KENT: Last June 14, Kent State senior catcher Jason Bagoly lost his mother to an almost unfathomable tragedy.
Cheryl McHenry, 50, had not been feeling ill, only excitement about the grand stage her son was about to step onto. A branch manager at Cambridge Home Health Care, she worked alone. When her parents, Pete and Delores Peterson, didn’t hear from her that evening, they drove to her office. The door was locked, and McHenry’s car was still parked outside, so they called an ambulance.
The EMS squad found her dead of a brain aneurysm.
When Bagoly returned to Austintown five days later from Omaha, Neb., he still couldn’t wrap his mind around what had happened.
“The sheer shock of seeing her in a casket was unbelievable,” he said. “Days ago I was texting her about the College World Series and now I’m at her funeral. It was unreal.”
But eight months later, with the 2013 KSU baseball season set to open Friday with a doubleheader at UNC-Wilmington, many who talk about McHenry’s passing and how Bagoly handled it don’t speak in hushed tones. They consider it an uplifting experience.
That includes Kent State coach Scott Stricklin, recently retired Associate Athletic Director Cathy O’Donnell, who accompanied Bagoly on the most difficult drive of his life, and Bagoly’s teammates, who saw him play his greatest college game the night before he flew home to mourn.
“It was an amazing 12 days we spent in Omaha and that was an incident that happened that I’ll never forget, both positive and negative,” Stricklin said last week in his office. “It was a very tough thing, a very emotional thing, but also a very lifting thing to go through.”
O’Donnell worked at Kent State from 1987 until Oct. 31. She assumed academic duties with baseball in 1990, when Stricklin was a freshman on the Golden Flashes team. She speaks proudly of how the Kent State family rallied after Bagoly received a phone call from his stepfather, Michael McHenry, that Thursday night with the devastating news.
Bagoly and the Flashes had returned from the College World Series opening banquet, where Bagoly was honored for having Kent State’s highest grade-point average (3.87). The Flashes boasted the best GPA among the eight participating teams, and O’Donnell said Bagoly, a finance major, was second by a fraction from the highest GPA of any player in Omaha.
Now O’Donnell wonders whether he got to text Cheryl McHenry that.
“Words can never describe what that was like, and I’ve been at it a long time,” O’Donnell said by phone last week. “To see a student-athlete manage that situation like he did, it was inspiring.”
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Cheryl McHenry and Al Bagoly divorced when Jason was 10. Both remarried, leaving Bagoly with a blended family of four sisters and a brother. Bagoly called his passion for baseball a “father-son thing,” but he said McHenry attended many of his games despite her long hours at work. He said she felt pressed to hang on to her the job at the health-care service because she didn’t attend college.
“She was always willing to do whatever she could to make my life better,” Bagoly said Monday during in an interview at the M.A.C. Center. “She had a very stressful job. She went there every single day and worked really hard to give me what I needed growing up. She was a very generous, unselfish person.”
Bagoly, an Austintown Fitch graduate, was drafted in the 40th round by the Colorado Rockies in 2009. He said scouts discovered him when he caught Fitch left-hander Steven Gruver, now in the Minnesota Twins’ farm system.
O’Donnell attended McHenry’s funeral and observed how those in the Austintown area regard Bagoly.
“He’s the guy,” O’Donnell said. “He’s a big kid, very personable, very well-spoken, has always behaved himself very well. He knows people look up to him.
“That was evident in the eulogy, at the calling hours. His family, just being on that team and being a part of that [College World Series] experience, I just shook my head because in my mind I was way beyond baseball. But that’s what people recognized him for. He was a hero in that room.”
Bagoly, 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, is built like a slugger. Stricklin said he looked nearly the same when he arrived at Kent State. But his college career has been plagued by inconsistency. Going into the Flashes’ June 16 opener against Arkansas in the College World Series, he hadn’t batted since May 24, hadn’t had a hit since May 14.
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Bagoly said when his stepfather called to tell him of his mother’s death, he thought something had happened to his grandmother, Delores Peterson, who had recently undergone open heart surgery.
Pitcher Casey Wilson, an Archbishop Hoban graduate who has been Bagoly’s roommate since their freshman year, walked in to find Bagoly on the phone. He quickly sought help from senior pitchers David Starn of Walsh Jesuit and Ryan Mace of Tallmadge.
The shocking news set in motion what Stricklin and O’Donnell consider an amazing response.
Al Bagoly flew to Omaha a day early to be with his son. Stricklin told the team what had happened on the bus ride to practice the next day. Before they left the field that Friday, O’Donnell said Fred Uhe of the Omaha Optimist Club, the team’s host organization, delivered “CM” stickers for the Flashes’ caps, printed gratis.
“When my family saw what we did with the CM stickers, that brought a lot of happiness at a time of sadness,” Bagoly said.
