Inside the Phillies: Sportswriter unbowed by ravages of ALS
Larry O'Rourke's beautiful mind is still intact. He used it early Saturday morning to tell a wonderful story about his senior year at Blue Mountain High School in Schuylkill Haven, where he was a two-way tackle for the football team and a passionate baseball fan.
Larry O'Rourke's beautiful mind is still intact.
He used it early Saturday morning to tell a wonderful story about his senior year at Blue Mountain High School in Schuylkill Haven, where he was a two-way tackle for the football team and a passionate baseball fan.
One day in 1983, Larry's classmate Lisa Tobitsch asked the chemistry teacher if he could please cancel class. Bob Burcik, the teacher, made the students an offer: If anyone could name the starting lineup for the 1960 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates, he would cancel class.
Confident that the kids from Phillies country wouldn't be able to recite the names of a team that played before they were born, Burcik told the students to open their textbooks.
"Wait a second," Larry said. "Where do you want me to start?"
"Catcher," Burcik said.
"There were two of them," Larry told his teacher. "Smoky Burgess had 337 at-bats and Hal Smith had 258."
Burcik had to immediately know he was in trouble.
"First base?" the teacher said.
"There were two of them," Larry told his teacher. "Dick Stuart and Rocky Nelson."
After he reeled off the other six Pirates regulars, Burcik challenged Larry to name the starting rotation.
"That wasn't part of the deal," Larry insisted before reciting the names Harvey Haddix, Bob Friend, Vern Law, and Vinegar Bend Mizell.
"Name some relievers," Burcik demanded.
Larry named some, ending with Elroy Face, the best pitcher in the Pirates' bullpen.
"Class is canceled," a defeated Burcik told his students.
"The other kids couldn't believe it," Larry said. "My best friend looked at me and said, 'You're weird.' "
The next day Lisa Tobitsch asked Mr. Burcik if he had any other sports questions for Larry.
"Absolutely not," Burcik replied.
The secret to Larry's class-canceling recall: Strat-O-Matic baseball.
"I used to play against my friend Doug Crowley and his team was the 1960 Pirates," Larry said.
Larry, who is 45 years old, told that story sitting in a $32,000 black wheelchair with the aid of a microphone attached around his right ear. The battle he has waged with ALS for the last 21/2 years has stripped my friend of his ability to walk and greatly hindered his efforts to speak, a painful combination for a big, athletic man who loved to golf and made his living by telling stories for three different newspapers.
Larry covered the Trenton Thunder for the Trentonian and became close friends with Tom McCarthy, the Phillies' play-by-play announcer. He covered the Eagles for the Allentown Morning Call, which is how I got to know him so well.
His media friends were all floored a little more than two years ago when Larry sent us a group e-mail with the news. The hobbled gait we all noticed near the end of the 2007 season was the beginning stages of ALS, a cruel neuromuscular condition also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis doesn't affect the mind or any of the other senses, but it is a boa constrictor on the body, making it difficult to walk, talk, swallow, and eventually breathe. The Phillies held their 27th annual ALS event Monday night at Citizens Bank Park, and Larry was there along with other ALS patients at various stages of the disease.
One day earlier, he sent out another group e-mail, informing his friends that he will undergo a tracheostomy Wednesday or Thursday, which will require him to be attached to a ventilator and a feeding tube.
"Without it," Larry wrote, "I have weeks to live. With it, I theoretically will outlive some of your cholesterol-laden asses."
The cruel disease without a cure has not stripped Larry's sense of humor, which was always evident during our three-hour conversation at his home in Albrightsville over the weekend. With his mother, Joyce, joining us, Larry took me on a tour of the chalet-like home he purchased in 2000 and has had renovated in recent years to accommodate his health-related needs.
Through strained breaths, he told me story after funny story.
For those of us who have watched Larry the last 21/2 years, it's impossible to imagine anyone could have handled this cruel disease with more dignity. We all were amazed when Larry continued working through the 2008 football season. He covered the Eagles and typed his final NFL stories at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals.
Since leaving the Morning Call, Larry has not stopped telling stories. Instead, he has told his story in the hope that someone will read it with interest and have the knowledge and power to develop a cure for ALS.
"The grace and humility he has shown through this has been incredible," said Steve Edelson, a sportswriter from the Asbury Park Press and one of Larry's closest friends. "It has been inspiring to me. He has put himself out there almost as a poster boy for this illness, going over and above what most people in his situation would have done for raising awareness. It has been incredible."
As a kid, Larry said he used to ask his mom "Why me?" when he'd get a cold. That wasn't his response to ALS.
"I didn't want to approach it as a negative," he said. "I looked at it as, 'Well, why?' The one thing I do well is communicate, so if you're looking for a reason, maybe that's it. I'm not a scientific person. When the doctors start talking about autoneurons, they lose me. But what I can do is communicate and get attention for it."
Life obviously hasn't been easy for Larry and his family - mother Joyce, father Larry, sister Jennifer, and brother-in-law Carsten - since he received the devastating news a few years ago. His to-do list included marriage, kids, and possibly even going into politics.
Watching Larry interact with his mother over the weekend and his father Monday night, the pain - physical and mental - was obvious even through their good-natured laughter. Equally apparent, however, is that an already tight-knit family has been indestructibly welded together by this disease.
Larry O'Rourke was a good man before he learned he had ALS. Since then, his friends and family have seen him evolve into a great one.