Incaviglia saga breath of fresh air

February 25, 1997|By KEN ROSENTHAL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- He'd play flag football, fall in a patch of dirt and that would be it. Another asthma attack. Another trip to the hospital. Another shot of adrenalin.

This was life for the young Pete Incaviglia. He wasn't always a 230-pound slugger with a size-52 jacket. Heck, he might never have grown to those proportions if he hadn't started lifting weights at the age of 10.

That's too young for most children, but Incaviglia's doctor and father saw it as the best hope for Pete to lead a normal childhood. They figured that if the boy increased his lung capacity, he could outgrow his condition.

"Frail" is about the last word you would associate with Incaviglia, a stocky outfielder with bulging arms and a massive chest. But back then, it was difficult to envision him hitting 201 major-league homers when he could barely finish a game.

"I was a little runt, like any other skinny little kid running around," he said.

A little runt with asthma.

nTC Those early years had a profound impact on the Orioles' Incaviglia, who turns 32 on Opening Day. They made him more sensitive to others with physical limitations. They made him work harder. And they made him tougher.

"I beat a lot of odds," Incaviglia said. "When people say I'm done and through, I say, 'OK, fine, I'll work a little harder and keep doing what I have to do to compete on the major-league level.'

"I battled as a kid and beat that, and I'll battle anything else that comes along."

It's funny, because from a distance, Incaviglia appears to have had it easy in baseball. Baltimore is his fifth major-league stop in 10 seasons, but he has never spent a day in the minors.

The weight training sent him on his way.

The weight training helped him beat asthma.

Incaviglia has two older brothers -- Tony, who played in the San Diego and Pittsburgh organizations; and Frank, who played at the University of Arizona. But growing up in Monterey, Calif., he could never be like them.

"There was always a limit to what I could do, always that fear," Incaviglia said. "If you overexerted yourself, that's when the attack hit. As a kid, I always could go a little bit, but I never could stay out there. I always had to shut it down."

Incaviglia remembers it all vividly -- the 3 a.m. visits to the emergency room, the injections that made him feel "like a pin cushion," an allergic reaction to fish at the age of 4 that left his throat so swollen, it nearly killed him.

"It got to the point where my father had to learn to give me my adrenalin shots," Incaviglia said. "I was going to the hospital every two or three days. They didn't have the inhaler thing they do now."

Said his father, Tom: "He never backed off -- he fought it. He played baseball, football, did the punt, pass and kick competition. He got an attack once in San Diego during a punt, pass and kick, got better and did what he had to do. He went to the nationals five years in a row."

The weight training? It was largely Tom's idea. He had played in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, and lifted at a time when the baseball world frowned on pumping iron.

"They thought I was crazy," Tom said.

Well, he wasn't crazy then, and he wasn't crazy when he thought that lifting might help his asthmatic son. Pete, however, wasn't enthused at first. His father took him to a gym, and the owner, of all people, became his trainer.

"It was weird, very weird," he said. "I was a little intimidated, obviously. But he showed me a routine, and I stayed with it. This was not just going and messing around. It was serious."

Three-times-a-week serious, but Incaviglia came to love it. His entire family is big, so it was inevitable that he would grow. But Incaviglia had such muscle definition at an early age, he stood out among his classmates.

By junior high, he noticed that he could hit a ball farther and throw a ball farther than anyone. And his asthma attacks became less frequent with each passing year.

Lifting became such a part of his life, he stopped playing basketball in high school so that he could hit the weights more regularly in between football and baseball seasons.

"I grew up with it -- it became habit," Incaviglia said. "Even when I was 15, I had been doing it for five years. It almost came to the point that I didn't feel right if I didn't work out."

He had pent-up energy to release, years of frustration. His father recalls him always wanting to beat his older brothers, asking how many homers they had hit in each league, trying to break their records.

Incaviglia would pound a heavy bag with a bat to strengthen his stroke. At Oklahoma State, he lifted with the wrestlers -- to the delight of his father, and his coach's chagrin.

Today, he still carries an inhaler, but mostly out of habit -- "Every now and then you might hear a wheeze," Incaviglia said. "But for the most part, it has pretty much passed." He has two children, but neither suffers from asthma.

His story is an inspiration, one he wants to share.

"When I go see kids in hospitals, I try and explain to them the things that happened to me and the things I had to go through," Incaviglia said. "I tell them, 'Don't give up on your dreams.'

"It's obvious some things can't change, but with a little motivation and hard work, things can change. I know exactly where they're coming from. Mom tells you that you have to sit down for a while. That's no fun."

The weight training transformed him from a scrawny kid with asthma into a major-league slugger.

The weight training saved him.

"I knew it was going to help me in the long run," Incaviglia said. "When you're always kneeled down and hunched over, you'll do anything to get better."

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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