Jays coach Omar Malave’s grand daughter fighting for her life
* Mom Omarlyn Jensen daughter of Blue Jays veteran minor league coach Omar Malave is fighting for her baby Elisse, who requires open-heart surgery ….
By Bob Elliott
DUNEDIN, FLA. – Omar Malave is what is known a baseball lifer.
His whole life has been spent on dusty diamonds from Venezuela to Medicine Hat to Knoxville and every other rung on the Blue Jays’ minor-league ladder as a player, coach or manager.
He has the leathery face from days in the sun. His ears have heard life’s problems from A to Z on the Blue Jays’ all-time roster. That’s his baseball life, the profession he chose when he signed at age 18 in 1981 from Cumana, Venezuela, then a decade later, joined the managing ranks with the rookie-class Gulf Coast League Jays.
For 31 of the past 32 years, Malave has worn a Jays uniform, mostly in the minors.
Now, his glove is off. Now it’s life or death. Omar is in the fight of his life. Not his own, but his granddaughter, little Elisse. And Malave, a proud man, needs help.
He refuses to ask, or “bother people.”
Take a few minutes and read this, then hug your kids or grand kids.
After that? It’s up to you.
Omar’s grandson, Eli, son of his daughter Omarlyn and her husband, Joe Jensen, turned three on Nov. 2 last year. Just 22 days later, he died needing of a double lung transplant.
Omar’s granddaughter, Elisse Valentina Jensen, was 17 months old on Saturday. The Jensens took Elisse to the doctor in January to make sure that she did not have the same lung problems her older brother had.
“They told us Elisse’s heart was fine,” says Omarlyn, on the phone from Lithia, Fla., near Tampa. “But I looked at the X-ray and saw that her heart was huge. I’d looked at enough of Eli’s X-rays to tell something was wrong. Eli had two X-rays a day from people telling me what to look for and you almost become a doctor.”
As it turns out, Elisse does have a serious heart problem. Part of her lung has collapsed, causing the arteries to become large. The diagnosis is sinus venosus atrial septal defect and open-heart surgery is required.
“Even though Eli passed away, he saved his sister’s life,” says the mother.
Omarlyn, 26, says she is “pretty good at keeping a straight face” … most of the time.
“I try not to think about Eli. I hope that doesn’t sound cold,” says the mother, who has lost one child and now worries about losing another.
“It was hard enough to see Eli pass, but for them not be able to actually grow up together, play and do things, brother and sister. They never got that opportunity.”
At night, when Elisse and Joe are asleep, Omarlyn is alone with her memories. That’s when she pulls out pictures, thinks about Eli’s happy times, “rather than the things he had endured in hospital.”
“If Elisse wasn’t here, I would think non-stop about Eli,” she says.
A process server for ProVest, Joe Jensen was laid off and did not have insurance to cover Eli’s prescriptions or the trips to the hospitals.
Omarlyn, who had what she terms as a “small job,” applied for and received Medicaid.
“We had state Medicaid and didn’t have enough money to be treated well,” Omarlyn says. “They re-examine you every six months.”
She admits that, on some days, the maze of paperwork made her feel as if people thought she was trying to take advantage of the system.
“Sometimes they would not pay for all of Eli’s medications. We went for an inhaler and were told it wasn’t covered,” Omarlyn says. “It’s not like my father is some random person. My father paid taxes all those years.”
Eli was supposed to go to Texas for a lung operation. The reason they didn’t go was because they didn’t have the funds.
“Medicaid makes it difficult to go out of state for treatment. We’re not going to take that chance again,” Omarlyn says.
Putting Eli in an ambulance and flying him to Texas cost $13,000 and a down payment was needed for the hospital before it would accept him.
Eventually, Eli was gone. It cost $12,000 to bury the little boy and they didn’t have enough money. Omar has two other daughters, Melanie and Denise. Denise’s boyfriend’s family paid for the funeral.
“Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to bury Eli,” Omarlyn says.
Elisse was taken to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg in May.
“I don’t really understand it,” says Omar. “A vein is misplaced, this surgery is different than most open-heart surgeries.”
Both Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava and minor-league director Charlie Wilson called trainer George Poulis to ask for advice. Poulis often gets calls from players looking to suggest a doctor to do hip replacement surgery for a father or mother.
“Being in the medical field, I can call people easier than Omar,” says Poulis. “It’s a serious issue. Omar is a good person. It’s terrible that they’ve had a death in the family and now have another issue.”
Poulis arranged, through Boston Red Sox cardiologist Dr. Jim Ganuzzi, to be examined by specialist Dr. Oscar Benavidez, Jr., on July 23.
Omar has praise for Poulis, LaCava and Wilson, saying: “The Jays have been great. George found us a doctor, Charlie has been a big help for our family and the Jays flew us to Boston, picked up the hotel costs at the Sheraton.”
