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A Life on Hold for the Love of a Little Girl

By Kevin Sherrington

Mike Veeck is back in the big leagues, which is good news for him as well as the Florida Marlins, who are calling him a "creative consultant."

How would you describe the job, Mike?

"I would call it a trip back in on a part-time basis, yet still a way to keep me at arm's length," he says, mocking himself, which is a guilty habit.

Baseball remains reluctant to embrace Bill Veeck's son. Some still remember "Disco Demolition Night," his 1979 promotion - or "my signature," as he puts it. That promotion detonated a riot in Chicago and resulted in his self-imposed exile to 10 years in a bottle.

Minor-league baseball saved him. He owns and runs five franchises, which is like saying Picasso owned a lot of paint and brushes. In St. Paul, Minn., at the ballpark of his most famous club, a nun gives neck massages, a pig delivers baseballs and, perhaps most outlandish of all, the Saints actually give fans their money's worth.

The minors are fun, but Mike Veeck keeps coming back to the big leagues, where the father he idolized is a legend.

Veeck says he left the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the summer of '99 before he was ready to.

"For personal reasons" was how the wire story put it.

The longer explanation is harder.

How do you say that you're going home because your 7-year-old daughter is going blind?

The clinical term for Rebecca's problem is retinitis pigmentosa. The first symptom is poor central vision. That is followed by night blindness and, finally, the inexorable fade to black.

So in the two, three - who knew how many? - years of vision Rebecca had left, Mike and Libby Veeck decided to give their daughter a lifetime of images to recall.

For much of the last 18 months, the Veecks have been on the road. San Francisco. Guadalajara. Yosemite. The ornate architecture of the Grand Canyon and the minimalist beauty of Death Valley.

Thirty-two states they've covered.

Eighteen to go.

"We went to Disney World for a week and stayed two," Mike Veeck says. "We went to New England to see the leaves changing, and we went to Cooperstown so she could see her grandfather's plaque in the Hall of Fame."

Her favorite?

"Maryland," Veeck says. "We all grew up there. We even bought a second home down the street from one of the friends I grew up with."

Always on the run, Veeck never was big on houses. But the trip to Maryland taught him something. In December, the Veecks bought a house in Charleston, S.C. For the first time, Rebecca and her 14-year-old brother had a neighborhood and dozens of playmates and a normal life - or what passes for one with parents who would name their only son Night Train.

But life isn't normal. Not at all. The last two months for Rebecca, who is now 9, have been increasingly difficult. Most books are impossible for her to decipher now. Only a special closed-circuit television that enlarges print by 10 times allows her to read on her own. Already, she is learning braille.

How is she handling it? In testimony last year on behalf of the Foundation for Fighting Blindness, Mike Veeck told a congressional subcommittee that Rebecca would lie in bed at night with the lights on, afraid that if she went to sleep, she might wake up blind.

"As a parent," he told the subcommittee, "you can imagine the utter helplessness you feel in not being able to calm your daughter's fears."

Now, amazingly, she seems to be outgrowing them. She has her grandfather's sense of humor, her father says, recalling how Bill Veeck used his artificial leg as an ashtray during interviews.

As a father, though, you're not always prepared for what your child might say. Once when Mike Veeck was walking hand-in-hand with Rebecca, she looked up at a brilliant blue sky and said: "It's OK, Daddy, if I go blind, because I'll always have you and Mom with me to tell me what you see."

A daughter has come to terms with her fate.

But what is a father to do?

Go to work.

Dave Dombroski, the Marlins' general manager, had known Mike Veeck for more than 25 years, and he knew that Rebecca's vision had turned worse, and he knew that Mike needed to go back to something else he loved.

Are the big leagues therapy, Mike?

"Selfishly, there is no question," he says. "Definitely. Therapy."

So, at Marlins games this summer, look for the return of Lawyer Appreciation Night, on which attorneys pay double. But don't look too often for Mike Veeck, who enjoys the part-time work but has a larger mission now. A national one.

"Next month," he says, "is Oregon and Idaho."

Two more down. Sixteen to go.

Kevin Sherrington is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, where this column originally appeared.

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Date last modified August 5, 2001