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Ballplayer’s comeback nothing short of a miracle

Rochester Red Wings General Manager Dan Mason was making the rounds, kibbitzing with fans when he heard a collective gasp. He jerked his head around, worrying that perhaps a foul ball had hit a spectator, and noticed an on-field commotion involving Wings manager Matthew LeCroy and a Lehigh Valley player near the third base coaching box.

“At first glance, I thought there had been some sort or altercation, and after I saw Lehigh’s manager (Gary Jones) sprinting out of the dugout, I began running down the aisle toward the gate that led to the field,” Mason said, recounting the harrowing events that unfolded at Frontier Field on July 31, 2021. “When I got over to Matt, I saw our trainer there and I quickly realized we were dealing with something far more serious than an altercation.”

Iron Pigs’ third baseman Daniel Brito was wobbly and incoherent and had to be helped to the ground by LeCroy and Jones. Mason immediately contacted the paramedics in the ambulance parked outside the ballpark. For nearly 20 minutes they worked on Brito before placing him on a stretcher and transporting him to Strong Memorial Hospital.

“I remember standing there with Matt and our trainer, feeling totally helpless – it was a horrible feeling,’’ Mason said. “When they took Daniel away in that ambulance, we had no idea if he was going to make it. It was the scariest night I’ve ever experienced at a ballpark.”

Fast-forward to Thursday, in what may be one of the most inspirational nights Mason ever experiences in his 33 seasons with the Wings. Nearly 14 months after almost dying at Frontier, Brito is scheduled to return to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

You want a comeback story? Well, it’s hard to top this one. After suffering a seizure and brain bleed that necessitated several surgeries and a medically induced coma, after months of arduous therapy in which Brito had to re-learn how to walk and regain use of his paralyzed left hand, the 24-year-old is back to lifting weights, taking batting practice and fielding grounders.

“To see where he was and where he is now is nothing short of a miracle,’’ said Naomi Silver, the Wings President and CEO. “That he didn’t give up, considering how much this initially affected him, is truly remarkable.”

The Venezuelan ballplayer’s story could become even more miraculous if he continues overcoming obstacles. Dr. Thomas Mattingly, the Strong neurosurgeon who performed the first of several operations on Brito, isn’t ruling out a return to professional baseball.

“I said to the (Philadelphia) Phillies folks, early on, that you’ve got to give this guy a chance; you’ve got to give him time,’’ said Mattingly, who met with the team’s medical staff after Brito’s release from Strong last September. “And, so, they have done that. And I still think there’s a real chance he may yet be able to achieve his dream of reaching the major leagues. He’s young enough. He’s healthy enough. He has everything going for him. And he’s got the right mindset. He’s got the heart and mind of an athlete.”

Brito has no memory of his last visit to Frontier Field. No memory of the single he ripped in the top of the first inning – giving him eight hits in 21 at-bats since being promoted to Triple-A by the Phillies just days before. No memory of collapsing before the bottom of the first began. No memory of being whisked away in an ambulance.

Upon arriving at Strong, he underwent a CT angiogram, which revealed a tangle of blood vessels in his brain that weren’t supposed to be there – a condition he was born with known as arteriovenous malformation or AVM. When it ruptured that night, it caused the seizure on the field, as well as a brain bleed and swelling – a potentially lethal combination. Mattingly and his staff went to work immediately to reduce the swelling, performing an emergency craniotomy to remove some of his skull and eventually the clot. Once Brito was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit, Debra Roberts, the Neuro ICU medical director at Strong, took over, and she and her University of Rochester Medical Center team guided Brito through a multi-stage two-month journey that would lead to his discharge.

There are many heroes in this story, starting with the paramedics and doctors, nurses and therapists at Strong.

“You obviously hope nobody ever has to go through what Daniel did, but when you look back, you realize that if something like this had to happen, it’s good that it happened where it did because we had the paramedics on hand and we were only three miles away from one of the top medical centers in the country,’’ Mason said. “If this had happened in another place or at another time, the outcome might have been tragic.”

The Phillies, Lehigh’s parent club, also deserve credit for all their support. While Brito lay in Strong in a coma, they automatically renewed his contract so his medical coverage would continue. They also flew in Brito’s mother from Venezuela and paid for her food and lodgings, as well as for the food and lodgings for his fianceé, Anyelis Petit, who drove in from Columbus, Ohio.

The Wings stepped up, too. Silver immediately contacted the Phillies and served as a conduit between the team and Strong’s medical staff. She checked in often with Brito’s fianceé and mother, occasionally running errands and bringing them groceries.

“Not only did you have a young man who was from out of town, but one who was from out of the country, so you had some language barriers and other things you needed to deal with,’’ she said. “We just wanted to alleviate their stress as much as possible.”

Brito’s story touched people throughout baseball. Phillies players donned “BRITO STRONG” batting practice T-shirts. During one Lehigh Valley game, players wore jerseys with Brito’s name on the back. Every member of the Wings signed a Rochester jersey with Brito’s name on it, framed it, and delivered it to Strong. It was placed in a strategic spot so Brito could see it each time he powered through physical therapy.

His long path to recovery has been aided by the lessons of repetition and persistence he learned playing baseball. His youth and athletic background are huge pluses.

“He has all the parts and pieces to rehabilitate very well,’’ Mattingly said. “He has the heart and the soul of somebody used to working hard at the same thing over and over and over again until you get it right. And, then, progressing to the next thing.”

Mattingly can’t wait to see Brito again, and tell him how proud he is of all his hard work during rehab. Stories like these are why Mattingly and his colleagues got into the medical profession in the first place.

The doctor is occasionally asked if he is related to baseball legend Don Mattingly, aka “Donnie Baseball.”  As far as he knows, he’s not. But he is related to a legendary astronaut, Ken Mattingly, who also happens to be his dad. The senior Mattingly made 64 lunar orbits in his NASA career and was scheduled to command the Apollo 13 moon mission but was removed three days before blastoff because of exposure to German measles.

He would, however, play a significant role in helping guide Apollo 13 safely back to Earth following an explosion in the spacecraft. That “Houston we have a problem” rescue mission would be immortalized in the Tom Hanks’ film, “Apollo 13,” in which actor Gary Sinise played Ken Mattingly.

Thomas Mattingly had no intention of following his father into space; instead, medicine became his calling. And few rescue missions have been more gratifying to the good doctor than the one that helped save Brito’s life.

“When you take a step back and look at everything that’s happened to him and how far he has come, that’s truly inspiring,’’ Mattingly said. “This guy got tossed off the mountain, and he’s climbed right back up to the top. The challenges  he’s overcome are so much more than the average person could comprehend  . . .  You may yet get a ballplayer when you’re done. And, if not, he’s still got his whole life ahead of him, and there are any number of things he’ll be able to do with it.”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.