Then, 1981, in Washington: a Wednesday afternoon at 4. Pete gets the call from Georgetown's admissions office. Medical school registration would take place the next morning at 8. He was in.
"I ran down to Eagle Liquor on M Street and bought cheap champagne and a cheap cigar. I did the Rocky dance up those steps back to campus. I thought, this is what it must be like to hit the home -- "
And it hit him. Although he had always known intellectually what Thomson was getting at with his comment -- "I'm not dim," he says with a belly laugh -- now he knew in his gut. "Only in my moment of triumph, after 20 years of fighting for something, only at that moment did I learn that the booby prize is often the best prize of all." And he glanced over at the paper bag.
Throughout med school, residency and his early years in practice, Paganussi found himself returning to Thomson's line and to the autographed ball, which he kept in a shoe box. The story haunted him and nurtured him. He wanted Thomson, long since retired to northern New Jersey, to know. So one day the doctor mustered the courage to call the ballplayer and tell him his story and ask whether Thomson might let him come and say hello. Sure thing, Thomson said.
So one day not long ago, Paganussi got in the car and drove to Watchung, N.J. Thomson welcomed the stranger, and Paganussi told Thomson about those moments in the ER when it all came together, about that tingle in the spine, and the old ballplayer understood. The retired athlete told the doctor that this time, it was he who was inspired.
The doctor appreciated that, but he had really driven to New Jersey for an answer: "Why? Why did you say just one home run?"
And Thomson told him: "Kid, the only thing they're ever going to know about me is that one home run."
When the Washington Nationals open their inaugural season Monday, Paganussi and his 13-year-old son will be watching. Sometime this summer, they will go to RFK Stadium: "I want one game, a Thursday afternoon game, hot as hell and we're just throwing peanut shells on the floor. That's all I want."
And Pete Paganussi, sentimental old kid, will tell his boy for the nine thousandth time his story of Bobby Thomson and the ball.
Just like he told it to me. When he finished, he handed me the paper bag. Inside was a zip-locked baggie, and inside that was a clean white baseball with a faded signature between the seams: "Bobby Thomson N.Y. Giants 1951." I held it and quickly returned it to the bag -- it felt wrong to touch it for more than a moment.
"When Bobby Thomson tells a stupid 10-year-old, 'Just one, kid,' he's telling me it's all about when it's on the line," the doctor says.
Despite the steroids and the zillion-dollar salaries and the arrogance and the excess, life for Paganussi "is still one big sports analogy. It's three and a deuce, buddy, take a swing."
Paganussi loves his work. Emergency medicine, once a backwater of the profession, has gained glamour and respect in recent years. It is a last bastion of generalism, a place for people whose intelligence ranges around restlessly. "So much of it is about the connection, not the stethoscope, finding some way to connect with the patient." The job has all too many low points -- the worst is the dreaded Room 13, where docs must tell people that a loved one didn't make it -- but also moments of howling achievement.
The family of the kid who nearly died will always remember Paganussi for that moment when he made the right call and brought their boy back. In their minds, Dr. Pete Paganussi had just one case.
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