December 29, 1999

Veeck, as in Heroic

A tragic disease is robbing Rebecca Veeck of her eyesight. Inspired by her late grandfather, baseball legend Bill, her family battles her handicap with laughter

 

By Pete Williams

USA Today Baseball Weekly

 

ST. PETERSBURG , Fla. – Mike Veeck and his eight-year-old daughter, Rebecca, have the routine down pat. Each time Mike unlocks the door to their townhouse, Rebecca inches up close to the door she can barely see. She sticks her foot out to feel the door and the small step in front of it.

Then, as her father turns the knob, the bubbly little girl with the blond hair who suffers from a horrible disease called retinitis pigmentosa that is slowly taking away her eyesight, pretends to stumble through the doorway, smacking her nose into the door. Then Mike Veeck pulls the door back into his own face and they collapse on the floor in a pile of laughter.

On this day in late November, following an afternoon bike ride, the Veecks are laughing harder than usual because Rebecca wasn’t acting. This time, she really did not see the door, a grim reminder of how the disease is progressing.

This should not be funny, but when your last name is Veeck, this is how you deal with tragedy: You laugh at it, make fun of it and use it to your advantage. You draw strength from it and even mock it through song.

“Ret-in-it is,” Mike will croon through the house.

“Pig-men-to-sa,” Rebecca will sing back.

Libby Veeck cringed when she first heard her husband and daughter singing “the R.P. song.” This was sick, even by the standards of her husband’s twisted sense of humor. Then she remembered what the doctor at Emory University in Atlanta had told her and Mike not long after the diagnosis, that the laughter the family always shared would be the only thing that would get them through this.

Not long after the diagnosis, Mike noticed his daughter taking a greater interest in her grandfather, the late maverick baseball owner and promoter Bill Veeck. She knew how he once sent midget Eddie Gaedel to bat for the St. Louis Browns and how he grew ivy on the walls at Wrigley Field and came up with the exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park.

But now she seemed fascinated that Bill Veeck had a wooden leg to replace the one he lost because of World War II. She started asking questions.

Mike Veeck couldn’t believe he had missed the obvious connection. For months, he had struggled with how to handle Rebecca. Always the disciplinarian, he had relaxed. He bought Rebecca a television for her bedroom, a huge concession in a home that does not have one in the family room. He began pulling her out of school so they could see the world while she still could. If she didn’t want to sit up straight or eat with the proper fork, well, who was he to tell someone who was losing her eyesight what to do?

But Rebecca didn’t like the new version of her dad. She complained when he took her out of school. When he resigned as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays vice president of sales and marketing in May to spend more time with her, it touched off another round of unwanted publicity. “Thanks, Dad,” she said angrily one night, “now my whole class knows I’m going blind.”

Rebecca wanted things to be normal. After all, her grandfather had one leg and that didn’t slow him down.

So Mike Veeck, who still speaks aloud to his dead father whenever he grows frustrated with the baseball establishment, began invoking his dad’s name regularly.

“I challenge you to find a sad Bill Veeck story,” he says, seated in his family room decorated in the southwest theme his father loved. “Not a poignant one or a moving one, but a sad one. You won’t find one. And that’s what I’ve used as my model for this.”

So he told his daughter more about Bill Veeck, about how he would gather all the neighborhood kids around him and then drive a nail through his wooden knee and tell them to go home and ask their fathers to do the same. About how each spring he would paint his wooden leg bronze, then spend the rest of the year trying to tan his body to match. About how his kids, especially Mike, would hide his wooden leg.

“My feet only get half as cold as yours,” Bill Veeck would say. “And my socks go twice as far.”

Rebecca Veeck listened to her father talk about his father and smiled. Slowly, Mike Veeck pulled back the reins again. He took the television out of her room and put in a guest bedroom. He still showed her the world, but worked more around the school calendar. And she had to sit up straight and use the proper fork again.

More importantly, they started laughing. They developed the doorway routine. Rebecca started bumping into things and smiling. Her classmates didn’t know if she was kidding or not. Her parents wondered if they were taking things seriously enough.

