Life's curves not new to O's pitcher

Rebuilt Linton battles, like son with leukemia

February 28, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A small photo of Doug Linton's three young sons is tucked inside the right-hander's spring training locker. A crucifix hangs from a chain around his neck. Talk to him for a few minutes and the connection becomes clear.

Linton's faith remains strong, no matter how often it's tested. And 1997 was an excruciating time for the pitcher and his family.

As he sits in the clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and slips on his Orioles jersey, Linton describes the reconstructive surgery he had on his right elbow that year. He never doubted that he would pitch again, which he did at Triple-A Salt Lake City last season and in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

"I see my son fighting," he says, "so I've got to fight for him, too."

It's at this moment when the details of Linton's real battle begin to surface. Austin, at 3 the middle child, was diagnosed with leukemia in December of '97, just five days before Christmas. He endures cycles of chemotherapy treatments, spinal taps and steroids, which alter his moods and his appetite. His parents hope for the best and brace for the worst.

This is the challenge that Linton, 34, faces every minute of every day. He's trying to win a spot with the Orioles after signing a minor-league contract two months ago, but can anything compare to what's taking place at home?

"These last two years have been the roughest two years of my life, for myself and my family," he says. "The kid's been through so much."

Like the time he rolled off a couch and broke his leg. Or, just before his disease became known, when Austin was struck by a neighbor's car as he rode his tricycle. "He was backing out of the garage and ran right over his leg. He didn't even see him," Linton says. "Luckily, Austin didn't break anything. He just had tire marks going over his leg.

"It's like nothing fazes him. He's a strong boy."

He has to be that way, now more than ever. The first six months after being diagnosed were the worst -- "real hard, aggressive treatments," as Linton calls them -- and the next six were mostly spinal taps and chemotherapy drips that required three-day periods spent at a hospital in Johnson City, Tenn. Austin is on another six-month regimen that includes a weekly shot in his leg and cycles of steroid use to combat the affects of the chemo.

"He's real vulnerable to anything," Linton says. "Basically, doctors told us we can't go to supermarkets with him, churches, day care, malls, anyplace where there's people. Anything he could contract would basically knock him down. One big thing was chickenpox. Chickenpox and leukemia could kill him."

Steroids and waffles

"Once every month he goes on a week period where he takes the steroids. That's a bear because you hear about adults on steroids where they have the mood swings. Well, children have mood swings, too. The doctors prepared us by saying he'd become moody and real hungry all the time. And sure enough, when he first went on the steroids, in a two-day period he went through three boxes of waffles. He'd wake up in the morning and start tapping me on the head. He eats all day.

"He becomes real aggressive at times and that's something you have to accept, just because we know it's going to make him better."

Austin is too young to understand the disease. He only knows there's something wrong with him, that his brothers don't have the same tube as the one that pierces his body and is exposed so he can receive treatments.

"He knows we have to clean it out every night," Linton said. "He just calls it his `friend.' Every night I say, `Hey Austin, we have to clean out your friend,' and he'll lay down while we wash it. And he knows he's not supposed to touch it because it's connected to his heart and if he yanks it out, we're in trouble.

"You don't wish this on any of your boys, but if there's anything we can say, it's that if God intended this for us, he picked the right child. Our older son, Ryan, is more sensitive and it would really affect him bad. But Austin is so strong. He's 3 years old and he weighs as much as our 6-year-old, 40 pounds, and he's only a head shorter. He's just mentally and physically stronger. If you can say something good about it, the Lord picked the right child."

Somehow, Linton maintains the same friendly disposition, telling these stories as if he's any other father going on about his kid. And there's still the matter of returning to the majors, where he last pitched for the Kansas City Royals in 1996. Making 18 starts among his 21 appearances, Linton went 7-9 with a 5.02 ERA that shrinks to 3.93 if his two poorest outings are subtracted.

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