Posted July 23, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Extra-inning save: Former big leaguer Nyman has new lease on life

Front Royal's Chris Nyman
Front Royal's Chris Nyman, who played tow years of Major League Baseball, suffered a massive heart attack while playing for his church softball league team earlier this month. Dennis Grundman/Daily

Chris Nyman
Dennis Grundman/Daily

Nyman played first base for the Chicago White Sox
Nyman, who played first base for the Chicago White Sox in 1982 and 1983, served as the designated hitter for St. John the Baptist this season in the Front Royal Softball League. Dennis Grundman/Daily

By Brian Eller - beller@nvdaily.com

FRONT ROYAL -- Three weeks after nearly dying in a softball dugout, Chris Nyman stepped onto the Front Royal softball fields and gazed out across the diamond.

The mood had changed, certainly the chaos had vanished, too. The sounds of panic from people dialing 911 weren't there, nor the lights or sirens of a speeding ambulance. There were no umpires calling strike three, not even the ping of a softball meeting a bat.

On this day, it was a place of tranquility and reflection. Nyman, a former major league baseball player and Front Royal resident, had suffered a massive heart attack right on this field less than a month ago.

It didn't make sense at the time. He was just 55 years old, still in great shape for a man his age. He was tall and skinny, his hair a familiar salt and pepper -- heavy on the salt -- and he walked with a soothing step, as though one misstep might disturb the peaceful atmosphere surrounding him.

He took a seat on a nearby bench and began to reminisce about that seemingly ordinary day that turned into anything but. It was the playoffs of the Front Royal Softball League. St. John the Baptist, Nyman's team, had limped into the playoffs with a so-so record, but had found some momentum toward the latter portion of the season. Their opponent was Marlow Heights. Both teams were looking to capture a league championship.

It was the second inning before Nyman got a chance to bat. He stepped into the box and hit a routine ground ball. As he was running to first, he felt something in his chest, a feeling "I had never felt before." He tried to dismiss it, labeling it as a possible pulled muscle. The discomfort, however, didn't pass.

Over the next few innings, that discomfort turned to pain, as Nyman knew something definitely wasn't right with his health. As the team's designated hitter, Nyman was fortunate to not have to play in the field, but all that did was allow for the increasing pain in his chest to take center stage in his mind.

Nyman was used to playing through pain. In the 1970s, the Chicago White Sox came calling, drafting Nyman out of high school. Nyman turned them down, however, electing to take a baseball scholarship at Arizona State. While with the Sun Devils, Nyman helped the team win the 1977 NCAA national championship, a feat that led to him being signed with the White Sox following college. Over the next few years Nyman worked his way up through the minor leagues, eventually appearing in a handful of games for the White Sox in 1982 and 1983.

Back on the softball field, however, those days were long gone. By the time Nyman took his second at-bat, the pain was almost unbearable.

"It got worse over the next inning or so," Nyman said, "and at the time when I was getting ready to come up for the second time, I remember either thinking or saying to somebody, 'If I can't play anymore, is that an automatic out every time?'"

Within a few minutes, that became the least of Nyman's worries. Hunched over and clutching his chest, he retreated to the dugout, the pain worsening with each step. By the time he had made it back to the bleachers, the pain was too much to bear. Teammates hurried to his side, doing their best to offer help without panicking. Someone asked Nyman if he needed an ambulance. Nyman just sat there. They asked again. No response.

"I had heard two other people ask him if we wanted to call 911," Nyman's longtime friend Tom McGraw said. "He didn't say anything, which was significant because he was the person who would simply say, 'No, I'm fine.' I think when he didn't say anything it just meant, wow, this was different."

With help on the way and players from both teams growing increasingly concerned, the game was put on hold, with St. John the Baptist trailing Marlow Heights by two runs. For the moment, however, the game was irrelevant.

The ambulance arrived a short time later and players and fans could only watch as Nyman was loaded into the back. Meanwhile, players from both teams gathered on the field for prayer. Nyman's teammates also had a decision to make. On any other night, losing a teammate would certainly mean ending the game. This, however, was the church league playoffs and despite the heavy hearts, they would need to finish the game.

"You hear so many times the phrase, 'Oh, so and so would've wanted me to play or finish the game,' but in our situation, at least for myself, I don't think we wanted to keep playing at that point," McGraw said. "We just felt like bigger things were going on and we wanted to do whatever we could to help out."

It may have been a cliché, but with Nyman on his way to Winchester Medical Center, McGraw and his teammates knew Nyman would've wanted them to go on, so they played.

With his friends and teammates back on the diamond, Nyman's mind raced with thoughts of his family, his friends and, of course, his own situation. The thought of death crossed his mind, Nyman admitted, but nothing more than a passing musing. His true feelings were with his family, who at the time were away in Florida.

"You're praying, but I was thinking mostly of my family," Nyman said. "I'm not thinking of myself as much that I'm going to die and meet my maker, and obviously that's a concern with all of us, but I felt like I was ready to do that. I was worried about my daughters, my son and my wife."

At the hospital, doctors quickly discovered an artery in the front of Nyman's heart was 95 percent clogged and they would need to operate as quickly as possible in order to save his life.

A few hours later, Nyman was recovering from a successful surgery when two visitors strolled into his room. It was McGraw and friend John Echaniz, both of whom had last seen their friend and teammate struggling for breath on the diamond. They were still in uniform, muddy cleats and all. Dirt and sweat marks peppered their clothes, but they didn't care about appearances. They needed to see how Nyman was doing and, with dozens of folks back in Front Royal waiting anxiously for text and phone updates, report on their friend's status.

They expected to see a man holding on for life. Instead, McGraw and Echaniz were greeted with a friendly smile from Nyman, who had completed his comeback against the odds of survival.

"The very first thing he said to us was, 'Did we win?,'" McGraw said.

As it turns out, St. John the Baptist had, in fact, pulled off a major comeback of its own, despite the heavy hearts surrounding the team. Trailing by two runs in the bottom of the seventh, St. John's rallied to tie the game and send it into extra innings. Three runs from Marlow Heights in the top of the eighth, however, left the chance for a comeback slim, but a two-run double from Mike Shaffer, followed by a two-run single from Troy Johnson, propelled St. John's to the win.

"I think if they would've lost the game we still would've been just as happy [in that room], bantering back and forth," Nyman said. "It was nice the way it ended up, that was a nice little plus, but it was really the guys, all three of us in that hospital room with our uniforms still on."

Nyman soon fully recovered and eventually was released back to his home in Front Royal. St. John's, meanwhile, pressed on in the playoffs, advancing all the way to the semifinals before falling to Chester Gap to end the season.

Today, both McGraw and Nyman look back on that day as a lesson in health and in life. Both said they've started to be more conscious of what they eat and to take life a little more slowly. As for Nyman, his playing days are over, at least for the time being. Standing just a few feet from where his life could've ended, he simply gazes into the distance and reflects on his time as a major leaguer and the life he's molded for more than five decades.

"The thing that's changed mostly is the physical aspect," Nyman said. "In terms of changing our lives mentally, spiritually, emotionally, that's always been part of trying to become a better person for me. I've always tried to work hard and be a good person, and that will continue. For now it's getting my physical act together and being generally healthier."

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