Jays Rally For Longtime Coach

Omar Malave's granddaughter needs a life-saving heart operation

DUNEDIN, Fla.—Omar Malave is what is known as 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 a leathery face from days in the sun, and he has heard life's problems from A to Z from just about everyone on the Blue Jays' all-time roster. That's his baseball life, the profession he chose when he signed at age 18 in 1981 out of Cumana, Venezuela, then a decade later joined the managing ranks in the Gulf Coast League.

Malave has spent his entire professional life in the Blue Jays organization as a player, coach and manager, mostly in the minors, and has given people a lot of help along the way. Now Malave, a proud man, needs help. He refuses to ask, or "bother people," but he is in the fight of his life. Not for his own, but for that of his granddaughter, little Elisse.

Malave's grandson, Eli, son of his daughter Omarlyn and her husband, Joe Jensen, died last November, in need of a double lung transplant. The Jensens took Elisse, who is 17 months old, 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," said 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, and from people telling me what to look for you almost become a doctor."

As it turns out, Elisse does have a serious heart problem. The diagnosis is a congenital heart disease, Sinus Venosus Atrial Septal Defect, which means there is an abnormal opening in the wall between the left and right upper chambers of her heart. Open-heart surgery is required to repair it.

"Even though Eli passed away, he saved his sister's life," Omarlyn said.

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," she says. "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 and 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 said.

Joe Jensen had been laid off from his job as a process server and did not have insurance to cover Eli's prescriptions or trips to the hospitals. The family received Medicaid but said the expenses and paperwork became overwhelming. Eventually, Eli was gone, and the family didn't have enough money even for funeral expenses. Malave has two other daughters, Melanie and Denise, and Denise's boyfriend's family was able to pay for it.

"Otherwise, we wouldn't have been able to bury Eli," Omarlyn says.

Both Blue Jays assistant general manager Tony LaCava and farm director Charlie Wilson called trainer George Poulis to ask for advice in treatment for Elisse. 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," Poulis said. "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 Red Sox cardiologist Dr. Jim Ganuzzi, for Elisse to be examined by specialist Dr. Oscar Benavidez, Jr., on July 23.

"The Jays have been great," Malave said. "George found us a doctor, Charlie has been a big help for our family and the Jays flew us to Boston and picked up the hotel costs."

Joe is working again as an investigator, but his insurance does not kick in until November, and the family is drained financially. Doctors, worried about Elisse getting pneumonia, don't want to wait 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 will be covered by insurance. Still, the family will have more than $20,000 in out of pocket expenses, and that doesn't include the cost of staying in Boston for three weeks after surgery, Tampa-to-Boston flights for follow-up treatment, hotels and cab rides.

Every morning here at the Bobby Mattick Facility, Malave is on the job with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Jays, be it putting outfielders through their paces, riding the buses or watching over his team.

"Every day is a battle," he said. "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."

It's difficult to fathom in a billion dollar industry how a little girl with a weak heart can be in such trouble. The Players Association looks after its members and their families. And the Baseball Assistance Team does an excellent job helping players from the past who are down on their luck. So Malave's friends are making a public appeal. The fund-raising race is on.

"I've only been here 12 years. Omar was here long before me," Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton said. "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."

To help the family get Elisse healthy, the Blue Jays and many of Malave's friends have mobilized their resources in a movement called Open Your Hearts For Elisse. They've set up a Website with an organization called Give Forward and have already raised more than $21,000. They're promoting the cause on Facebook.

The Dunedin Blue Jays are sponsoring a fund-raiser on Aug. 31 and will raffle off autographed bats and balls. Joe Jensen and Malave are selling their sports memorabilia. Malave's daughter Denise is planning a yard sale. George Steinbrenner's granddaughter recently saw a story about Elisse's plight on Tampa television and was so moved that she drove over to drop off a 2011 New York Yankees signed ball.

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.

"I don't know what I would do if something happened to her," Omarlyn said. "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."

Malave 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. He answers that he told a couple of former players from other organizations that maybe—if next time they see another former Jays player—could they please mention something.

We have been be mentioning it to people ever since we heard. And if you are a fan, a parent or a grandparent, so should you.

Bob Elliott is a longtime sportswriter for the Toronto Sun who was honored with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award by the Hall of Fame this summer.