Micah Bowie used to run around the upper deck inside RFK Stadium to stay in shape when he was a Washington Nationals reliever in 2006 and 2007. He remembers running by one of the white seats that marked one of former Senators slugger Frank Howard’s home runs and marveling at how far the ball had to travel.
He doesn’t run anymore. Now, 10 years after he stopped playing, he can barely breathe.
“Everything around my family’s life on a daily basis is about me breathing, just trying to keep my breathing for now,” Bowie said.
He has been using oxygen every day since 2016, and he says the levels he needs per minute now are hospice-level care to help his lungs, severely damaged from back surgery he had that went wrong to relieve pain from baseball injuries he suffered.
“Now that my lungs are destroyed, about 50 percent of my lungs receive air,” Bowie said. I have about a 9 percent perfusion rate, which means about 9 percent of my lungs are working.”
The costs to keep him alive have been prohibitive, and taken its toll on his family. Bowie qualified for government disability payments, but that didn’t come close to helping pay his medical bills. So Bowie went to his union — the Major League Baseball Players Association — for help.
There was none.
“I went through three basic agreements to help the players have a system where they could make money,” Bowie said. “Now to have the players union arbitrarily deciding to deny benefits when they are earned is unfathomable to me. It is really hard to understand the way they think and the way they do that. It’s crazy for a major league baseball player in this situation to be on public care.”
I learned about Bowie’s plight from Doug Gladstone, the writer who has taken up the cause of the group of major league players from 1947 to 1979 frozen out of a change that allowed just one day of service credit for health benefits and 43 days of credit to qualify for a retirement allowance. We had to wait several days to talk, between his doctor’s visits and search for help, and also for him to have enough strength to spend some time on the phone for an interview.
Bowie, 44, pitched parts of six major league seasons, from 1999 to 2008. He was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the eighth round in 1993. He spent time with the Chicago Cubs as a starter, the Oakland Athletics as a reliever and wound up with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2003. Bowie suffered torn elbow ligaments and missed all of the 2004 season. In December of that year, he was signed by the Nationals shortly after the franchise relocated from Montreal. He first appeared in a Nationals game as a reliever in 2006, and made 15 appearances, with a 1.37 ERA before winding up on the disabled list and missing the rest of the season. Bowie came back in 2007 and made 20 appearances out of the bullpen with a 3.71 ERA before he was needed as a starter. He was very effective, going 4-0 with a 3.82 ERA in six starts. But again, his season ended in July when he went on the disabled list with a hip injury.
Bowie made the Colorado Rockies’ opening day bullpen. But after 10 appearances, Bowie was released, and his major league career was over.
He has the memories of major league moments like playing for Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in Washington in 2006. “He is a legend and taught me so much about the game,” Bowie said. “I was fortunate to have him as a manager and loved playing for him. I was injured and missed the last month of the season, and when I came in to talk to him, he said, ‘You ride a horse as hard as you can, then you shoot them. We can’t shoot you.’ We laughed, but he did like to ride the hot hand in the bullpen till you couldn’t go anymore.”
But Bowie had something else to remember his major league career — severe back pain. “The pitching had really taken its toll on my lumbar,” he said. “Once I got done with baseball, and the pain became unbearable and unmanageable, we had a spinal cord stimulator put in in August 2016 to help with the pain and to try to get me ready for some fusions that were necessary because of baseball. Not long after we had some complications from the surgery the battery bounced around, created some damage. I ended up with both lungs being damaged and my diaphragm being ruptured. I’ve had multiple surgeries to try to correct that damage.”
Since then, Bowie has tried to find some help to stay alive. “I don’t know how much longer I am going to live,” he said. “I’ve had multiple times where I made it back, but my family has been dealing with me being in this life and death situation for a long time now.”
Bowie contacted the players union, which controls the Major League Baseball pension plan, to qualify for disability payment. “I don’t have the four full years of time in to automatically get the benefits,” he said. “I am 20 days short. But I applied on the basis that had my back not been injured from baseball I would not have needed surgery, which is a true statement.
“We were denied,” he said. “I filed an appeal, went through the process, sent in some more medical records and playing records and training room reports. It then goes to the Pension Committee Board to decide if you should get benefits for disability. The benefits aren’t a lot, but they would be enough to keep us from going bankrupt. It’s like $5,000 a month.
“We were denied on the appeal,” he said. “I called the union. I talked to a member of the pension committee, one of the guys who had declined my benefits, and he informed me he didn’t even read my case. He just read from the attorney for the pension plan that they could deny it, so without looking at my stuff they just denied me.
“I said how in the world can you deny me and not read my appeal,” Bowie said. “I haven’t gotten anywhere with the union or any pension committee members since that point. It is very disheartening to know this. Because I played Major League Baseball, I am going to bankrupt my family with the injuries it has left me. That’s not right.”
A call to the players union was not returned as of press time.
Bowie, who lives in New Braunfels, Texas, had a successful baseball academy before his health problems debilitated him. He’s had to sell assets and made other dramatic changes to try to keep up with the bills. “We’ve done a lot to try to keep me alive as we navigate through the medical system,” Bowie said. “Unless the situation changes dramatically, it bankrupts my family for me to live. That’s very hard for me to say publicly.”
Texas malpractice laws have a cap on damages that can be awarded, and Bowie said that cap would have been lower than the costs of him pursuing a lawsuit. The union somehow reversing their decision may be his only hope to keep him from losing everything — including his life.
“The quality of my life has suffered because of the damage to my lungs and will never been back to normal,” he said. “But it would to the point where my wife or son doesn’t have to walk into the room every few hours to see if I am breathing, to see if Dad is dead or not.”
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