
Since Opening Day 2004, the Royals have won 125 games. Since Opening Day 2005, the cross-state Cardinals, whom the Royals beat in the '85 World Series, have won 132.
Since 2004, the Royals have seven losing streaks of at least eight games, including a club-record 19-game streak a year ago. Since 1989, the Atlanta Braves have none.
This 26-month debacle is a far cry from the period of 1975 to the '94 strike, when only two franchises won more than Kansas City: the Yankees and Red Sox.
That span of success drew Nebraskans en masse to the Royals. They were star-studded. They were classy. And just a few hours away, they made Kansas City the perfect vacation spot: Worlds of Fun roller coasters during the day, relaxing Royals Stadium at night.
George Brett retired in 1993 and things were never the same. The baseball strike tarnished 1994 and the following seasons. Meanwhile, small-market economics, egregious front-office errors and an attitude befitting of the Cowardly Lion doomed a once-proud organization. The Royals stopped winning and you stopped seeing Royals shirts on the streets of Hastings and Lexington and Omaha.
"There's not many of us left, " says Theoharis, a social studies teacher and coach at Hastings High.
Theoharis was born in Kansas City. He moved to Hastings when he was 9. He used to listen to games in his bedroom and keep a scorebook. When the Royals played at California or Seattle, he'd fall asleep to Matthews' play-by-play.
Theoharis played baseball at Hastings College. He wore No. 5, just like his hero. After graduation, he got a PR internship with the Royals. He was there in '94 and '95, just after Brett had retired. Brett even played on the company softball team with him.
When he moved to Minnesota, Theoharis still listened to games. When the clouds were just right in Winona, Minn., he could pick up the AM signal out of Des Moines from his car.
He'd sit in the garage, staring at nothing, hoping someone, anyone, would take Brett's place. No one ever did. Every time Kansas City farmed a phenom like Jermaine Dye or Johnny Damon or Carlos Beltran -- that was the starting outfield in 1999-2000 -- the Royals traded him to organizations with deeper pockets.
Theoharis, now back in Hastings, doesn't remember the last time he missed catching at least a few innings on the radio or TV.
When he sees a Cubs shirt or a Yankees hat or a Red Sox sweatshirt, "I get ill."
The Royals are the local team; that's who Nebraskans should cheer, he says. That's why he's devoted one wall in his basement to Brett and other Royals memorabilia. That's why he's "brainwashed" his son.
"If he wisens up and gets sick of losing, he might change."
In years past, he would've thrown something across the room when Matthews went to station identification after a homer. Now he takes a deep breath. He knows how Cubs fans feel.
"I wait for something bad to happen."
Put yourself in Jason Jorgensen's place.
The 31-year-old sports director at KRVN 880 in Lexington grew up in Minden listening to the Royals on KRVN, which has carried the Royals since the early '70s.
KRVN didn't carry the Royals last year. Fred White, who was Matthews' partner on the radio for 25 years, came to Lexington, where people used to meet in the summer and caravan to Royals games. He convinced KRVN to give Kansas City another chance.
"How was anybody supposed to know?" says Jorgensen.
On paper, the Royals looked better than the teams that lost a combined 210 games in 2004-05. They added veterans. They drafted Alex Gordon.
"At this point, I hope they keep him in Double-A so he's not subjected to this, " Jorgensen says.
Jorgensen coached Little League last summer. He absorbed the laughs from kids who don't know George Brett from George Costanza.
"It's easy to support a team that's winning, " Jorgensen told them. "Support a team that's 20 to 25 games under .500 -- in May."
Put yourself in Paul Fey's place.
Fey, a Kansas native and K-State graduate, follows the Royals from Omaha. He has one hope during this already excruciatingly long summer.
"Here's the thing: I don't want them to become the worst team ever, so they have to win 30 more games, " says the 37-year-old UNMC professor, eyeing the Mets' 40-120 record in 1962.
Fey was a senior in high school during the World Series. He watched a highlight DVD the other day.
"It is a long time ago."
Maybe a few years from now will be different, Fey says. You know, three years ago the Tigers almost set a major league record with 119 losses. Now they're the best team in baseball.
By 2009, Gordon should be at Brett's position. A new GM -- or even better, a new owner -- may shuffle the deck and spend some money. Maybe the pitching will be better, says the Hastings teacher.
And just like that, Theoharis relapses. He remembers Zack Greinke.
The kid was once tabbed as the best pitching prospect since Bret Saberhagen and David Cone and Kevin Appier.
In February, he left the Royals during spring training to seek psychological counseling. Ain't that the Royals' luck, Theoharis says. "I might be joining him pretty soon."
If Hollywood producers should decide to remake "Major League, " the stars of the movie would be the Kansas City Royals.
Their audition tape is a blooper reel.
Earlier this season infielder Esteban German was in center field and tried to catch a fly ball with his face. His excuse: He forgot his sunglasses. Catcher John Buck was charged with a passed ball on a pitchout.
The Royals' best player, Mike Sweeney, gets injured as often as the Royals lose. He's on the DL with a bulging disk in his upper back. Before that he was hitting .176.
Closer Mike MacDougal is on the DL with a shoulder strain. His replacements have blown 12 of 17 save opportunities.
The comedy of errors extends to the top of the organization. Owner David Glass reportedly has offered Atlanta assistant Dayton Moore the job as general manager. But Glass has yet to fire the current GM.
The biggest joke might be who is selected as the Royals' All-Star representative. Mark Grudzielanek is the only starter hitting above .300. Mike Wood is the only winning pitcher.
No word on callups from the California Penal League.