Bagoly said it helped to have O’Donnell by his side. She had gone through nearly the same experience at age 19, when her mother died unexpectedly from a heart attack while she was home on Christmas break from Ohio State.
“To go from the mountaintop like we were on in Oregon and Omaha, then realize what life is all about, baseball certainly takes a backseat,” O’Donnell said. “But yet to see what baseball had to offer him and his team and his coaches and see the support they gave him, it was a very gratifying few days.”
Bagoly decided to remain in Omaha until funeral arrangements were finalized.
“I definitely think that was the right decision,” Bagoly said. “She would have wanted me to be there because she was so excited we made it and happy for me.”
Bagoly didn’t get in during the Flashes’ 8-1 loss to Arkansas. He was on deck when the game ended, leaving Stricklin to agonize afterward. But O’Donnell worried that Bagoly might not have been ready to play against the Razorbacks.
“That could have gone in the other direction, he could have fallen apart,” O’Donnell said. “The emotional part of that, it takes a long time to work through the shock.”
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Faced with elimination, Stricklin started Bagoly at designated hitter in place of Nick Hamilton against top-seeded Florida on Monday.
“It was a really tough decision because he hadn’t played in a while,” Stricklin said of Bagoly. “We’re facing Florida, which had arguably the best pitching staff in the country. If he goes out there and has a poor game on national TV, it could end up being a negative thing.
“Jason said, ‘I stayed because I wanted to play.’ When he gave me that answer I put him in the lineup. He had just an unbelievable game and really lifted our team.”
Bagoly went 2-for-3 as Kent State upset Florida 5-4. Bagoly singled up the middle to ignite a three-run second inning. He just missed a home run in the seventh, doubling to the 375 sign in right-center field. He added a sacrifice bunt in the fifth, prompting needling during summer camps.
“Stricklin will say, ‘He’s the biggest bunter you’ll ever see. Can’t lay down a sac bunt unless it’s Florida at the College World Series,’ ” Bagoly said.
“It was like something you’d see in a movie,” Wilson said of Bagoly’s performance. “He’s definitely an uplifting person.”
Bagoly still isn’t sure how he did it.
“Being there at the College World Series, who we were playing, I just didn’t care. I wanted to be locked in and just play,” he said. “It all happened for a reason.”
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O’Donnell flew back before Bagoly so she could pick him up at the Cleveland airport and drive him to Kent to get his car. Before she dropped him off to attend his mother’s services, she drew from her own experience.
“I said, ‘I know what’s ahead here, Jason. There’s nothing I can say that’s going to make this easy for you. You just have to be mentally prepared for the next few hours,’ ” O’Donnell said. “He was ready for what was ahead. He’d had some days to deal with some of it. But he was walking right into the funeral home and all the reality of a death like that.”
Bagoly returned to Omaha on Thursday morning, his plane scheduled to land in the fifth or sixth inning of Kent State’s game against two-time defending champion South Carolina. But with Gamecocks ace Michael Roth pitching a two-hitter, starting because of a rainout the night before, Kent State’s 4-1 loss lasted just two hours and seven minutes. Bagoly made it just in time to return to Kent.
“It was possible I could get a late-game at-bat,” Bagoly said. “My family is huge sports fans. My stepdad and stepuncle and my grandpa were like ‘What? Are you crazy? You’ve got to get back there.’ ”
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Wilson said Bagoly keeps much to himself, and they don’t talk about his mother a lot these days. She came up at Christmas, when Bagoly’s girlfriend bought him the candies McHenry had given him for years and they shared some stories.
But Wilson and Stricklin believe McHenry’s death might have changed how Bagoly approaches this season.
“Especially it happening when it happened, I think it made him realize how blessed he was to have the gifts he has,” Wilson said. “He was starting to get frustrated by not getting many at-bats the last couple years. It definitely changed the way he felt about baseball.”
Bagoly said his goals are simple.
“No matter what happens to be positive and have at-bats like they’re going to be my last,” he said.
He’s taking that approach because it’s his senior season. Left unspoken was that it could be a perspective gained from a life suddenly ended.
Bagoly will be in the lineup at designated hitter for Game 1 on Friday. Stricklin believes he has the potential to be an All-Mid-American Conference player.
“The way last season ended was very tragic for him and his family, but he thrived under that pressure. I think that may have rejuvenated some things for him baseball-wise,” Stricklin said. “He’s working hard. We need his production.”
O’Donnell said in terms of maturity, Bagoly is among the top 10 young men and women she has ever been around. In retirement she will be rooting for Bagoly, hoping more uplifting experiences await him.
“He has the leadership and the personality to be a tremendous part of another successful season,” she said. “It’s not that he’s not committed to it, it’s whether he feels that confidence to step into like he needs to. Time will tell.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.