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GAME FACES

A pair of Michigan transplants forget their troubles when their Tigers visit.

Dr. Walter Szydlowski told his patient he needed to get his carotid artery surgery scheduled. Herman Merglewski, 74, was supposed to have it done in July, but he got pneumonia and was in the hospital for several days. "Do me a favor," Herman asked him. "Can I have the surgery soon? I want to go to the Tigers game." Szydlowski is an internist at Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville. He's had people ask to schedule surgeries around vacations - but never for a baseball game. He's been treating Herman since 1991 and seen him through heart attacks, a quadruple bypass, complications with his diabetes, an amputated leg and several strokes. The doctor thought a blockage in Herman's carotid artery was causing the strokes.

Herman and his wife, Sharon, 62, are both from Michigan. Florida has been their home for the past 18 years. But the Detroit Tigers are their tie to their roots. Herman's son, Michael, calls him from Michigan and gives him the play-by-play of most games, since Herman can't get them on TV here. They can't go to games on their own. Herman can't drive because of his amputated leg. Sharon doesn't drive at night.

"She's a nervous wreck behind the wheel," Herman said.

Last year, Sharon found a group of people who were going to take a bus to see the Tigers play the Rays and they got tickets. But then Herman had his first stroke. His short-term memory is foggy now, but his long-term is good. He remembers his first game, when he was 8 years old and the local priest took him and all the other altar boys to Tiger Stadium.

"The priest gets good seats," Herman said.

The doctor asked when the game was he wanted to see:

"Sept. 5," Herman said.

The doctor said he would do it. He wrote a note in the chart saying Herman needed to be healed by Sept. 5. When the surgery was mistakenly scheduled for Sept. 2, Szydlowski called the surgeon's office to get it changed to Aug. 24.

"The Beach Boys are going to be playing," Sharon said of the game. "It's supposed to be a rip-roaring whoop-de-do."

Sharon stayed at the hospital with Herman when he went in for his surgery. In their 20 years of marriage, the only time they've been apart is when he's been in intensive care.

"Where he goes," she said, "I go."

A love story late in life

They met two decades ago at a bar in Michigan. Herman's son played in the band.

Sharon's friends were tired of dancing but she didn't want to stop.

"Look at that poor man sitting all by himself," they told her. "Go ask him."

Sharon had never asked a man to dance in her life. Back then, she was divorced and raising her daughter, working 17 hours a day, six days a week - hair dresser at JCPenney's in the day; odd jobs at night - bartending, waitressing, shifts at Taco Bell. She had finally gotten to the point in her life where she felt good being on her own. She told her girlfriends she'd never get married again. She didn't even want to date.

But something came over Sharon that night. She strode over to Herman's table.

He said yes.

Herman was also divorced, with five children. He was an Army veteran and a firefighter and paramedic. He wasn't like any man Sharon had ever met.

"He treated me nice," she said.

He didn't boast about his job. But Sharon loved hearing about it: How he delivered a baby in the back of a station wagon; how he saved a sparrow that had swallowed a worm-baited hook, how he risked his life treading onto the ice to save stranded dogs who wandered off too far in winter.

They became an item, but she still held back. It all changed one April Fool's day. Sharon and her friends were elaborate jokesters. Sharon planned a prank on Herman: She asked him to come to her house and told him an Australian rancher asked her to marry him and she was going to say yes.

"You can't leave," Herman blurted out, crying. "I love you."

She froze. Then held him and said she was sorry.

"I saw how I hurt him," she said. "That was the turning point."

They were married soon after. But just as she fell madly for Herman, he began slipping away. He fell off a fire truck and bashed his head. He was in a coma for 10 days and, when he recovered, had to take a medical retirement. He still has vertigo.

Three days into their honeymoon he had a heart attack. He had diabetes for decades and that likely affected his heart.

Sharon had never been out of Michigan before she met Herman. But he loved Florida and wanted to move there.

They started out in a big house, but as Herman's health declined Sharon couldn't take care of it by herself. She has a bum knee and needs it replaced, but she can't afford health insurance. She plans to hobble until she's old enough for Medicare.

They moved a few times, each house smaller. They've been in this last one, a mobile home in New Port Richey, for three years. Every morning, they go to their usual diner and get sunny side up eggs. On Fridays, they meet their friends at a Moose Lodge. Herman sings karaoke at nursing homes.

"I do a pretty good rendition of Piano Man," he said.

He got a standing ovation three months ago at the VFW.

"It was just fabulous," Sharon said. "I was crying."

Going to the game

Herman came out of the surgery "with flying colors," Sharon said. But doctors found out that, a month or so earlier, Herman cracked his heel bone. He needed a wheelchair.

"And they lost his teeth," Sharon said. Somehow at the hospital, his dentures went missing.

They searched and searched.

"No teeth," Sharon said.

She took him home and cooked him mushy food.

"It's really, really awful," she said of her meals. But he ate it.

They geared up for the game.

"I don't care what seat I have," Herman said. "I just want to be there."

They were dressed for the game an hour before their friends were set to pick them up. They wore matching Tigers' T-shirts. Herman's orange athletic socks were pulled up high on his calves. Sharon wore orange lipstick and blue and orange eyeshadow.

She had their bag packed - his insulin, needles, binoculars, disposable camera. Sharon didn't know her own emergency cell phone number, so she called a friend to get it.

Sharon was nervous. The mother of one of the friends taking them to the game was ill. The friend wasn't sure he was going to go to the game.

"I'll hire a taxi if I have to," Sharon said. "Hermie is going to this game."

At 4 p.m., their friends came to pick them up. Sharon and Herman were still worried about something happening so they would miss the game until they were at the stadium and in their seats. Once they got there, Herman was like a little kid, Sharon said. They ate hot dogs with mustard and shared a Coke.

Sharon felt lucky. They have six children and 17 grandchildren. They have a roof over their heads and food to eat. They have friends.

"I think that's good," she said later. "I don't want to get too greedy."

Herman is not the man she fell in love with. But she loves him more now than ever. "And I will until the day I die," she said.

He pressed the binoculars close to his eyes. He didn't want to miss anything. Sharon grabbed his hand and held it tight.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

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