Phil Womble: Wishing Upon All-Stars

For more on Phil Womble, please view The Original Gaucho Heart, one of "Our Stories."

By Mark Patton - Santa Barbara News-Press

Phil Womble and I first connected at a baseball game. My dad introduced us.

He figured we had a lot in common, not the least of which was our affection for the national pastime. But I can't tell you what our first conversation was about.

I didn't understand a word he said.

I learned later that his garbled speech was the result of something else we shared: Phil, like my younger sister Therese, had suffered oxygen deprivation at birth while getting strangled by the umbilical cord.

Therese's brain damage affected her capacity to learn, leaving her no chance for a normal life.

Phil was sentenced to a lifetime in a wheelchair with severe cerebral palsy, and it's been one of most extraordinary lives I've ever known.

"I've been very fortunate," he told me during a retrospective moment on Tuesday as we stared into a television set. "I've had a very good life."

It's become a July tradition for Phil and a few close friends to gather and watch the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at his Modoc Road apartment. It's Phil's own Independence Day celebration - this season marking the 21st anniversary since he bid adieu to the group home at Hillside House.

Bill Mahoney brought the chicken dinner, and we spent nine innings picking through bones and sports memories. But, as always, our thoughts were more personal than major league. Phil's only real observation of the game occurred in the final inning while announcer Tim McCarver was canonizing former Gaucho Michael Young of the Texas Rangers as one of the greatest team players in baseball.

"Michael Young was a good guy," Phil said, smiling broadly even as he struck out on three pitches. "A really good guy."

We reminisced about the good guys who raised us, reveling in the fact that they both served aboard U.S. Navy destroyers during World War II. Rear admiral John Philip Womble was a commander when he won a silver star in 1944 for his heroism during a running string of naval battles off the Philippine Islands.

Tuesday's conversation stirred Phil's childhood memory of another baseball game played 60 years earlier, which Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants ended famously with his "Shot Heard 'Round The World" against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"I listened to that on the radio with my dad," Phil said warmly.

Womble, who was 15 at the time, will turn 75 in September, many decades past the normal life expectancy of someone with his affliction. I wrote down his explanation for it way back in 1988, when UCSB was honoring him as an honorary alumnus.

"Age is in the head," Phil had said with a laugh. "I'm not ever going to get old."

In the years to follow, he would raise thousands of dollars for charity with his one-man trike-a-thons, write a book called "Never Give Up!" (1994), be inducted into both the Santa Barbara Athletic Hall of Fame (1994) and the UCSB Athletic Hall of Fame (2005), and even have the university's new Hall of Champions named in his honor (2008).

It had nothing to do with athletic talent. It had everything to do with intrinsic spirit.

Phil began to let his passion show in 1967 after watching his first UCSB baseball game - a spirited affair at Laguna Park which featured the ejection of Gauchos pitching coach Rolf Scheel.

"The umpire made a call against one of his pitchers," Womble told me. "Rolf just exploded, and the players literally had to drag him off the field."

Phil soon introduced himself to my father, the News-Press sports editor at the time, and asked how a guy like him could get involved with sports.

"I finally realized, at the age of 30, that if I didn't begin to grow up and do things, I would never get anywhere," he explained a few years later.

Phil was shaking even more than usual when Dad set him up for a meeting with UCSB athletic director Jack Curtice, baseball coach Dave Gorrie, business manager Tom Morgan and sports information director Donn Bernstein.

"I told myself, 'Phil, if you don't open your mouth now, you're never going to get any place,' " he recalled.

When he volunteered his service, they handed him a binder and the title of UCSB sports historian.

Gorrie decided to take it a step further after noticing Womble at all his games, inviting him into the dugout and clubhouse. Players were soon even bringing him to the games.

By 1970, Dad was quoting Gorrie's declaration that, "Womble is part of our family."

Phil discovered what that meant two years later when he got a seat on the team bus to Santa Clara for UCSB's first NCAA Tournament series in two decades. He was still gushing about it on Tuesday, recalling how the Gaucho coach told "story after story" during the ride north.

"Four hours later, we pulled into Santa Clara - and it seemed like only five minutes had gone by," Womble said. "That was one of my greatest times ever."

UCSB lost the opener of the best-of-three series, but bounced back to take the next two games, clinching the series on a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning by backup catcher Dave Powers - his first extra-base hit of the season.

Phil also couldn't shake the memory of Fred Lynn's game-tying homer in the final inning of USC's 9-5 win at UCSB in the next round of the playoffs.

"They killed us in the ninth," he recalled. "And that was my favorite UCSB team of all."

USC went from Santa Barbara to Omaha to win the third of five consecutive College World Series crowns. Womble, meanwhile, went from being a fan to the presidency of the Diamond Club, starting the Gauchos' first baseball booster club in 1973.

Gorrie remains Womble's all-time Gaucho favorite, although he'd often call his successors, including Al Ferrer and Bob Brontsema, to console them after losses.

He gave a thumbs up on Tuesday to new coach Andrew Checketts, having met him after the introductory press conference a few weeks ago.

"He's awesome ... He's positive, very positive," said Phil, repeating himself to emphasize the importance of that trait.

It is, after all, his secret to a long life.

And then he said something else.

"Before I die, I want to go to Omaha."

I was unsure of what I heard. I was about to let it go when I remembered the passage in Womble's book where he wrote, "I would rather repeat myself a hundred times than have someone condescendingly pretend to understand me."

And so I turned from the TV, looked him in the eye and asked, "What was that?"

He answered with zeal, saying each word with emphasis:

"I ... want ... to go ... to Omaha ... before ... I die."

I could understand it all, except one thing. A world without Phil Womble.

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: mpatton@newspress.com