Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Despite stroke, Tafoya still harbors dream of one more pitching appearance | Local News

Rodney Tafoya spoke those words as he used his left hand to pick up a rubber ball from a table and deposit it into a nearby basket, focused as much on the words as the act.

Tafoya was deliberate and measured, much as he was on the pitcher’s mound for the past 40 years.

He was accustomed to talking to himself while on the baseball field, sizing up his opponents as they approached home plate. Tossing a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches was Tafoya’s lifeblood, as the self-proclaimed “Ageless Arm” traveled the US, Mexico and the Caribbean while living out his baseball dreams.

But moving various-sized rubber balls at Christ St. Vincent Sports Medicine and Therapy Services on Tuesday afternoon was hardly where Tafoya thought he would be for the Christmas holiday. A hemorrhagic stroke to the right side of his brain in February turned the left side of his body into “a wet noodle,” an episode that put a halt to the 58-year-old left-hander’s seemingly endless baseball career.

Tafoya has pitched at the high school, collegiate, professional and semi-professional level for more than 40 years and produced 459 wins. But the stroke couldn’t kill his determination, rehabilitation — or dreams.

He still wants to get back on the mound.

Every ball and wooden block he picks up and deposits into a basket during his occupational therapy gets him one step closer. So does every five- or 10-foot toss of a weighted medicine ball to a plyometric rebounder (basically a trampoline turned on its side), plus every move he takes with his hemi-walker (a four-legged device Tafoya uses for balance) during physical therapy.

“They might say, ‘You know, he might never walk again and never pitch again,’ ” Tafoya said with a tremble in his voice. “Don’t ever bet against me. Don’t. We’ll prove you wrong. I’ve proved many wrong by just doing this. It’s not about 459 or 500 [wins]. It isn’t anymore. I almost died, almost got my life taken away.”

From ‘Ageless Arm’ to stroke patient

Tafoya’s left arm has taken him farther than he ever imagined, but he credits his older brother, Jack Tafoya, for making him throw from that side as a child. There was a method to the madness.

“There aren’t a lot of lefties in Santa Fe, so I thought it would give him an advantage,” said Jack, who is 72.

Rodney proved him correct, becoming an all-District 2-3A performer as a senior on the St. Michael’s High School baseball team in 1982 and parlaying that success into an athletic scholarship at New Mexico Highlands University.

Thus began the remarkable path of pitching competitively for four decades. Tafoya’s career took him to Mexican League, independent professional league teams in Boise, Idaho, and Erie, Pa.; the amateur Men’s Senior and Adult Baseball Leagues; and several tours in the Pecos League, most notably as the Santa Fe Fuego’s first opening-day starter when the club began play in 2012.

The last time Rodney Tafoya saw the mound was at a Men’s Senior Baseball League tournament in January, recording his 459th win in the process. He planned on competing in another tournament in late February when the stroke happened.

Tafoya, who is single, was returning home after purchasing dinner when he felt numbness in his left arm and leg. It was a sensation he never experienced before, and his first call was to his older brother, informing him of his symptoms.

Although he suffered from high blood pressure, Tafoya did not take prescribed medication for the condition. That decision caught up with him.

“He’s like, ‘Oh, gosh? What do you think?’ ” Rodney said of his brother’s reaction. “Well, I know when dad had a stroke, his face drooped. So, Jack said, ‘Look at your face.’ There was no paralysis, nothing. That’s good.”

Rodney’s next call was to 911 for an ambulance. He was transported to Christ St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a stroke, then to University of New Mexico Hospital for more treatment. All the while, Rodney was asking everyone who would listen how soon he could leave — he had a game to pitch in a couple of days.

“We were telling him, ‘I don’t think you’re going to be pitching,’ ” Jack said.

Rodney was placed in an induced coma for more than three weeks to help relieve the pressure on his brain. When he regained consciousness, he learned the severity of his condition.

“My arm is just like …” he recalled as he raised his right arm and plopped it by his side, “a wet noodle. I guess Jack talked to a doctor, and he says, ‘You’ll never play, you’ll never pitch again.’ Jack was like, ‘OK, whatever you say.’ ”

Jack said he knew enough not to argue because the medical professional didn’t know his brother like he did. If there was a word the Tafoyas bristled at, it was “never.”

