'Couldn't stop reading it' Pulitzer: Sun reporter Lisa Pollak has been awarded a 1996 Pulitzer Prize for her feature story "The Umpire's Sons."

April 08, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Lisa Pollak, a reporter for The Sun, won the Pulitzer Prize yesterday for an eloquent story on the family of baseball umpire John Hirschbeck, who lost one son to a rare genetic disease and whose second son also has the disease.

The award of journalism's highest honor in the feature writing category to Pollak, 27, who joined The Sun last year, was the first Pulitzer in 12 years for the newspaper and the 11th in its history, in addition to two for The Evening Sun.

Pollak's story, "The Umpire's Sons," which appeared Dec. 29, recounted a family tragedy that had become a footnote in the feverish media coverage after Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar spat on Hirschbeck after a controversial call.

"We just couldn't stop reading it," said Gregory L. Moore, managing editor of the Boston Globe, who chaired the Pulitzer jury that nominated finalists in the feature writing category. "You really felt what the family was feeling. It was moving but not maudlin."

The story described the 1993 death of Hirschbeck's 8-year-old son, John, from adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD, and the arduous treatment endured by his younger son, Michael, now 10, for the same disease. Pollak told much of the story through the eyes of Michael, whose devotion to his brother left a strong impression during her two daylong visits to the Hirschbecks at their home in Poland, Ohio.

Pollak said yesterday that the idea for the story came to her after she returned from the funeral of a friend who had died of cancer. She was struck by the repeated passing mention of the death of Hirschbeck's son in news coverage of his conflict with Alomar.

"In all the hoopla over the spitting incident, it had been forgotten that this was a man who'd lost a child," Pollak said yesterday. "To me, there was this human story underneath all the baseball stuff."

The same idea occurred to Lynda Robinson, a Sun features editor, who would edit the story along with enterprise editor Jan Winburn. Through Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute, where both boys had been treated, Pollak contacted John and Denise Hirschbeck.

They had had their fill of publicity after the Sept. 27 spitting incident and were reluctant to cooperate, Mrs. Hirschbeck said yesterday from Ohio.

"To be honest, we were very skeptical. Basically we're pretty private people," she said. But they agreed to an initial meeting partly in the hope that publicity would encourage support for research on ALD.

They found Pollak different from other journalists who had spoken with them -- more patient, more interested, more determined to understand their experience. "You could tell she wasn't going down a checklist," Mrs. Hirschbeck said.

The initial plan was to put the story in the paper quickly. But after an exhausting day of interviewing at the Hirschbeck home, Pollak called Robinson from Ohio to say she wanted to return for a second visit. There was an extraordinary story to tell, and she wanted to make sure she understood it.

"She was overwhelmed, but she was excited," Robinson said.

There followed many weeks of writing and editing, using hours of tape of Pollak's interviews in Ohio. She visited the Hirschbecks again in November and called them many times. She interviewed other families whose children suffered from ALD and who had met the Hirschbecks.

But from the beginning, she focused on Michael and on the theme of brothers: the young John and Michael; John Hirschbeck and his brother Mark, also a major-league umpire; and Alomar and his brother Sandy, catcher for the Cleveland Indians.

"The Hirschbeck boys shared," Pollak wrote. "They shared the love of their mother and father and younger sisters. They shared a big bedroom in a warm, tidy house in Poland, Ohio. They shared a mutated gene, passed silently from grandmother to mother to children, silently because it didn't kill girls, silently because it is so rare few people have ever heard of it."

With a repeated, ominous phrase, Pollak captured the boys' closeness and their medical catastrophe: "Everywhere the older brother went, the younger brother followed." She chose to close the story with a verbatim quotation from Michael's tour of the bedroom he had shared with John.

In the end, the Hirschbecks were gratified with the result. "She really captured our story," Mrs. Hirschbeck said yesterday.

Yesterday at 3: 20 p.m., when the news of Pollak's honor moved over the news wires, more than 100 colleagues gathered in the newsroom for cake and champagne.

Pollak, who joined the paper in July from the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer, expressed gratitude to fellow Sun feature writers and editors "who inspire me every day" and particularly to the Hirschbecks, for trusting her with their darkest and most private feelings.

"I always say you're just the conduit for a story," she said. "You don't have the chance to share stories like this many times in a year or a lifetime."

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