Former Oriole star battles to regain his health, dignity

January 20, 1995|By Tao Woolfe | Tao Woolfe,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Everybody treated Curt Blefary like royalty, but they didn't do him any favors.

The cops made sure he had a ride home after he had been drinking. Friends and strangers bought him drinks. His baseball managers never told him they were trading him or sending him to the minor leagues because of his drinking.

Today, 30 years after he was Rookie of the Year with the Baltimore Orioles, he's fighting for his life.

He has been sober for eight months.

"That may not seem like much to some people, but it's a milestone for me after being out there 33 years," he said.

On Friday the 13th, he checked himself into Holy Cross Hospital to be cured of another problem he has had for many years: a bad hip, ruined by all the years of drinking.

Dr. Paul Meli, who performed successful hip replacement surgery last Friday, explained that Blefary suffered from avascular necrosis and that his hip had literally died. "What happens is that the blood supply to certain parts of the body is tenuous. The hip is one of them," Meli said.

The use of alcohol or steroids, among other things, decreases the blood flow, and the hip erodes and dies, Meli said, just as the part of the brain dies when someone has a stroke.

Meli performed the surgery, replacing the hip with a titanium ball and socket, for free. The hospital also is providing Blefary's nursing staff, hospital bed and supplies, anesthesia and everything else for free.

Blefary asked Meli for help and Meli, in turn, asked the hospital.

"It seems like an awful lot of suffering for this guy to go through when he's trying to get his life back on track," said Maria Soldani, Holy Cross spokeswoman.

Blefary, 51, could not have afforded it on his own.

Since his heyday in the 1960s -- he hit .260 and 22 home runs his first year with the Orioles -- Blefary has held a string of unrelated jobs. Among other things, he has been a car salesman, an insurance salesman, a truck driver, a bar owner and a security policeman.

Before the job merry-go-round began, he was traded from the Orioles to Houston to the Oakland A's to the San Diego Padres and then to the minor leagues.

"I just kept going downhill, and I still didn't get it," Blefary said. Even when he crashed into a police car in New Jersey one drunken evening and lost his driver's license for two years.

Before he checked himself into a rehab center in Tampa eight months ago, he was putting away a quart and a half of whiskey a day and living off disability payments.

His world consisted of memories of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Joe DiMaggio and the fast lane of big-league ball, when everybody knew who he was and wanted to buy him a drink.

"I'd go get the groceries at 7 a.m. and then stay home and drink," Blefary said.

He would take a nap just before his wife, Lana, would get home to the couple's Pompano Beach condominium. Lana Blefary, a condominium manager, has been the main source of support for the family for many years.

"That woman is a saint," Blefary said of his wife of 16 years. "I thank God for that woman."

She urged him to get help.

When he was so depressed he was thinking about suicide, he finally listened.

Blefary checked into the hospital in Tampa on a Friday the 13th. His number when he played for the Yankees and Houston was 13.

When he recovers from his Friday the 13th operation, he will have no more pain in his hip, according to Meli.

Many baseball players are superstitious, Blefary included. He believes 13 is a lucky number.

Blefary, who is in Alcoholics Anonymous, and who was doing well after surgery, wants to share his good fortune by giving something back to the community.

He particularly wants to work with children -- counseling them about the dangers of alcohol.

"There's a lot of emphasis on drugs and not enough on alcohol," he said. "Drugs get you quick. Alcohol takes a little bit longer, but it's more accessible and a whole lot cheaper."

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