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April 13, 2017

During his final days, a Philly sports legend touches local doctor

I never knew Dallas Green before he got sick. I only met him during the last two weeks of his life, just before he passed away on March 22. That’s not uncommon for me. I work in a hospital in the intensive care unit. Sometimes I’m lucky if I get to hear my patients speak before they pass away.

But during the time I knew him, l learned that he was not only a Philadelphia sports icon, but also a grandfather affected by an unthinkable tragedy.

Michael J. Stephen, M.D.

Walking into his hospital room that first time on a Monday morning, I could tell immediately that Dallas Green was a force to be reckoned with. With his impossibly long and powerful body, and his shock of white hair, Dallas was an imposing figure that commanded immediate respect.

But it was his voice — his deep, booming voice — that would stop you in your tracks. The first time I met him I called him Mr. Green. “Dallas,” he bellowed back at me. “Call me Dallas, doc.” Even with a simple request, it was clear I was going to do what he said.

I learned that I wasn’t alone. Almost everyone who came in contact with Dallas felt the same way as I did about the commanding presence, and its ability to get you to do things.

As I walked out of the room, I spoke with the residents about his case. They offhandedly told me he was maybe some kind of a baseball guy, maybe a baseball manager back in his day.

I found out he was manager of the Phillies for three years, from the end of the season in 1979 to the end of the strike-shortened 1981. So he was really only the manager for one full season, in 1980. Even though I’m not from Philadelphia, the 1980 season was something I was familiar with. It was the year, the first of two since their founding in 1883 that the Phillies won the world championship.

Each morning Dallas spent in the hospital his wife answered a stack of fan mail at his bedside with the information that he was too sick to reply just now. To them, he was a Philadelphia sports icon.

But perhaps they didn’t realize, that shortly after Dallas became a grandfather, his life changed immensely.

On January 8, 2009, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was holding a meet-and-greet with constituents in the parking lot of a Safeway in metropolitan Tucson. One of those in attendance was Christina Taylor-Green – Dallas’ granddaughter. Born on September 11, 2001, her birth was a ray of light on a horrific day. She was one of 50 “Faces of Hope,” representing babies from each state born on that tragic day.

Christina, even at the age of 9, was an obvious product of the Green lineage. She had a bright smile, big eyes, and a commanding presence. She loved dancing, gymnastics, swimming and, of course, baseball. She was the only girl on her Little League team, the Pirates, holding down second base.

She also loved school and civics, and had been elected to her elementary school’s student council. It was this that prompted a neighbor to bring her to the Safeway to meet her congresswoman on that impossibly tragic day.

A few hours later, she was dead from a bullet wound.

It was a bullet from a semi-automatic gun with a high-capacity magazine, one that could hold 33 bullets. Thirty-one of those 33 bullets were fired in those few seconds of destructive heat and light, fueled by a demented mind and the rhetoric of a country divided.

Following the tragedy, the Green family did not stay silent.

They rightly questioned how it is possible to own guns and high-capacity magazines that clearly are not needed for recreational purposes or for self-defense. Experts have stated that high-capacity magazines no doubt increase lethality and body counts.

After the Senate defeated multiple measures to expand gun control in the years following his granddaughter’s death, Dallas told the New York Times about his disappointment:

“I understand the Second Amendment; I just struggle to understand how a Glock and how an AK-47 and all these high-magazine guns fit into our forefathers’ thoughts. They had one shot at a time and had five minutes to reload. These guys are running around shooting up 50 or 60 people at a time,” he said.

I think about Dallas now, after learning about a man who opened fire at a California elementary school this week. A young boy — around the same age as 9-year-old Christina — was shot dead for no reason at all.

Sadly, I know that this event is not the first, nor the last, of its kind. And Congress is only making it easier for senseless killings like these to continue. Just this February, the House passed a bill allowing thousands of veterans with mental health issues to buy guns — the first step in a, likely, bigger effector to get more guns into more people’s hands.

I don’t think Dallas Green would approve. We owe it to him to do better.

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Michael J. Stephen, M.D., is an associate professor at Drexel University College of Medicine in University City.