(Photo courtesy of Andy Hayt/San Diego Padres)

When I started my minor league career in Single-A ball, I met the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my life.


My dad was participating in a bowling league in Orange County, and on one particular day he was unable to go, so he had me fill in for him. I'll never forget the day, because it was Valentine's Day.


I noticed this girl down one of the lanes, and found the courage to approach her.


“How's your Valentine's Day going?” I asked.


“Oh,” she remarked, “I didn't know it was.”


Right then and there, the light bulb went off in my mind. I realized she was probably single, and asked if she would like to go out on a date sometime.


“I'll give you my number and see if you call,” she told me.


“How long does it take you to get home?”


“I don't know, 15 minutes?”


“I'll give you a call in 20.”


And with that, my life changed forever. Nicole claims I stalked her, because when she walked in the door, the phone was ringing. Back then we didn't have cell phones, so I kept my word and called her in 20 minutes.


Life was better now that I had someone to share it with, but at the same time, things weren't necessarily getting easier. It may have something to do with a prayer I used to say when I was younger.


Even though I had stopped going to church with my mom when I was a pre-teen, that didn't stop me from praying to God. I would still talk to Him, and many times I would pray that I could take on the suffering of other people. I knew that He made me a big, strong individual, and I asked if He could let me take on the pain for others.


God decided to answer that prayer pretty emphatically.


My wife and I ended up falling in love and having our first child when I was almost 23, but God threw me a far bigger curveball than I've ever thrown on the mound.


Our daughter was born with Down Syndrome.


I had already been a parent by that point, as Nicole was taking care of a one-year-old when we met, but finding out your first baby together has Down Syndrome was really difficult news to take. I initially blamed myself, even though it wasn't anyone's fault.


You have to realize that when you have a child, you think they're going to grow up and go to college, and get married, and live out all these amazing dreams. When she was born, all those dreams of your child are gone.


But later on I realized in many ways that people with Down Syndrome are just like everybody else. They want to be loved and respected, and they can still have a normal life. You just have to change your perception of what is normal.


Of course, playing for eight years in minor league baseball has a way of doing that to you anyways.


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Thomas Hager2 Comments