The real tears of a clown
- Jason Vondersmith
- Portland Tribune - Sports
Mike Veeck of the grand old game and 'Disco Demolition' fame finds his daughter's plight sobering
Mike Veeck, a lifetime baseball man with a rŽsumŽ of gags, stunts and wacky promotions, lives with sadness and frustration every day. Rebecca Veeck is going blind.
Rebecca suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that chips away at her central vision and night vision and, eventually, the peripheral vision. Total blindness could come tomorrow; it could come in five years. It crushes Veeck to think someone as beautiful and innocent as his 10-year-old daughter can be the victim of an awful unknown.
'We made a decision as a family to be public about it, because as parents you don't know what else to do,' says Veeck, president of the Goldklang Group, which runs the Portland Beavers baseball club. 'We are in, without being melodramatic, a helpless situation.
'You feel like you're doing something, like you're trying to help your kid. She has the heart of a tiger. We ask her, 'Rebecca, what do you want to do?' She says, 'I want to help other kids, because this shouldn't happen.' '
And something else on the way to despair got in Veeck's way. Rebecca's doctor told him to be himself: Be a parent who puts his wife, son and daughter first and above trying to get back into major league baseball to resurrect the family's name in the grand old game.
'The doctor says, 'Aren't you the moron who does all those silly things at the ballpark? That's what you can do. Make her laugh,' ' Veeck says.
So, Veeck travels the country to help run the eight ball clubs owned by the Goldklang Group, but his heart remains in Charleston, S.C., where he, wife Libby, daughter Rebecca and 15-year-old son William 'Night Train' live.
As son of Bill Veeck, the famous owner of the Cleveland Indians, St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox, who once sent a midget in to pinch-hit, the 50-year-old Veeck always has been associated with baseball. 'We moved 17 times in my first 11 years,' he says, 'with Dad out of work, back in the big leagues, scuffling around, whatever.'
Born in Tucson, Ariz., Mike Veeck lived in Los Angeles in the 1950s when his father investigated whether big-league baseball would work in California. Their base in later years was Chicago, until baseball effectively ostracized the younger Veeck after his ill-fated 'Disco Demolition Night' in 1979 incited a riot.
From there, Mike Veeck went to the minors and eventually teamed with Marvin Goldklang and established teams in places such as St. Paul, Minn.; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Hudson Valley, N.Y. Known for such stunts as 'Lawyer Appreciation Day' and 'Vasectomy Night,' Veeck also has done work for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Florida Marlins.
Recently, the Detroit Tigers and President Dave Dombrowski asked Veeck to join the organization as vice president of sales and marketing. But Veeck chose not to move, for Rebecca's sake, and turned Dombrowski down.
'It's not about me'
Last summer, Portland Family Entertainment hired the Goldklang Group to run the Beavers and Portland Timbers soccer team. Veeck would love to live in Portland, 'my funky kind of town,' but his daughter cannot handle the weather. Rebecca Veeck also would be confused if her parents moved into a new home.
'A couple of years ago, the doctor told us we were at the stage you can't change the furniture,' Veeck says. 'That changed our lives. We had always moved. We would be living in Portland. This is our business, but we had to stay in Charleston.
'It was very important for me to get back to the big leagues. I was a workaholic. Three years ago, I moved to Tampa Bay (Fla.), but I didn't know what was important. Not only can't I move, but I wouldn't. Now I have discovered what the little secret is. It's not about me. For 48 years, it was about me.'
Shortly after being hired at Tampa Bay to spice up promotions, Veeck and his wife learned of Rebecca's disease. 'She went in for a normal eye test and, I thought she was joking, but she said she couldn't see the 'E,' ' Veeck says.
'It blew me away.'
Rebecca wanted to go home to Charleston, to live on the beach and be with her friends. The Veecks bought a home and plan to stay there until Rebecca feels comfortable enough to move on.
In school, she studies Braille and deals with 'splotchy' eyesight, her father says. Wanting to help others, Rebecca has been an outspoken proponent for blindness research. She has appeared on 'The View' television program and also may be the inspiration for a made-for-TV movie entitled 'Looking Into Darkness.'
Laughing instead of crying
Veeck and his family have dealt with the situation well, partly because his father had his own disability. Bill Veeck lost his right leg in a gun recoil accident in World War II.
'He had a wooden leg, his right leg,' he says. 'It was like being raised by Long John Silver. Every single day I talked with my father. He'd say, 'My feet get only half as cold as yours, I'm only afraid of fire and termites.'
'Everything was a gag to make people feel comfortable.'
The elder Veeck died in 1986, before the birth of both grandchildren, before his son had finally quieted his own demons.
'I'm not angry, because I spent so much of my life being angry,' Veeck says. 'The doctors would say it's because I was struggling to find my own identity, the son of Bill Veeck. That puts us too much in romantic terms. I was a long time finding myself. My own fault.'
His daughter, he says, 'never leaves my mind. I'm a big believer in fate. You deal the deck, the cards, and you have your hand. There's no difference between my family and your family. I don't feel put upon.'