Triumph and tragedy came together quickly for Ferguson Jenkins

February 17, 1991|By Robert Markus | Robert Markus,Chicago Tribune

CHATHAM, Ontario -- "Congratulations, Fergie . . . and I'm sorry."

"Thank you. Thank you."

"Congratulations on the Hall of Fame."

"Thank you."

"And I'm really sorry about your wife."

"Thank you; it was just one of those things."

Ferguson Jenkins is back home, back among the people with whom he grew up, people who admire him, love him. He's only here for a visit, for a few days, to do a television spot for a CBC documentary on Canadian heritage, to be honored at a sports banquet in London, Ontario.

Everywhere he goes he is recognized, embraced. He stops off at Chatham Burgers to have the locally famous half-pound special with everything on it and he sees the son of an old boyhood teammate.

He drives through the old neighborhood and spots a longtime family friend. He checks into his hotel and he knows the manager.

"Congratulations, Fergie . . . and I'm sorry."

The two most towering events of Ferguson Jenkins' life are linked inextricably and always will be so. On Jan. 8, 1991, he had the world at his feet. Ferguson Jenkins had just been named to baseball's Hall of Fame. It was a moment about which he had not dared dream. It was a sweet moment, but he had only a moment to taste it.

Four days later his world was shattered. His wife, who was "more than a wife, she was my best friend" died in an Oklahoma City hospital, where she had lingered for a month after a horrifying auto accident.

Since then, he has been trying to fit the pieces back together again, trying to make sense out of what appears to be a huge, cosmic joke. The gods must be crazy.

Theirs was a modern love story. He was separated from his first wife; she was divorced. They met in Chicago at a place called "Gaffers." It was 1985, the year the Bears went to the Super Bowl and he had come to town with some friends to attend the first playoff game.

Afterward they went to "Gaffers" and Maryanne was there, playing darts in the back room. Some of her friends recognized Jenkins and dared her to introduce herself. She did.

The next week he came back for the NFC championship game and they met again. They watched the Super Bowl together at a party. They started to date. At first she held back. She had been hurt by other men, was not sure she wanted a man in her life again.

But his was a big, comfortable shoulder to cry on and so she fell in love. They fell in love. And after his divorce, they married. They moved to Oklahoma, where he was coaching in the Texas Rangers' system and they bought a ranch where he raised appaloosas. She loved to ride.

She had a son, Raymond, by her first marriage and soon they had a daughter together, Samantha. They were so close.

"We talked a lot. We talked about everything. Maybe that's what went wrong with my first marriage, we didn't talk. Maybe it was my fault. I was always away playing baseball, and maybe I thought too much about myself and not enough about the family and what were Cathy's concerns."

Maryanne took a course in finance and they talked of their plans to open an auto dealership. Five days later, while he was away playing Senior League baseball, her Ford Explorer blew a right rear tire and went off the road.

It wasn't until he arrived at the hospital the next day that he understood the severity of her injures. Still, the doctors were hopeful. They told him she would recover.

He visited her every day. She was conscious but could not speak because of the tracheotomy tube in her throat. He learned to read her lips, but sometimes "she would talk so fast I couldn't understand and I would have to tell her to slow down."

On the day the Hall of Fame announcement was due, he told her he might not be there tomorrow. And if he wasn't, it meant he had made the Hall of Fame. When he arrived home from the hospital the phone was ringing. He had made it.

Within an hour, he was on the way to New York. The next day he stopped back in Chicago, where he had built the foundation for the career that would take him to such heights.

He spoke of his wife, said the doctors kept telling him his wife HTC was going to be all right. "But she doesn't look all right," he kept saying.

He arrived home too late to see her, and when he went to the hospital the next day "she was heavily sedated."

On Jan. 11, "about 10 a.m., I read her the clippings from the New York and Chicago papers. She had a big smile on her face. She was sitting up." It is his last memory of her alive.

For the second time that week a telephone call would change his life. This time it was a doctor, telling him his wife's lungs had collapsed, that her heart was taking a terrible beating, that they were trying to save her, but . . .

He rushed to the hospital and was met there by a chaplain, who spoke consoling words that he hardly heard. He was in a fog, lost in his own thoughts.

Finally he asked, "Can I have a half-hour with my wife?"

He entered the room "and I held her hand; she was still warm. I told her I loved her. I told her I was sorry that all her plans were shattered. I cried a little bit."

In July, Ferguson Jenkins will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame and the two most important women in his life will not be there.

"My mother always wanted me to excel. Maryanne wanted me in the Hall of Fame. I'm going to be happy because my dad will be there with me and my mother and Maryanne will be there spiritually."

In the meantime there are many decisions to be made. The children are being cared for by his brother-in-law, Dennis Miller, but Jenkins knows they need their father. And he needs them.

He has been doing considerable traveling, making appearances, but not nearly as much as his agent tells him he could be doing.

"I like to be home at night with the family. I like to work on the the farm. I feel safer at home with the kids than any place else."

Eventually he wants to get back into baseball. He would like to be the pitching coach for a major league team. He has some theories "that worked for me." They worked well enough that they put him in the Hall of Fame.

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