CHICAGO — Sometimes life throws you a curveball.
White Sox pitcher Gavin Floyd, who since May has been on the comeback trail after a season-ending elbow injury left his future with the Sox —and maybe his career — hanging in the balance, knows a thing or two about that.
So does Ray Thompson, a die-hard Sox fan who, after years of suffering the effects of heart failure, finally and miraculously found himself in a position to make a big-time comeback of his own.
Last month, either God or fate brought Floyd into Thompson’s hospital room just two days after successful heart transplant surgery. The men, strangers until that moment, left that day inspired by each other’s journey toward recovery.
"Just to see him smiling and how humble he was and his sense of humor after all he's gone through, such major surgery, and to be so optimistic, was such a pleasure," Floyd said. "Ray is a huge encouragement to me and my wife."
Thompson — whose sluggish, enlarging heart has been replaced by the vibrant, healthy heart donated after tragedy struck an 18-year-old boy from Illinois — feels better than he has in years.
"And meeting Gavin really recharged me," Thompson said after pointing out that their meeting certainly wasn’t some kind of publicity stunt. "He was just a guy who wanted to see a miracle and make someone's day."
Thompson and I both grew up in South Holland and, four years apart, went to Thornwood High School, where we both played baseball and football.
He wrote me a letter asking that I tell folks how his unlikely meeting with Floyd and his wife — and all their compassion, kind words and generosity — had blessed his family.
"What happed was really inspiring and special for my family. I want it to inspire other people," Thompson said. "I’ve never had a testimony. I've always been the guy who worked a lot and had a lot of fun. Now, after all this, I have a testimony and I want to share it."
Thompson and Floyd both are devout Christians. They each said that God brought them together for a reason. After all, it was a man of God — Parkview Christian Church Pastor Tim Harlow — who introduced them.
Thompson and his wife, Amanda, attend the church campus in suburban Lockport and send their oldest kids — Ray Ray, 8, and Keyra, 5 — to the Parkview Church school in Orland Park.
While adjusting to life on the disabled list, Floyd started attending Parkview while rehabbing his injured elbow.
"This was the first year my wife and I could go to church during the season," Floyd said. "They have a Sunday night service. That's how we got to know Pastor Tim."
On the night the Floyds met Ray, the big-leaguer and his wife, Leanna, were out to dinner with the pastor, who asked them if they wouldn't mind surprising Thompson, a hard-core Sox fan, with a visit before heading back home to the city.
Thompson remembers the awkward way they met like it was yesterday.
"A woman came in and said, 'Here’s Gavin,' " Thompson said. "In my mind, I'm thinking, 'Um, my name is Ray.' "
When the woman stepped to the side, there was 6-foot-5 Gavin Floyd dressed in a yellow paper hospital gown with a mask covering his face.
"He came over and shook my hand, and we talked for like 20 minutes and really hit it off," Thompson said. "We talked baseball. And he was as fascinated by me as I was by him. He had never talked to a heart transplant patient and was amazed that I was so vibrant and giddy. I was amazed that Gavin Floyd was in my hospital room."
From the moment they arrived, just being there made Floyd and his wife happy.
"It was awesome to be in that scenario celebrating a new heart. To wait so long and finally get one, wow," Floyd said. "Everybody was happy in that room. I've never experienced anything like that."
Thompson told Floyd his personal back story; that he grew up playing ball with Mark Mulder, the retired big-league pitcher who is now a talking head on ESPN's Baseball Tonight, and always dreamed of making it to the big leagues. That was until college, when he decided to play football instead.
And he told Floyd about how he married Amanda — the girl he took to his high school prom, lost touch with for years and was lucky enough to fall in love with again — started a family and thought everything was perfect until 2004. That's when Thompson — just 27 years old and newly married with a young son, Ray Ray — found out that his heart had started to fail on him.
Four years later, Thompson, a Northern Trust second vice president, nearly died of a heart attack and suffered a stroke.
Doctors implanted a pacemaker to keep his heart beating on an even rhythm, allowing him to recover enough to go back to work, have his second child, Keyra, and get used to "living sick."
Just last year, when his health got really bad, doctors installed battery-operated pumps to keep Thompson's heart stable enough to get him on the transplant list, his only hope of watching his kids — three of them now since 1-year-old Eva was born — grow up together.
And in August, after months of waiting, Thompson, 36, underwent the heart transplant surgery that changed his life.
Thompson — the good Sox fan that he is — knew plenty about Floyd, a right-hander from Severna Park, Md.
He knew that the Sox hurler was drafted by the Phillies, labored in the minors until 2008, won a spot in the Sox starting rotation, won 17 games that season, won at least 10 games every year since ... and then blew out his arm in May.
Floyd underwent Tommy John surgery — a complicated procedure to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in Floyd’s pitching arm — that could keep him sidelined for two seasons.
And now, Floyd told Thompson he's working to make a comeback with the Sox — or another team if free agency comes to that. The 30-year-old has been throwing, slowly building arm strength, for the last three weeks, but a full recovery is a long way off.
"It's going to be a long process, like Ray's but a lot less severe, of course," Floyd said. "Life always has a lot of challenges. And while surgery in my arm is very insignificant compared to heart transplant surgery, we've both got a long journey, and we're depending on the Lord for healing. My wife and I are praying for him, keeping up to see how he's doing. It was nice to put a smile on his face and get to know him a bit."
Floyd did much more than that, Thompson said.
Leanna has become texting buddies with Amanda.
Floyd sent over a bunch of game-used White Sox memorabilia that Thompson's friends used in an auction at fundraiser — "Raising For Ray" they called it — aimed at paying off some of what has become a mountain of medical bills.
The Floyds also made "an amazing donation" of their own toward paying off the debt, Thompson said.
"Gavin isn't A-Rod. He's not a zillionaire. He didn't visit me for recognition or a photo op," Thompson said. "It's the exact opposite."
In fact, when Thompson asked Floyd if it was OK to share the experience, the recovering pitcher told him, "If you want to tell the story you can. Do what you think is right."
"Well, what happened was really inspiring and special for my family, and I want it to inspire other people," Thompson said. "They were so kind with their words. So generous. They're awesome people."
Neither Floyd nor Thompson have made it out of the woods. Getting back on the mound to face major league hitters is still a long way off for Floyd.
And Thompson still has weekly heart biopsies to make sure his body doesn't reject his new heart.
But for now, for both of them, it's so far so good.
And in different ways Floyd and Thompson see each other as a little extra motivation to keep reaching their own goals — second chances at pitching and living in rhythm with a new heart, respectively.
"It was such great news to hear that the biopsies have come back great," Floyd said. "I hope that we have a friendship in the making. I feel that God really connected the dots, and we were supposed to meet for a reason. He’s an inspiration, no doubt."
And Thompson said he feels the same way.
"You know, I can't wait to have people come over and see the Gavin Floyd jersey, hat and glove framed in my man cave … and ask, 'Why Gavin Floyd? He's no Hall of Famer," " he said.
"And I'll get to tell them, 'Gavin Floyd will always be a Hall of Famer in my heart."
On Saturday, Thompson and his wife got to see their first Sox game in years from Floyd's skybox suite. They were with their kids and some of the special pals who organized "Raising for Ray."
After Floyd and I talked on Friday he sent along a note:
“I’d like to encourage people to donate to Ray's cause," he said.
For more information www.raisingforray.com.