Clean-shaven and well-rested, Eric Wedge leaned forward against the desk of his office looking like a man who regained his balance Friday afternoon. About to partake in the first stressful professional situation he’d experienced in more than a month, the Mariners manager appeared anything but tense.
Four-and-a-half weeks passed since Wedge suffered a minor stroke before a July 22 home game. The only anxiety to which he would admit upon his return came in the form of impatience.
“I’ve been looking forward to it,” he said three hours before the game against the Los Angeles Angels. “I feel great. I feel better than I had in 10, 15 years.”
Stepping away from the daily game will do that. But Wedge had to make some serious changes in his lifestyle since the pre-game trouble put his career, and his life, in jeopardy. He allowed stress to get to him, the 45-year-old Wedge admitted. His I’ll-sleep-when-I’m-dead lifestyle had him in trouble – a fact underscored by a subsequent medical diagnosis of sleep apnea.
Wedge believes without hesitation that his health scare was nothing more than that – a scare.
“It’s a shot across the bow, a mulligan, a heads-up,” he said without any visible display of concern. “And I’m taking it as so.”
Wedge’s return comes with local precedent. Seattle sports fans may recall a 2005 preseason episode that changed the course of Seahawks defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes’s career. Rhodes had a minor stroke before the season and never served as a full-time coordinator again.
More than a year after the stroke, Rhodes reportedly experienced a second medical episode that caused a team flight from Chicago to touch down in South Dakota. He has spent most of the past eight years in the league serving as a defensive assistant or consultant – jobs that carry less stress than that of a coordinator.
Yet there appears to be no concern, from Wedge or the team, about the manager’s health as he steps back into the line of fire.
Wedge said of his decision to return: “I don’t have any doubts in my mind. I’m confident in my decision.”
General manager Jack Zduriencik also showed no sign of concern. He joked about the clean-shaven, significantly lighter Wedge looking “handsome again.” He said the Mariners wouldn’t have put him back in the dugout if there were any fear of another episode.
“He’ll judge himself, he’ll gauge himself,” Zduriencik said. “I’m not expecting anything unexpected because we’ve talked to the doctors, and there’s no concern there. We’ll proceed as normal.”
Wedge realizes that there are no guarantees, despite a clean bill of health from doctors.
“I just have to monitor myself,” he said. “I’m in uncharted waters here.”
For Wedge, a key to staying healthy is knowing when to leave the stress at the ballpark. He admitted that the every-day issues that come with being a major league manager began to mount, to the point where he couldn’t turn off the constant thoughts.
That will have to change.
“What you can do is park it,” he said, “and pick it up tomorrow.”
Wedge added that it won’t be too difficult to change his thinking.
“I did not like not being in control,” he said. “I didn’t have it there for a couple days, and that’s one hell of a scary feeling. That’s the only reminder I need. I never want to feel that again.”
He said he began feeling out of control while watching batting practice a couple hours before a game against the Indians. He called over trainer Rick Griffin. Griffin and assistant trainer Rob Nodine had to help Wedge to the dugout.
“By the time I got to the steps,” he said, “I was pretty much dead weight.”
It took almost three days for doctors to determine the cause. Wedge could tell when doctors sat him down with results in hand that it was something serious. He was informed that he had a minor stroke.
“That word gets your attention,” he said.
A month later, he was jovial and reflective when meeting with reporters in his office before the game, then gave a wave of the hand to a group of fans who cheered him as he walked off the field after batting practice an hour later.
Said Mariners shortstop Brad Miller: “We’re just happy that his health is such that he can join us. It just brings excitement.”
In the moments before the game started, Wedge was up leaning on the dugout railing, relaxed and seemingly peaceful.
It was the first day. No one knows how Wedge will react to being back for the long haul. But as of Friday afternoon, everyone was all smiles at Safeco Field.
“He looks great,” Zduriencik said. “He’s in good spirits, ready to roll. Obviously, what he’s been through is tough, but he’s handled it very, very well.”
Wedge knows he’ll have to keep handling it that way.
“For me, this is a new beginning,” he said. “I’m 45 years old, I’ve been managing 10 years, and I feel like I’ve got a lot of years left. I really, truly feel that my best days are ahead of me.”