O's relieve Percibal with save of a lifetime

February 25, 1996|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- His wife was crying on the phon from the Dominican Republic.

She was so upset that Billy Percibal couldn't quite understand every word she was saying.

But he knew what she was telling him: Something was wrong with Angel, their 2-week-old son.

Priscilla Percibal's phone call set in motion a breathtaking chain of events involving the unlikely alliance of doctors in Baltimore and Miami, Percibal's agent in Baltimore, the Orioles front office and coaches here in Florida, and officials at the U.S. Consulate in the Dominican Republic.

All trying to save the life of the firstborn child of one of the Orioles' top pitching prospects.

Percibal is a 22-year-old with a wicked fastball whom the club discovered four years ago as a child of Third World poverty, sleeping on a dirt floor in a shack in the countryside outside San Pedro de Macoris, the Dominican baseball hotbed.

He was a happy-go-lucky kid with a broad smile, a swagger in his stride and an unlimited future. The Orioles' Dominican scout, Carlos Bernhardt, signed him and raised him into young adulthood.

Eating more than rice and beans for the first time, Percibal grew from a hungry, guileless string bean into a big-rumped, slope-shouldered star.

"He is like my son," Bernhardt said. "And he will pitch in the major leagues one day."

Bernhardt had been at the hospital with the Percibals when Angel was born three weeks ago in San Pedro de Macoris. All had seemed fine.

"Billy's mind was at ease when he came [to Florida] for spring training," Bernhardt said.

But all was not well now. After Priscilla's phone call last weekend, Percibal ran to Bernhardt's room in the hotel where the Orioles are based. Bernhardt spends every spring in the big-league camp as a coach and batting-practice pitcher. Percibal is on the club's 40-man roster, a sign of the Orioles' high expectations for him.

With the help of his wife (and de facto assistant scout) back in San Pedro de Macoris, Bernhardt did some investigating and got to the root of the problem. There was a lump on Angel's head. Fluid was leaking into the boy's brain.

A $7,000 operation was needed, but Percibal's insurance with the Orioles wouldn't cover the cost of an operation in the Dominican Republic. Percibal certainly didn't have the money. He lives in a one-room apartment in San Pedro de Macoris. Having a roof over his head is a victory.

"I didn't know where to turn," Bernhardt said yesterday in the Orioles' clubhouse. "Billy didn't have the money. I didn't have the money. His wife was hysterical."

Bernhardt took the problem to Andy Etchebarren, the former Orioles catcher now on Davey Johnson's major-league coaching staff. Etchebarren had managed Percibal in the minors.

"Andy took me straight to Pat Gillick," Bernhardt said.

Gillick, of course, is the club's new general manager, and a man capable of getting things done in a hurry.

Gillick recognized immediately what had to be done. "We had to bring the child and mother to the United States and get this operation done," he said. "Clearly, time was of the essence."

Work began on two fronts. Team doctors tried to locate a pediatric surgeon in Miami. Gillick tried to arrange for emergency visas for Priscilla and Angel.

The latter was not an easy task, but Percibal's agent had a contact at the U.S. Consulate in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. Consulate officials were off on Monday for Presidents Day, but Bernhardt's wife heard they might be playing golf and drove to the course. She found them. The visas were granted and signed. A day was saved.

The Orioles paid for Priscilla and Angel to fly to Miami, Gillick said. Percibal's insurance would cover the cost of the surgery here.

The operation was performed Thursday at Miami Children's Hospital. The surgeon stopped the leakage into Angel's brain. Angel's life was saved.

"When Billy came to my room Thursday night, he was so happy that he was jumping around," Bernhardt said. "The only thing we could do was give our thanks to God and the Orioles. Otherwise, I don't know."

Percibal was back at work Friday, moving through drills with the rest of the pitchers.

"How did everything go?" catcher Gregg Zaun asked.

"Great," Percibal said with a smile.

When reporters asked him about the day of the operation, he thumped his heart with his right hand.

"Now, back to baseball again," he said.

If the story ended there, it would be seamlessly happy. But it isn't quite that simple.

Following up, Gillick called the surgeon to hear his perspective on how the operation had gone. The news wasn't all good. Angel would live, the doctor said, but it was possible he had suffered brain damage.

"It's the kind of situation where sometimes there is a problem and sometimes there isn't," Gillick said. "I don't think we'll know for quite a while."

Percibal's unfamiliarity with English had kept him from fully understanding the uncertainty of Angel's future. Bernhardt talked with him about it in Bernhardt's hotel room late Friday night.

"Before the operation I tried to prepare him for the bad things that might happen," Bernhardt said. "He is happy now because his son will live. But now I am trying to prepare him for the fact that there might be a problem in four or five years. Maybe, maybe not."

Soon, Priscilla will return to the Percibals' small apartment and subsist on the money Percibal sends her. She is fortunate in that her husband has escaped the cycle of desperate poverty that brings down so many in the Dominican Republic. At least they have an apartment.

No, it will not be an easy place to raise a child with special needs. But if that is the reality of their future, that is what Billy and Priscilla Percibal will do. She is 19. He is 22. The Orioles have saved their son's life. It is all the club could do.

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