HARRISBURG, Pa. — Baseball separated sweethearts Mark and Vickie Harris much of the year, so they had a system: talk, without fail, seven times a day, even if each conversation lasted no more then three minutes.
Mark woke Vickie with a phone call at 4:45 a.m., then she got ready for work at Fair Oaks Hospital. They talked while she commuted to work. He called during lunch time. She checked in as she drove home to Gainesville. Harris, Class AA Harrisburg’s hitting coach, talked to her 30 minutes before and after every Senators game. He couldn’t go to sleep until he heard her reassuring voice.
“I just always wanted to make sure she was okay,” Mark said recently.
But on May 10, Vickie died at 53 after a heart attack she suffered just hours before she was to undergo a double bypass. Weeks later, Mark still finds himself reaching for his cellphone to call his love of 36 years.
Phone in hand, Mark sighs. Baseball has helped him cope with his heartbreaking loss. The Washington Nationals organization, his fellow coaches and his players have rallied around him. Sometimes it isn’t enough.
Mark, 56, smiles as he puts the phone back in his locker.
“I think about the 36 years I had,” he said. “I really do. That’s enough to keep my mind filled with happy stuff. It is. On occasion, though, when you look over in your car and there’s nobody in the other seat, or you hear a song on your phone that you had together, that’s tough.”
Mark and Vickie met at church in Manassas in 1978, and ever since they were inseparable — except for baseball. Mark, then 20, was a first-round pick of the New York Yankees and back from his first spring training; Vickie was 17. They were married in Manassas in 1982. Daughter Rachael was born five years later, son Chris three years after that. Even after three decades of marriage, they were still deeply in love.
“They were like little kids,” said Harrisburg Manager Brian Daubach, who has worked with Mark for the past three years at Class A Hagerstown, Class A Potomac and now Harrisburg. “They were the happiest couple you’d ever want to meet. Probably what all husbands and wives strive for. Their love never changed. It was awesome to see.”
After Mark’s playing career ended in 1980, he ran baseball camps for 15 years and scouted part-time for the Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies, organizations that allowed him to stay in Virginia and not be gone from home more than a day. His father, Gail Harris, played six years in the major leagues for the New York Giants and Detroit Tigers, while his mother carried the family burdens. Mark didn’t want baseball to do the same to his family.
When Chris was in high school and the Kansas City Royals offered him a position as a roving minor league infield coach, Mark asked for Vickie’s blessing to take the job. After four seasons with the Royals, he was hired by the Nationals as a minor league coach in 2011.
All along, Vickie was sick but never complained. In 1990, pregnant with Chris, she developed gestational diabetes. At the time the treatment included heavy doses of steroids, which damaged Vickie’s kidneys. Three years ago, over dinner at a Denny’s while visiting Mark in Hagerstown, Vickie told him she needed a transplant. Mark tested positive as a potential donor, but Vickie’s sister, Donna Lightner, was a better candidate.
The transplant was scheduled for November 2012, but three weeks before surgery two small blockages were discovered in Vickie’s heart. Doctors told Mark the blockages should be monitored but not repaired because they weren’t considered serious.
Soon Vickie felt better, resumed exercising and passed the needed tests for the kidney transplant. The surgery was performed at the University of Virginia Medical Center in February 2013. “The transplant kicked its ass,” Mark said.
Three months later, Vickie was back in the gym four times a week and walked the family dog daily. She returned to work as a pathology manager at Fair Oaks Hospital.
“She loved going to work again,” Mark said. “She was just rolling. I called her seven times a day.”
During one of those calls in April, Vickie was experiencing tightness in her leg and her ankle was swollen. Mark returned home and took her to Charlottesville, where doctors found the old blockages were getting bigger. She needed bypass surgery, but doctors told her she was in no immediate danger.
The procedure was scheduled for May 5. The day before, Mark, Vickie and their children drove to Charlottesville, had dinner at a Waffle House, which she loved, and checked into a hotel.
“We went to sleep,” Mark said. “I always go to sleep with my arm around her and my knees inside her knees. I told her how much I love her, and she said the same thing to me.”
At 2:30 a.m., five hours before she needed to be at the hospital, Vickie threw off the covers and fell to the floor. Mark performed CPR, and the ambulance arrived within five minutes.