Most of the family’s savings are gone. Joe is working again as an investigator for Asset Investigations & Recovery, but his insurance does not kick in until Nov. 1.
Doctors, worried about Elisse getting pneumonia, don’t want to wait until Nov. 1 and have scheduled surgery for Sept. 17 at Mass General.
The family has to pay $6,000 when Elisse is admitted. The operation will cost roughly $100,000, most of which the insurance Omarlyn and Joe purchased will cover. Omarlyn dropped herself from coverage for the next two months to lower the monthly fee for September and October to $1,200 per month. So, now she must raise more than $20,000.
And that does not include the added costs of staying in Boston for three weeks after surgery, Tampa-to-Boston flights every three months post-surgery, hotels and $80 cabs to and from the hospital like the first visit.
It’s difficult to fathom in a billion dollar industry how a fragile little girl with a weak heart can be in such trouble.
The baseball players association, the strongest union in sports, looks after members and their children. And the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) does an excellent job helping players from the 1970s down on their luck. But not their grandparents or grandchildren. An appeal has been made.
Every morning here at the Bobby Mattick Facility, Omar Malave is on the job with the Gulf Coast Jays, be it putting outfielders through their paces, riding the buses, or being on the bench when his team plays.
“Every day is a battle,” he says. “We are still grieving about the loss of Eli and have had lot of sleepless nights. I have to be really strong in order to help my daughter.
“Everyone is helping, but it’s day to day. I have never in my life gone though something like losing a grandchild.”
The fund-raising race is on.
“I’ve only been here 12 years. Omar was here long before me,” says Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton. “If you were a homegrown player and made the majors, Omar had something to do with your development. He’s loved by everyone from this summer’s teenagers to today’s millionaires.
“That’s why it was so good that Cito Gaston brought him on staff in 2010. He saw all that work he put in on Field 2 or Field 3 in Dunedin was worth it … like all the players he helped get to the majors.”
And so, to try and meet the costs of the operation in Boston to fix Elisse’s tiny heart …
A website page on Give Forward has been set up. The company retains 7% of the money raised.
A Facebook page has set up to promote the Give Forward site.
The class-A Dunedin Blue Jays will hold a fund-raiser on Aug. 31, raffling off bats and balls.
Elisse’s dad, Joe, put his Tampa Bay Buccaneers autographed helmets on Craig’s List and sold a few items to kind friends.
Omar is selling everything, including all of his memorabilia collected from three decades of baseball.
Omar’s daughter, Denise, is planning a yard and a bake sale Aug. 25 in Tarpon Springs.
Memories up for grabs: Roberto Alomar has given Omar one of his special edition Hall of Fame bats … Signed balls from the World Series-winning 1992-93 Blue Jays … A Bernie Williams autographed ball … A Derek Jeter bat … Autographed balls by Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Paul Molitor and Luis Aparicio … Autographed balls from former Cy Young Award winners Roy Halladay and Pat Hentgen … Autographs from sluggers Carlos Delgado and Vladimir Guerrero … A signed bat from actor Kevin Costner from the first Futures Game in 1999 at Fenway Park. Omar was coaching minor-leaguers that day, Costner was in a celebrity mushball game.
“No one has bid on the Costner item,” Omarlyn said.
George Steinbrenner’s granddaughter recently saw an item Elisse’s plight on Tampa TV and was so moved that she drove over to drop off a 2011 New York Yankees signed ball.
“In the 12 hours after the spot aired on TV, we raised $8,900. Now? Now, it’s completely stopped,” Omarlyn says. “Hopefully, this garage sale will raise enough money.”
This memorabilia collection would fetch more from a sports collector, than bargain-hunters at a yard sale.
Malave is standing between the batting cage and the clubhouse at the Mattick complex as he speaks.
“We already lost one child, my poor daughter is devastated,” he says softly.
“To lose a child, we can’t lose another. My daughter asks me why, why is this happening?”
He pauses, tugs on his blue sleeve, a uniform he’s worn for all those games, and wipes a tear from his left eye.
His listener does the same.
* * *
“I don’t know what I would do if something happened to her,” says Omarlyn. “A lot of these players love my father. They say what a wonderful man he is, what a great baseball man he is. But no one was donating. I don’t think anyone knew. My dad is shy, he doesn’t want to bother people or maybe he’s afraid of a bad response.”
Omar was asked how many of his former players he has called to tell he could use a little help, those who bent his ear after an 0-for-5 or a bad start when he was coaching, managing or churning out major-leaguers.
Omar answers that he told a couple of ex-players from other organizations that maybe — if next time they see an ex-player — could they please mention something.
We have been be mentioning it to ex-Jays ever since we heard.
And if you are a Jays fan, a parent or a grandparent, so should you.