For the love of a pug -- epilogue

LINCOLN – Their first night together, the pug lay flat on the old man’s carpet, fighting sleep. Wasn’t time for bed yet, but the day had been long and the journey longer. 

Just hours earlier, the old man had embarked with his new companion on a four-mile walk. About halfway home, the dog sat in the grass and refused to continue. 

"I wore him out," said Loren Gerischer, 91. 

Four months had passed since Mike’s death, since he’d begun a quest that tested his patience without exhausting his spirit, since he’d interrupted his daily walks to scour newspaper classifieds and call phone numbers and try out dogs that never felt as comfortable as Mike did.

He wasn’t sure another dog could.

Then Loren got a call from the Nebraska Humane Society in November. 

They’d read about his love and loss. They’d vowed to help.

Four months of regret and sorrow, diligence and hope. On the floor, in the quiet of a small living room, lay the old man’s reward. 

Finally, Marty closed his eyes… 


E-mails came from Colorado and Connecticut and dozens of places in between. Some wanted to help. Some wanted to know the story’s end. Some wrote separate letters to animal shelters asking them to keep an eye out for pugs. 

From Sarah: "I understand how hard it can be to lose a dog, but I can’t imagine how hard it would be when he was pretty much your only companion." 

From Pam: "I own two pugs and totally understand why he fell in love with Mike." 

After the World-Herald article ran in October, Loren had become a celebrity in pug circles. When he attended Pug-O-Ween, a Halloween celebration at Chalco Hills, strangers whispered and pointed.

Wasn’t he the man who walked his dog across Lincoln each day for two, three, four miles at a time, stopping only to quench Mike’s thirst or split a Runza hamburger? 

On July 3, a night a like any other, the man and his dog left their white duplex and started west. Mike spotted a dog across 33rd Street and broke free from Loren’s grasp. By the time Loren reached the corner, Mike lay in the street. He never made a sound. 

Since that night, the old man had blamed himself. Why didn’t he go east out of the driveway instead of west? 

He had gone to bed each night with a cell phone – a picture of Mike featured on the screen. He tucked it against his legs, where Mike used to sleep. He vowed someday to be buried with it. 

Thousands of people had learned of Loren’s story, but sympathy didn’t solve his problem.

Each time Loren inquired about a dog, a problem arose.

Sometimes the dog was too young or too active – Loren didn’t need a boisterous puppy wrapping a leash around his fragile legs during walks. Sometimes the glitch came at his end – he didn’t have a fenced backyard, a requirement for some animal adoption agencies. 