Vickie was put into therapeutic hypothermia for 48 hours to slow tissue damage caused by a lack of circulation. Family and friends came and went. Mark stayed by her side, prayed, and even though she wasn’t awake, he talked to Vickie all night.
He told her about the kids and family she loved, her love of landscaping and fixing up the house, the memories of traveling together. H e told her how much he admired her for her quiet strength through years of illness and pain.
“I need to be more like you,” he told her. “I want to be more like you.”
Tests showed that Vickie had no brain activity. After talking with doctors, the family decided she would be taken off life support on the morning of May 10. She passed away around noon, 30 seconds after being taken off support. Mark reached for his cellphone and played a spiritual song he and Vickie loved: “A Beggar on a Beach of Gold” by Mike + the Mechanics. Family listened.
“They never saw her suffer,” Mark said. “She was the same person laying there that they remember.”
Harrisburg players were told of Vickie’s passing by Daubach and Gary Cathcart, another Nationals minor league coach who filled in as hitting coach while Mark was gone. The players sobbed.
“A lot of guys on the team knew Vickie,” outfielder Kevin Keyes said. “We also care about Mark. Mark is like one of our dads. I looked around, and everybody had their heads down and a couple tears. It was a very tough day. It was very tough to have that said to you and go out and play a baseball game.”
Vickie did not want her family to hold a funeral if anything happened to her and instead wanted a big celebration. More than 380 people filled the Harris back yard for her party.
“She was easily the best person I’ve ever met and anyone that knew her would say the same thing,” Mark said. “Her goal, without saying this, was to make people’s lives better.”
Before Mark returned to the Senators, he sorted through the family finances and took care of his children. The first 72 hours in the house, Mark barely slept. Even now, when he returns home on Senators off-days, he struggles.
“I’m in my bed, not lying next to her, and every time I closed my eyes I saw her,” Mark said. “I’d go downstairs and see her. I’d take a shower and see her closet, her stuff hanging up in the closet like we had left it.”
Doug Harris, who oversees the minor leagues for the Nationals, told Mark to take as much time as he needed, but a week after Vickie’s death, Mark told his bosses he wanted to return to Harrisburg.
“Him staying busy and him being around with the kids that he loves has been tremendous for him and me,” Doug Harris said. “I marvel at how he’s handled this. I don’t know how he could be, but he’s probably more invested now. This is probably a place where he doesn’t have to think a lot about Vickie.”
Support has come from everywhere. The Nationals arranged a catered lunch at his home in Gainesville. The coaching staffs of Hagerstown and Harrisburg, and several Nationals coaches, who all had off-days, came to see Mark, along with front-office officials. Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu checks on Mark often. Family and friends send him daily messages of support. He was recently selected to serve as a hitting coach at the MLB Futures Game, a showcase of top prospects held on July 13 in Minneapolis two days before the All-Star Game.
Several weeks ago, Mark found a present in his locker. Mark never coached Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, but they got to know each other when he was working for Kansas City and Desmond was playing for Potomac. The present was a new black and red Mizuno glove signed by Desmond. The note inside is what touched Mark.
“I can’t even begin to know what you’re feeling or how you’re feeling it or how you’re dealing with it,” it read. “All I know is that we are with you and we love you. And one thing: The smell of a new glove always made me smile.”
And Mark smiled. When his father died, he ordered a glove with his father’s initials and Vickie couldn’t understand why a grown man could feel so happy smelling new leather. “It’s the smell, babe, it reminds you of everything that’s good,” he told her.
The Nationals were given permission from minor league baseball to affix stickers with the initials “V.H.” on the batting helmets of all their minor league affiliates. The Senators wear patches with the initials on jersey sleeves and have written “V.H” on their caps. Mark hid a “V.H.” sticker in the 400-foot sign on the center field wall at Harrisburg’s stadium so he could see her name every day when he exercised before games.
This is where Mark has found some form of peace: at the ballpark and with his hitters. Throwing batting practice on a recent morning, he joked with them, played music through speakers and offered hitting tips, just as he did before his world was turned upside down.
“It’s uplifting,” Mark said. “It shrinks the time you have to think about it even though the pain is still there. You feel like you’re back with your purpose. They come up and ask all the time, ‘How are you doing today?’ Even when I have a tough day, I want them to know I’m thinking of the 36 years I had and know that something positive can come out of something bad.”
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