“When [the doctor] said that, I was gonna tell him off,” Jack said. “But I kept my mouth shut. I know they’ve seen people who never recover. But he’s a different kind of animal.”

The road to recovery

In the first few days after waking up, Tafoya realized he could speak relatively well and still had his memory. He recited the names of African countries. When he learned his attending nurse was a Pojoaque Valley graduate, he pointed out he beat the Elks from the mound in his senior year.

Jack told the nurse to ask Rodney who won the Class 3A baseball title that year, and he replied glumly, “Pojoaque.”

Still, Rodney’s body was weak, and he lost 45 pounds by the time he was released from the hospital in May. Jack moved into his brother’s home and became his “left-hand” man — a caretaker for his wheelchair-bound brother. Jack and Rodney each had a monitor so they could talk in the middle of the night.

One time, Rodney said Jack walked into his room after hearing him weep. Rodney told him not to worry; he was talking to God. Rodney said he was wrestling with the grief stemming from the stroke, especially because he felt he was interfering with his brother’s normal life.

When Jack finally returned to his home in late November, Rodney said it was a huge moment because it signaled a level of independence he hadn’t had since February. The move coincided with the arrival of Rodney’s hemi-walker, which allows him to move about his home.

“He got 10 months taken away to take care of his brother,” Rodney said. “He is like the most remarkable human being I’ve ever known. He’s been way more than a brother to me.”

Jack still drives Rodney to his therapy sessions, as his occupational and physical therapists put him through a variety of activities.

Occupational therapist Brenda Garcia said it was apparent early in their sessions Rodney’s positive perspective and tenacity would help him greatly in his recovery. She said the brothers even purchased small wooden blocks to help accelerate that part of the occupational process.

Jack admitted they sometimes turn those at-home sessions into games, focusing on picking up blocks of one specific color or timing how quickly Rodney can move blocks from one compartment to another. Garcia said she has seen significant progress in Tafoya’s left side, especially in the range of motion in his arm and the dexterity in his fingers.

“I think giving him new tasks and giving him ideas on what to practice on when he’s at home is really helpful,” Garcia said. “And I tell him how it ties into his daily activities.”

Physical therapist Caryl Acuña said Rodney’s athletic background helped her shape some activity plans in the couple of months the two have worked together. It’s even gotten to the point where she incorporated Tafoya’s greatest love — throwing — into their sessions.

In November, Tafoya started throwing left-handed from his wheelchair to the rebounder. On Tuesday, he graduated to throwing from a standing position, stationed about 5 feet away from the target.

Acuña noted Tafoya is learning how to trust the left side of his body again, but it is a process. She gently reminded him how he was leaning on his right leg as he threw.

Two days later, Tafoya showed more balance and Acuña spread his legs apart to simulate his throwing motion.

He acknowledged the second throwing session was exhausting, but it was a good feeling — kind of like hitting the 100-pitch count in a start. But Acuña cautioned afterwards that she can only do so much, and there is no guarantee that he will return to his old self.

“Whenever I work with anybody, I tell them, ‘We can get you to 85 percent of what you were, but we can’t guarantee we can get to 100 percent,’ ” Acuña said. “But we can get to 85 percent, and you can carry the baton and go from there.”

That’s all Rodney Tafoya wants.

To the future

Even in the first couple of months after his stroke, Tafoya envisioned the moment in which he would throw from the mound again. He said he didn’t want it to be a ceremonial gesture, but one that comes in a game. He has received hundreds of phone calls and messages, wishing him the best in his recovery and encouraging him to dream as big as he wants.

Steve Wolf, who runs the Boston Wolfpack national team in the Men’s Senior Baseball League, told Tafoya he has a bigger story than just being able to pitch again.

“He says, ‘Rod, you’re gonna inspire a lot of people with your story,’ ” Rodney recalled, in between sobs. “ ‘This is gonna be your biggest victory in life, and it might not even have anything to do with baseball.’ ”

Meanwhile, the Tafoya brothers have not given up on the pitching dream. As Rodney sat in his wheelchair sipping on a cup of water, Jack conceded one more appearance will likely give way to a second.

“How about 10?” Rodney interjected with a smile on his face.

For a man who has thrown tens of thousands of pitches in his lifetime, one more pitch just isn’t enough.

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