Mike Veeck can find the lighter side in anything, even the recent sale of one of his father’s peg legs during a memorabilia auction for $8,500, but even he wondered if he and Libby were taking the right approach with Rebecca.

Each night before bed, Mike and Libby talk about how they dealt with things that day. They read somewhere that parents of children with retinitis pigmentosa have an 80 percent divorce rate because they clash on issues such as discipline and over which parent is shouldering more of the load.

So the Veecks break everything down each night. What worked well and what didn’t. Do things like the R.P.song and the doorway routine help or hurt?

“Every night I go to sleep and say, ‘I hope this is right,’” Mike Veeck says. “I don’t know if it is. But it’s what I know how to do best.”

Not everything is funny, of course. Rebecca could lose her eyesight completely at any time. Most “R.P.” sufferers first develop tunnel vision, then gradually lose their sight as the walls close in. Rebecca’s peripheral vision is fine, but she sees splotches straight ahead, causing her to tilt her head to see.

Some R.P. sufferers don’t lose their sight completely for years. Others, such as a girl the Veecks met recently, lost hers six weeks after being diagnosed in July.

The Veecks will never forget the date Oct. 29, 1998, the day Rebecca got the news. Her father had just accepted the job with the Devil Rays and she needed a routine physical for school. When she failed to read the largest line on the eyechart, her parents thought she was joking. A series of tests confirmed the worst. It could be months or it could be years, the doctors told them.

For Mike Veeck, the diagnosis came after one of the sweetest moments of his professional career. At 48, he was coming back to Major League Baseball, nearly 20 years since he staged the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” at Comiskey Park. The game caused a riot, forced the White Sox to forfeit the second game of a doubleheader, and effectively ended his career.

The event also signaled the end of Bill Veeck’s ownership run and he later sold the White Sox to Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn. Mike Veeck, who was the team’s promotions director, found himself unable to get a job in baseball.

Veeck drifted away from the game, settling into an advertising career in South Florida. His first marriage failed. Eventually he was summoned to run the Class A Miami Miracle. He ended up part of an ownership group that included actor Bill Murray and Marvin Goldklang, a limited partner of the New York Yankees. Together they built a minor league baseball empire of five teams, including two in the renegade Northern League.

That league’s most successful team, the Veeck-run St. Paul Saints, tweaked the baseball establishment by drawing sellout crowds just miles from where the Minnesota Twins struggled at the box office. Like his father, Mike Veeck came up with outrageous promotions, such as hiring a nun to give massages in the stands and enlisting mimes to reenact close plays at first base.

Veeck’s minor league teams drew legions of fans disenfranchised with Major League Baseball who longed for a return for the family-oriented ballpark experience. Veeck encouraged out-of-the-box thinking in his front offices and operated under the simple mission statement of “Fun is Good.” No promotion, it seemed, was too over the top.

Among Veeck’s teams were the Charleston (S.C.) River Dogs, a Class A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Vince Naimoli, the managing general partner of the parent club, saw the fun Charleston fans were having and figured Veeck could bring his magic back to the majors.

The Devil Rays, despite playing in a market that had waited 20 years for baseball, drew a relatively modest 2.4 million fans in their inaugural 1998 season. Fans complained about the drab domed stadium and the boring ballpark experience. Naimoli figured Veeck could help.

Veeck threw himself into his new job. The Devil Rays would be wacky, he promised, and he crafted a marketing campaign entitled “Off the Wall” that outlined the dozens of promotions the Rays would have to bring fun and laughter to the ballpark.

It seemed like the marriage from hell, the maverick marketer and the micro-managing Naimoli, but the owner gave Veeck a long leash. Still, Veeck found the Rays couldn’t be “Off the Wall” since they didn’t have much off-the-wall thinking in the high-starch executive suites. He was required to write memos for everything. “I was a terrible corporate guy,” he says now.