Then, in early November, a 10-year-old with a golden coat named Marty came to the Nebraska Humane Society. His owner had surrendered him. He needed a home. 

NHS leaders immediately thought of the 91-year-old whom strangers had been calling about. 

Marty was 10, much older than Mike, but he obeyed orders. And most importantly, he could be a good walker. The Humane Society housed the dog in an office for a few days while they worked out the details with Loren. 

On Monday morning, Nov. 12, Loren came to Omaha.

In a quiet room, just the two of them, Marty sniffed and snorted. Loren said hello and scratched Marty’s head. Then he took Mary for a test walk. 

Loren’s a man of caution and skepticism. He doesn’t get too high or too low. But minutes later, he returned:

"I think he’s the one."


Five weeks later, Loren sits in his living room as the snow disappears outside.

He and Marty haven’t been out much. Too cold. Too icy. And Marty’s kind of got a bad hip. The previous owner, Loren says, must not have walked him enough. 

Once the days get warmer, Loren will try to build up Marty’s stamina. 

"It’s going to take a while where I can get him to go like Mike did," Loren says. 

Loren makes room on the couch and Marty hops off the floor. The dog yawns and lies on his stomach. Go to sleep, Loren tells him. 

"I know you’re an old man ‘cause you got gray whiskers," Loren tells him. 

Marty’s not interested in sleep, and soon Loren is wrestling with him, vigorously massaging his gold coat with both hands. 

"I pick on him," Loren says. "They like it. That’s what I did to Mike." 

Marty hops off the couch, seeking refuge on the floor. Soon they’re off to the backdoor and the fenced backyard, where Marty scouts the perimeter looking for rabbits and squirrels and anything that moves. 

Loren is still trying to teach him to sit, to come, to lie down, to play ball. In time, he says. 

"You know they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks," Loren says. "You can. You’ve just got to work with ‘em." 

On the floor by the living room window, there’s an artificial Christmas tree, about waist high.

Mary Kay from down the street pulled it out of the garage a few weeks ago, much to Loren’s chagrin. 

He’s not much into frills. Next year, he jokes, he’s going to put that tree in a place she can’t find it.

But for now he allows the lights and ornaments to gleam in the afternoon sunlight. He allows the featured decoration: a stuffed animal. 

It’s a little, gold pug and it sits at the treetop, taking the place of an angel.

For the love of a pug

LINCOLN – He plants his cane against the concrete and he’s off, leaving behind a small, cluttered duplex and the sign by the door: 

"HOME is where the DOG is."

He reaches the end of the driveway and turns east down the hill – the way Mike wanted to go that July night. 

Black Velcro shoes are strapped tight to his feet. Faded, striped hat is pulled firm over his gray hair. Tan pants are pulled so high that his belt covers the bottom of his green shirt pocket. 

His eyes never leave the ground. His chin never leaves his chest. His each step covers 18 inches. He’s got a bad left knee that doesn’t bend so well. He’s got a bone spur on his right foot. Twice he’s broken his hip. 
Three, four, five, six miles each day will do all that to a 90-year-old body.

But if everybody was as healthy as Loren Gerischer, the doctor told him, they wouldn’t need Medicare D. Want to know the secret? Honey and green tea. 

"Cleans ya out," Loren says. 

And every day, he walks and walks and walks. 

At least he did. 

Today’s walk ends at three blocks. He reaches the bus stop, leans against the sign and waits. He’s getting very good at waiting since Mike’s been gone. 

Seven minutes after its scheduled 11:42 arrival time, the No. 8 comes to a halt on L Street. The old man climbs in. 

Eight minutes later, he gets off at the downtown library, just as he does six days a week – the library isn’t open Sundays. He tells the driver thanks and steps onto a crowded sidewalk. 

Into the building. Straight to the elevator. Down to the basement. He grabs two newspapers: the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star. He finds his table.

He removes his glasses and sifts through the neat stack of sections. He starts with the World-Herald. He stops to read Blondie. He giggles and the unshaven whiskers on his chin do a dance.

Then to the classifieds, to the pets, to the dogs. His bottom lip protrudes as he drags his wrinkled right index finger down one column, then the next, past the German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers and Jack Russell Terriers. 

