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Man's disease gives in to baseball dream

Charlie Gray, left, talks with Cubs manager Lou Piniella before Thursday’s Rays game at Tropicana Field. At left is Gray’s nephew, Michael. Gray’s girlfriend, Christine Brogle, right, organized the surprise.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times\uFEFF

Charlie Gray, left, talks with Cubs manager Lou Piniella before Thursday’s Rays game at Tropicana Field. At left is Gray’s nephew, Michael. Gray’s girlfriend, Christine Brogle, right, organized the surprise.

ST. PETERSBURG

Christine Brogle methodically chews a piece of Big Red gum to keep the tears away as she waits for the Rays to take on the Chicago Cubs.

The 44-year-old adjusts the Cubs jersey on her boyfriend of three years, Charlie Gray.

She folds the Cubs blanket draped over his willowy legs and tucks in the Cubs pillow supporting his back.

The two Seminole residents haven't been to a baseball game since amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, put Gray in a wheelchair.

Getting ready, getting comfortable and navigating the bustle of Tropicana Field just became too difficult.

Gray, 47, has been left with the body of a man twice his age. But Thursday he was taken back to his childhood, if only for a few moments, to fulfill two dreams — his and Brogle's.

• • •

Gray grew up a Cubs fan, just 50 miles outside Chicago in Michigan City, Ind. He would often skip school to catch games at Wrigley Field.

And he remained loyal as he ran a car dealership in Grand Rapids, Mich., and retired to Treasure Island.

He met Brogle on the beach June 2, 2005, and they soon began dating. A year later, Gray was diagnosed with ALS.

The disease attacks neurons in the brain and spinal cord, progressively leaving the patient paralyzed and unable to speak.

He was given three years to live.

"If he gets better, we're getting married," Brogle said.

But she wanted to surprise him with something to raise his spirts as victory seems to be slipping away.

After a month of e-mails and letters to the Cubs, the Rays and the Florida ALS Association, Brogle was able to secure some time with Cubs manager Lou Piniella.

• • •

Gray, still in the dark on the surprise, was not happy when Brogle rushed in early from work. She told him to hurry up and get ready, because they were going to a game.

Speech is a struggle, and he can no longer move his arms or legs. But his eyes now betray the excitement of meeting his boyhood heroes.

Second baseman Mark DeRosa is the first player to see him, posing for a picture and signing his jersey and pennant.

Next, right fielder Kosuke Fukudome walks by. Brogle flagged him down, tilting Gray forward to reveal Fukudome's name stretched across the back of his jersey.

• • •

ALS affects about 1,200 people in Florida, typically striking between the ages of 40 and 60, said Kamden Kuhn, public relations coordinator of the Florida ALS Association.

The association raises money for research, provides temporary care to give primary caregivers a break, and furnishes patients with motorized wheelchairs and speech devices.

Although some drugs have been found to alleviate its symptoms somewhat, ALS remains incurable.

The disease has progressed quickly for Gray. Just this past April, he was able to walk. But a sudden bout of illness landed him in the hospital. He emerged 20 pounds lighter and in need of a wheelchair.

His atrophied arms and legs seem out of place beneath active eyes and hair still streaked with brown.

• • •

Finally, Piniella emerges from the clubhouse and briskly strides up to Gray, immediately noticing Gray's bare head. Surely this Cubs fan needed a cap.

Piniella returned with a box filled with all sizes, and tried them out until he found the one that fit.

Brogle told the manager that Gray had something to say.

Piniella, a Tampa native sarcastically called "Sweet Lou" for his infamous temper, leaned in close to catch his words: "Thank you for supporting ALS."

• • •

Each year, Piniella sponsors a golf tournament in St. Petersburg to raise money for ALS research and he has appeared in numerous public service announcements to raise awareness. He also donates memorabilia to be auctioned.

"He has really helped boost our revenue," Kuhn said. Still, she said she could not recall a patient ever getting to meet him like this.

• • •

It was game time, but Gray wanted to talk baseball with the legend. "We can't wait to have Soriano back," Gray said of the injured star.

"You want to meet Alfonso?" Piniella replied.

As the final notes of The Star-Spangled Banner floated in from the field, Piniella rushed into the locker room. Soriano was getting his hand worked on by team doctors, but he dropped it to meet Gray. A smile slowly crossed Gray's face as they got a group picture.

Fighting back tears, Brogle leaned in to kiss him. For a moment, Gray seemed to have forgotten about the constant pain and discomfort.

"I got my wish," she said.

Andrew Dunn can be reached at (727) 893-8150 or adunn@sptimes.com.

Man's disease gives in to baseball dream 06/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:10am]
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