After one particularly frustrating day of office politics in May, Veeck came home and began venting to Libby, who was spending long days dealing with Rebecca. Libby didn’t want to hear about it, not with Rebecca’s eyesight getting worse.

Veeck’s resignation soon followed. Both parties say it was an amicable departure and Veeck will be paid as a consultant through the end of the year. Many baseball people figured Veeck might not have lasted long in the Devil Rays’ front office regardless of the circumstances.

Who knows? When your daughter is losing her eyesight, the Devil Rays’ attendance problems suddenly seem very trivial.

To understand where Rebecca Veeck has been in the last 14 months, it’s necessary to look inside a box, which she pulls down from a shelf in a walk-in closet in a hallway outside her room.

The box is the size of a phone book, crafted out of dark wood. Inside there are reminders of the last year, many of which can trigger memory by feel rather than sight. There are rocks from Ireland and Bermuda, coins from Disney World, a rosary and all sorts of religious trinkets people have sent her.

She pulls out a bottle labeled “Holy Water” and dabs a little on her eyes.

“Does that work?” she is asked.

“I don’t know, maybe,” she says. “The last time I saw the doctor, my eyes had not gotten any worse.”

“So it must work?”

“It helps.”

Rebecca and her father have started going to church lately. Mike Veeck was raised Catholic, but has not been a regular churchgoer. Libby Veeck is not particularly religious either, but has begun collecting crosses and religious artwork that match the Southwest theme of her home.

Does it work?

“It helps,” she says.

Rebecca Veeck will make her First Communion next year. For the most part, she lives a normal second-grade life. She sits in the front row of her class and, except for regular visits by a vision specialist who teaches her Braille and monitors her classroom progress, she is a normal student. Instead of using a traditional blackboard, her teacher uses black greasepaint markers on a white board.

The Veecks have taken Rebecca on some cool field trips. They stayed at Bill Murray’s house in upstate New York for a weekend in the fall and saw the leaves turn colors, then toured the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. She did New York City, went through New Jersey and saw Atlantic City and Cape May. She went to Maryland, where her father spent part of his childhood and squeezed in a trip to New Orleans. Two weeks ago, she went to the baseball winter meetings in Anaheim, Calif. In January, she will see the Grand Canyon.

The eyesight could go by then, of course, or it could hold on for several more years. “I’m not scared,” Rebecca says, putting the box away. “If I go blind, I’ll deal with it.”

Her other senses have compensated already. Her hearing is so acute that she tells her dad to turn down the music when they’re in the car. On this day, she looks down into a reporter’s notebook, searching for the source of the faint hum of a tape recorder most anyone else would miss.

She doesn’t mind the publicity anymore. In fact, it helps. Because of one article, she met a girl in Michigan who suffers from R.P. and they have become good friends. Her story no longer is a big deal in school. Several of her classmates, in a show of support, wear sunglasses outside at all times, just as Rebecca does to shield her eyes.

Her biggest frustrations come when she can’t read the board in class. At home, Libby Veeck types in her homework assignments into a computer, then blows up the type so she can see better.

“You catch yourself feeling sorry for yourself,” Mike Veeck says. “But you have to make sure you’re feeling sorry for her. Anything we might think is an inconvenience for us is going to be a real inconvenience for her.”

Veeck monitors his five minor league clubs largely by phone while working to land a sixth team, a Northern League franchise that would play in Washington, D.C., in 2001. A gifted motivational speaker, he talks regularly to business groups about the importance of injecting fun into the corporate environment.

Like his father, Veeck delivers a self-deprecating speech. “I bet you're wondering why you’re here listening to a guy who is basically unemployed,” he recently told a group from Tampa’s British-American Chamber of Commerce.

His speeches offer the type of simple advice that baseball often has failed to heed, words that he’s even applied to his family situation.

Listen to your customer. Make your product fun. Be creative.

“I wish you the WD-40 of life, which is laughter,” he tells the crowd. “We don’t laugh nearly enough and I’m here to tell you that fun is good.”

And it helps.

Copyright 1999 USA Today Baseball Weekly

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