We were both in our 20s that June day in 1979 I visited Frank Wren in a St. Petersburg hospital room.
Now, he’s 55 and the Atlanta Braves general manager. I’m even older. No need to get into how much older. We had both grown up in St. Pete playing baseball and had played at Northeast High. He was real good. I wasn’t.
In 1979, Frank was an outfielder with the West Palm Beach Expos of the Class A Florida State League, a speedy player who had had been leading the league in hitting. The St. Petersburg native seemed headed to the big leagues through the Montreal Expos system but that hospital stay derailed his playing career.
He was battling spinal meningitis. I was a sports writer for the St. Petersburg Evening Independent. There are no more Expos or Evening Independent. The Expos became the Washington Nationals. The Evening Independent folded.
On that June day in 1979 there was no Internet. No cell phones. ESPN still was several weeks away from its debut.
So much has changed. Wren never reached the majors as a player but it’s good to see his team in first place. When I see Frank on TV or read about him I flash back to 1979.
This is part of what I wrote for the Independent that was published June 21, 1979:
“Before you can see Frank Wren, one of the best baseball players in the Florida State League, a nurse will tie a hospital gown around your back, strap a surgical mask over your face, pull rubber gloves over your hands and over the cuffs of the long-sleeved gown.
“Frank Wren, the FSL leader in hits and doubles with a Top 10 average, has spinal meningitis. He’s in isolation at St. Anthony’s Hospital.
“’What the Lord wants to happen to me will happen,’ said Wren, a deeply religious young man, who organized his team’s chapel program.
“’He’s been one of our best players in every way,” West Palm Beach Expos Manager Larry Bearnath said. “He’s done just about everything we could ask.”
The Sunday before this story appeared in the Thursday paper Wren had been checked into the hospital.
This is where we pick up my 1979 story:
“A spinal tap was ordered. The diagnosis was spinal meningitis, an inflammation of the meninges, the thin membrane covering the brain and spinal cord. According to a medical dictionary, the disease can cause permanent damage to vision, hearing, or the brain if not diagnosed and treated early.
“The disease seems to have been caught early enough in Frank Wren’s case.”
My story also included this paragraph: “Eyelids heavy from the medication which plagues him with hiccups, Wren has forgotten about baseball. He isn’t supposed to get out of bed, let alone think about going from first to third on a single. … As a visitor talked through a mask, Wren pushed himself out of bed, an intravenous tube trailing from his arm, walked around the bed and took a drink of water to chase the annoying hiccups.”
I ended the story with this quote from Frank: “I’m just concerned about getting out of the hospital.”
He, of course, got out of the hospital, but his playing career ended a year later, when he reached Double-A and played briefly with the Memphis Chicks.
Now, 34 years later, he’s still in baseball and I’m still writing.