August 14, 2011 in Sports

M’s Seager overcame childhood open-heart surgery to play

Geoff Baker Seattle Times
Associated Press photo

Kyle Seager was tight-lipped about a childhood heart surgery until a chance meeting at a minor league game with a boy who suffered from the same congenital problem.
(Full-size photo)

SEATTLE – Kyle Seager didn’t plan on opening up to a complete stranger about a part of his life he’d kept largely to himself.

The Mariners’ third baseman once wore T-shirts to the beach to hide the scar from the open-heart surgery he’d had as a 5-month-old infant. He rarely volunteered information on it other than at checkups, or when undergoing medical tests.

But last month, while Seager was warming up before a game for Seattle’s Class AA affiliate in Jackson, Tenn., he couldn’t keep quiet any longer. A stadium announcement told fans an 11-year-old boy throwing out the ceremonial first pitch had a congenital heart problem known as Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD).

Seager knows all about VSD – a hole in the wall that separates the right and left ventricles of the heart. He’d been living with it his entire life. It’s why he’d had the surgery. And he knew right away what he had to do next.

“It was crazy because I was out there running my sprints and I could hear this thing on the speaker describing what he’d been through,” Seager said. “He’d had the exact same surgery I did, was going through the exact same stuff.” Thought Seager: “I’ve got to go over there and say something.”

William Witherspoon had just thrown out the first pitch when Seager jogged up to him.

“I got to talk to him for a little bit,” said Seager, promoted to the majors twice since July only weeks after hitting .312 in AA. “We exchanged email addresses. It was crazy, somebody going through the exact same surgery. All the stuff he talks about that he has to do, all the doctors and everything and what they’ve said. It was exactly the same as what I did. I kind of just told him to keep his head up.”

Seager didn’t have anyone do that for him while growing up in North Carolina.

Doctors warned he couldn’t play contact sports like football, so Seager stuck to baseball and soccer. It was only in his teens that Seager was told there was little risk the surgically repaired hole could be damaged by on-field trauma.

By then, Seager was in love with baseball and didn’t want to change sports. Things are different with his new friend.

“William just loves to play any kind of sport,” the boy’s mother, Season Witherspoon, said by phone from Tennessee of her football-and-basketball- playing son, entering seventh grade. “He’s so determined to play professional sports, but I’ll tell you what, I think he’d do anything just to play in high school. He’d never met a professional athlete before and to have one come up to him and tell him he can do these things, it just meant the world to him.”

Meeting Seager was the last thing young William expected when he went to the AA ballpark as part of an annual “Night of Heart” event held in conjunction with the American Heart Association.

He remembers what Seager first said: “I have the same heart problem as you.”

“He told me I could do anything I wanted to with sports and not to let anybody tell me anything different,” William Witherspoon recalled.

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