Everybody said they were too young.
What do a pair of 20-year-olds know about anything, much less a lifelong commitment like marriage?
And they were going to tie the knot on the field in between games of a doubleheader, just like in the movies? That’s just too over the top, they said.
But former big league pitcher Micah Bowie, then a low-level Minor Leaguer with the Durham Bulls knew what he was getting into. So did his fiancée, Keeley Kolacek, then a journalism student at the University of Texas. The vows they exchanged back in that summer of 1995 were for real. For better or worse.
And years later, they proved it.
Micah almost died twice in the past nine months due to a medical condition that he’s been battling for the past three years. His wife, two kids and the entire baseball family saved his life, he said. Now, he wants the world to know how they did it. He’s living proof, he said, that it’s OK to ask for help.
“There’s a lot of doom and gloom to my story, but there’s also a lot of upside,” Bowie, 44, said. “My wife could have been a widow and my kids could be looking at a grave, but I’m alive and there are a lot of people to thank for it. There’s no way I would be alive without the [Baseball Assistance Team]. They allowed us to keep searching for answers, and now I’m at a point where there are a lot of cool things going on.”
Created in 1986 by a group of former Major Leaguers, B.A.T. was formed to help members of the baseball family in need of assistance. Throughout the years, the organization has awarded more than 3,900 grants and more than $38 million "to restore health, pride and dignity to members of the Baseball Family."
B.A.T. found out about Bowie’s struggles late last year, and the calls to the organization started to roll in after a near-death experience inspired the former pitcher to share his story with the media in Washington. In addition to B.A.T., the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association and his former clubs also reached out to him.
“The mission of what we do is to be a short-term bridge to get someone back to being self-sufficient financially, medically and psychologically,” said Erik Nilsen, B.A.T.'s executive director. “We reached out to Micah to let him know that we were a resource for him. We heard about all of his struggles, and that’s why B.A.T. is here to help people in the baseball family get back to where they need to be. We are happy to see things progress for him and make his life a little bit easier in one of the most troubling times for him.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Bowie, who was drafted out of a Houston-area high school by the Braves in 1993, pitched in parts of six seasons with the Braves, Cubs, A’s, Nationals and Rockies from 1999 to 2008. He expected to spend his retirement with Keeley raising their son Brody, 17, and daughter, Brayden, 21. The family opened up a baseball academy not far from their home outside of San Antonio. He pictured himself playing golf, snowboarding and one day, holding his grandchildren.
Bowie had long suffered through the back pain caused by pitching in the big leagues and opted to have a spinal cord stimulator inserted into his body in August 2016 to help with the discomfort. He considered the device a better option than spinal fusions.
But a month after surgery, the battery in the stimulator migrated through his liver, diaphragm and lungs, damaging everything in its wake. Bowie couldn’t breathe and it took months for the doctors to figure out how to proceed. In the meantime, he split his days between intensive care units all over Texas and in bed at home hooked up to oxygen tanks to keep him alive.
The medical bills soared. The surgeries tripled. The damage and the internal burns caused by the battery left him with holes in his diaphragm. He eventually had parts of both of his lungs removed. All the while, the battery continued to electrocute him, literally burning up his insides.
“There were nights I asked God to take me,” Bowie said. “I could not take the torture. It shocked me for 2 1/2 years.”
Doctors sent Bowie home from three different hospitals with the same prognosis: respiratory failure due to a restrictive process from a failed surgery for back injuries. It was going to kill him.
Doctors from a fourth hospital told him to go home and enjoy the time he had left with his family. Nothing could be done, they said.
“It’s hard when your son looks you in the eye and says, ‘It’s OK to die,’ and says they are willing to let you go because you are suffering so much,” Bowie said. “That puts life in a different perspective. Imagine going through that and then having to lose a home or go through bankruptcy. B.A.T. kept us from going through that.”
The Bowies still exhausted their savings, college funds, funds from their business, 401K and other assets to pay the expensive medical bills. He did not qualify for a pension disability claim with the Major League Baseball Players Association.
But the family didn’t give up, and that’s when B.A.T. stepped in. Since January, B.A.T. has been helping the family pay their mortgage while covering household expenses, utilities, transportation expenses, health insurance, equipment and therapy. With the help of B.A.T., the Bowies had enough money to drive to St. Louis in mid-May for a life-altering visit with Dr. Michael Brunt, a surgeon who works with the Nationals, the St. Louis Cardinals and the NHL’s St. Louis Blues. Brunt had already saved Bowie’s pitching career once when he performed groin surgery on the left-hander when he was with the Nationals in 2007. Now, his task was much more difficult. The doctor was also busy on call for the Blues as they made their playoff run.
The St. Louis hospital immediately admitted Bowie. Less than a month and two surgeries later, the doctor was able to address what was causing Bowie’s lungs to fail and diagnose other issues. Satisfied Bowie was going to be OK, the doctor made it to Boston to celebrate the Blues’ first NHL title after Game 7 against the Bruins.
“He removed the stimulator,” Bowie said. “It was a relief. It was shocking the dog out of me for years.”
While in St. Louis, Bowie missed a fundraiser back home in Texas designed to help pay for his funeral and celebrate his life. If Bowie was going to die, he wanted to at least be able to say goodbye to all of his loved ones in person. One week before his wedding anniversary on June 3, nurses wheeled in a cake and apple juice to help the Bowies celebrate their 24th year together.
“In some ways, she lost a husband and got this new one that isn’t as much fun, but our family stuck together, kept me alive and helped me in every way,” Bowie said. “She’s been the rock for our family, and I was truly blessed to ask that girl to marry me. I knew she was amazing then, and she’s even more amazing than I ever thought.”
There is still extensive damage to Bowie’s lungs and spine, but now there is more than just hope for a recovery. There is a path. It’s a treacherous and unpredictable road, but it’s lined with promise. A lung transplant, which was never really considered in the past because of his damaged diaphragm, could be an option in the distant future.
Last month, Bowie was treated for the internal burns. He is also receiving stem cell treatment. He is now receiving four to six liters of oxygen from his tanks, down from six to eight. He was once receiving hospice level oxygen doses through his tanks.
If all goes according to plan, Bowie will be there when his daughter graduates from college in December and he’ll cheer her on as she pursues her dream of being a doctor. He’s determined to walk her down the aisle at her wedding one day. The former ballplayer also wants to help his son, who has a neurological disorder called Kleine-Levin syndrome, graduate from high school next year.
“My thanks to Major League Baseball, the Commissioner’s Office, B.A.T. and everyone on that side of baseball for going above and beyond,” Bowie said. “They gave me a chance to live, and it’s one of the most generous things I’ve seen any company do. They went above and beyond and I’m alive because of it. They are changing people’s lives and people need to know.”
Jesse Sanchez, who has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.