No pugs.

He grabs the Journal Star. Same routine.

No pugs.

He folds the papers neatly together again and stops to read a front-page story: Global warming may cause stronger storms.

"Hmmm. That could happen."


When the old man left the house that summer evening, he and Mike had been together about two years. Loren had recently bought a new cell phone that takes pictures. A friend snapped a shot of Mike and posted it on the main screen. The old man liked that very much.

Each night, Mike lay on the couch next to Loren as he read, sometimes past midnight. When the old man got up to go to bed, Mike followed. 

He nestled his brown fur and black, wrinkly face against the old man’s leg. He closed his googly eyes. When morning came, Loren grabbed his slippers and let Mike out the door, no leash. Across the street. Into a neighbor’s yard. He did his thing and turned back, waiting for passing cars. 

"Mike would never leave me."

The old man grew up southeast of Des Moines. Four aunts raised him. After working on a sheep ranch in Wyoming, he ended up in Lincoln. He doesn’t remember how or when or why. 

He worked two and three jobs at a time. He cleaned at the roads department. He washed dishes at the airport restaurant. He picked cans from highway ditches and rest stops until the state shut down his operation – they locked the lids. He has a sister in California, but no wife or kids or nieces or nephews.

Just Mike.

They were known around the neighborhood for their walks. Sometimes they traveled to the south side of town, two or three miles away. They’d be gone a few hours. Once the old man tried carrying an odometer to see how far they traveled.

"It gave out. Batteries didn’t hold up."

He always packed two water bottles, but never took a sip -- they were for Mike. As pugs tire, their breathing resembles a growl. They don’t have the airspace in their mouths, the old man says. So they moved at Mike’s pace. They went where Mike wanted to go. 

Mike preferred every walk go past Runza, where he and the old man shared a hamburger. 
Sometimes they got caught in a thunderstorm, sometimes in 100-degree heat, prompting a police officer to ask in vain if they wanted a ride home. Mike was a smooth walker, but sometimes he pulled too hard on the ice and the old man fell down. Sometimes, Mike saw another dog and broke free. 

One time Mike came walking down the street alone, a few blocks from home. He reached a street corner panting and looked in every direction. A neighbor spotted him and walked him back to the old man, who was looking, too, a few blocks away.

Somehow Mike always found his way home.

On July 3, the old man planted his cane against the concrete and they were off. Mike wanted to go east down the hill. For some reason, Loren didn’t listen. They went west toward the park, toward busy 33rd Street. 

Halfway there, Mike spotted a dog across 33rd. He lunged. 


The old man couldn’t clench tight enough. He let go. He tried to lift his chin from his chest and when he did, he saw Mike sprinting toward to the corner.


Right at the end of the sidewalk, before a line of cars flying by at 30, 35, 40 mph, Mike stopped. 


The old man moved quicker. His strides lengthened. Along the bushes. Past the twin trees. To the corner. Mike? 


The car just kept going and going, down the hill and out of sight, leaving the dog in the street. 
And the old man alone.

That was the night his routine changed. 
He still ate his daily helpings of vegetable beef soup and buttered popcorn. He still folded bulletins at church on Friday and constructed 1,500-piece jigsawpuzzles. 
He still studied the World Books he bought for $15 at a garage sale -- "You know how many eggs a queen bee lays in her lifetime? Between 50,000 and 60,000."

But no more walks. 
He planned one for his 91st birthday – Sept. 24. Instead, he went to Applebee’s for supper. He redirected his energy to finding another Mike. 

The problem: He needs a dog old enough to walk steadily. So no puppies. And he wants a male. 

Mary Kay Kreikemeier lives down the street and looks out for the old man. She tells him he should get an old dog. She likes to tell the story about theFebruary afternoon a few years ago when the old man was walking his old Husky – you didn’t know who would die first, she said. 

The dog stopped to nap in the grass and Loren decided to join her. Well, someone saw an old man on the ground and called 911. Loren arose to find paramedics on the scene.

Why not another Husky, Mary Kay asks. They’re gentle. They walk well. 

No. Loren wants a pug. He could have one right now, he knows, if he would’ve gone east down the hill.

"If I’d done right, I’d still have Mike. I told him it was my fault. It was me. It wasn’t him."

He’s prayed about it again and again, pleading with the Lord for another dog.Ask and you shall receive. No answer. 

He’s left with the cell phone. Each night since he buried Mike in a field of wildflowers, he has slept with the photo against his legs. 

The other day a friend grabbed the phone and scrolled through recent calls to look for a number. The old man ordered him back to the main screen: "Get Mike back up there."
"When I’m buried over here in the cemetery, the phone goes with me."


A bright, breezy morning – exactly three months after Mike left him. 

The old man is off to Pierce, Neb., some 2 ½ hours north. He found a pug in the classifieds and made a call. One-year-old. Willie’s his name. So Mary Kay from down the street packs a few kolaches. She picks him up. 
You excited, Loren?

"No. Why be excited? If you told me I was going to get a million dollars, I’d probably be just like this."

He’s a man of simple needs. TV? Doesn’t own one. A cook for his meals? Doesn’t need one. A Christmas tree? Doesn’t want one. Mary Kay makes him put it up anyway. 

"I’m gonna find where she put it and bury it somewhere."

They reach Pierce by 11 and find the house on the north edge of town. He walks through a chain-link gate and spots Willie, with the purple collar, among a family of pugs. Willie jumps against his cage toward Loren’s hand. 

"Hi Willie," says the old man -- he struggles to pronounce the "L", so it sounds more like "Wiwwie." 

What do you think, Loren?

"Don’t know yet. I can’t tell until we go walking."

Willie’s owner sets him free and hands him to the old man. Willie licks Loren’s face. Loren rubs Willie’s head.

"Yeah, he’s a pretty good boy…He’d probably be a pretty good walker."

The old man takes the leash and they’re off for the gravel street. It’s clearWillie is a wild one. He chases his tail. 

"C’Mon Wiwwie."

Willie pees on the flowers.

"C’Mon Wiwwie."

Willie runs behind Loren, wrapping the leash around the old man’s legs. He lays on his stomach, rolls on the ground, trying like a shackled magician to remove the unfamiliar harness.

"C’Mon Wiwwie."

Willie lags behind. Then he sprints ahead. Loren grunts, clenching his left hand into a fist. He nearly falls. Left foot and cane move in concert, springing the right foot forward. His eyes never leave the ground.

"C’Mon Wiwwie."

Willie squeals a little. He wraps the leash around the old man’s legs again. Loren has to let go or fall down. He lets go. He tries again, grabbing tight. Willie tugs. The old man grunts. 

"Alwight Wiwwie."

Want me to take him, Mary Kay asks. 

The old man, halfway around the block, keeps going. He shortens the leash – he didn’t have to do that with Mike. Now Willie can’t run behind him. Willie doesn’t like it.

"C’Mon Wiwwie."

Willie sits in the grass, refusing to move. The old man pulls. Harder. The harness slips off Willie’s head. 

"You take it," he says, handing off the leash.

Willie charges ahead, leaving the old man behind. Loren reaches the driveway and leans against the van, searching for air, searching for answers. 

"Hmmmm. What do you think?"

Willie would be a pill in the city, Mary Kay tells him. What if he lay in the grass and wouldn’t move? What if he wrapped the leash around you and got loose? What if?

"Wiwwie, wish you would walk a little bit better."

The wind whips through town. The old man sticks out his bottom lip.

"I sure wish I’d done what Mike wanted to do."
He grabs a treat from his pocket, bends over and reaches out his hand. The panting dog sniffs…he doesn’t bite. Loren puts the treat away. Ask and you shall receive. Not today.

"Yeah, Wiwwie, might have to give up on you, wait for another one… 

"I’ll keep looking. There’s no problem to that. Maybe I don’t get one this year. Maybe I don’t get one next year. One’s going to come my way. Yeah…

"I got time."

He plants his cane against the ground, turns away from the dog and starts back toward the van.

He’s a long way from home.