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DETROIT FREE PRESS

A Family Without A Son. A Catcher Without A Pitcher. Losses That Can Neverbe Overcomeyes, Matthew Lestan Died Too Yong, But He And Mark Remain ...brothers Forever

By Mitch Albom

Am I my brother's keeper? Well, yes, out there on the pitcher's mound, calming Matthew down, getting him to throw strikes, Mark Lestan was, for all those years, from Little League to senior high, his brother's keeper.

Only now, the brother was dying and the keeper was helpless. Mark stood over Matthew's body in the intensive care unit at Beaumont Hospital. He saw the tubes going into his brother's body. He saw the bandaged head, the ventilator that kept him breathing, he saw the shattered left arm -- Matthew's pitching arm -- he saw the shell of his baby brother but none of the spirit, none of the intensity, none of the sarcastic humor Matthew was known for in the dugout, and Mark could only stand there, simmering with grief and anger and the worst emotion of all for an athlete -- defeat.

So he did what brothers do. He choked up, then blurted out, "That was really dumb, Matthew!" and punched his brother in the arm.

This is a story about what you keep and what you lose and how it can all change in an instant, in this case a pre-dawn instant after a fast-food run during a spring break from college. It was then that 19-year-old Matthew Lestan, a former star athlete at Troy High and, at the time, a pitcher at Michigan State, a guy who was known for his control in the classroom and even greater control on the pitcher's mound, somehow lost control behind the wheel of his father's black Oldsmobile Bravada at high speed just a few blocks from home.

The sport-utility vehicle flipped over, more than once, maybe three or four times, banging off a landscape boulder and smashing into a tree. Matthew's body -- he wasn't wearing a seat belt -- was thrown 60 feet, about the distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate.

Was alcohol involved? Yes, it was. Did it cause the crash? No one is sure. Does it make a difference? Yes and no. Gone is still gone.

And Matthew's keepers still can't get used to it.

"Nighttime is the worst," his mother says. "That's when I want to talk to him and I can't."

"For me it's mornings," his father says, "when I drive to work past all the baseball fields we used to play on. . . ."

"The worst time?" says his brother, Mark, the catcher. "I don't know. I still haven't really accepted it. I keep expecting to see him at home.

"I mean, he was just across the hall . . . and now he's not."

An empty chair

How do you lose the family ace? To hear his loved ones tell it, Matthew Lestan never met a gust he couldn't sail. He seemed to have an inner compass, right out of the crib. He was intense and serious, choosing to grimace rather than smile in many photos. How perfect for a pitcher, right? On the mound he could calculate the whole game, stare down the whole game, own the whole game.

He had those instincts as early as age 6, when he already was pitching in youth leagues. He improved rapidly, learning to throw fast, but more important, to throw accurately. By the time he was a popular teenager, with a strong nose and a jutting chin, he could hit the inside corner of the plate or the outside edge of a hitter's knuckles.

He could put it where the bats were not. He won 10 games and lost none in his first season on the high school varsity. And the person who ensured that more than any other was his brother and catcher, Mark -- Mark, who was two years older, a bit taller, and, by his own admission, "nowhere near as talented."

This is not an easy thing for an older brother to confess.

"It was intimidating," Mark admits. "He was a naturally better ballplayer than me. And he was naturally smarter. He didn't even have to pick up a book, and he got A's. I had to work day and night.

"I didn't always deal with it well. The truth is, I was jealous sometimes."

He folds his hands and shrugs. He is sitting at a kitchen table in a sunlit home in Troy, with his parents -- Norb, who works in finance at General Motors, and Sue, who used to go to all her sons' games, cheering so loudly that Matthew once turned and put a finger to his lips.

"The other mothers thought it was a secret signal," she says, smiling. "It wasn't."

There are three of them now. A visitor sits in the otherwise empty fourth chair. Scrapbooks full of Matthew memories are brought over with the coffee. It is Christmas break, when both boys should be home from college. Instead, there is one boy and one photo album. In it we learn that Matthew was 33-4 for his high school career, and in his senior year had a ridiculously low 1.31 earned-run average.

We learn that he hit .320, that he made all-state and that he was honorable mention on an All-USA team. We learn he won perhaps the biggest game of his high school career not with a pitch but with a bunt, a suicide squeeze that beat arch-rival Rochester High, then ranked No. 2 in the nation.

That game, Mark says, might have been the only time the two brothers hugged.

"We were just so happy, we ran to each other," Mark says. "But in general, Matthew didn't show a lot of gushy emotion. He expected to do well."

It was on the mound where the two brothers acted most like family. Years of playing pitch-and-catch in the backyard forged a bond that was almost otherworldly. Mark could sense whenever Matthew was losing his rhythm and would trot to the mound, calm him down, ask things like, "What's Mom cooking for dinner?" Matthew hated the attention and sometimes even cursed at his sibling, demanding he go back behind the plate. But Mark knew his pitcher -- more important, he knew his brother -- so he would gauge the face, sometimes retort with things like, "Look, if you don't start throwing strikes I'm gonna beat your brains out when we get home," but mostly he just stayed out there until Matthew's breathing changed and he saw what he wanted to see.

Then he pulled down his mask, returned to his catcher's squat and let his brother be the star he was meant to be.

"He just had so much talent," Mark says.

The years passed. Mark went to Michigan State. Eventually, Matthew followed, joining the baseball team as a preferred walk-on and, typically, earning a 3.9 grade-point average. At college, their relationship began to change. It thawed and blossomed, beyond just sports. Matthew would come over to Mark's apartment just to hang out, like friends.

"We were really starting to get along," Mark says. "Also, I knew freshmen liked to drink alcohol, even if they weren't old enough. I figured having him around me, since I was over 21, I could keep an eye on him."

Keep an eye on him.

Keep tabs on him.

The things you keep.

The things you lose.

An awful accident

The phone rang around 4 a.m. It was the hospital.

"Your son has been in an accident."

Later, Norb and Sue would think back on the day, think back on the nice meal they had with Matthew that evening, Chinese food around the kitchen table, how he had been so talkative about his future, his plans for law school, how, after he went out with friends, they laughed and said, "Who is this child? He's so talkative!"

Later they would learn that he had walked home from the party where there had been drinking, that he came home while they were asleep, that he went on the computer to talk to a friend, that he stayed online for a while and then said he was hungry and wanted to know the nearest open fast-food joint.

Later they would learn he almost had made it home when the car flipped. Later they would learn that his blood alcohol showed he had been drinking earlier in the night. Later they would have time to jigsaw all this together and torture themselves over the missing pieces.

But for now, as they rushed to the emergency ward, all they knew was that Matthew, the family ace, was fighting for his life.

Meanwhile, Mark was arriving home from East Lansing. As he entered his subdivision just off Wattles and Coolidge, he passed flashing police lights and a small crowd. A few minutes later, in the house, when he realized no one was home and his brother's bed was still made and no cars were in the garage, a sinking feeling hit him in the depths of his stomach. He went running outside. . . .

Matthew Lestan lived five more days, if you can call it living. He was attached to every kind of tube and machine, none of which could save him from the severe head injuries he had sustained. Despite a steady stream of high school buddies, former girlfriends, ex-teammates, despite the love and tears that rained over that hospital room, he never came to.

Finally, the doctors said it was hopeless. Norb and Sue went in to say good-bye.

"I told him we'd see him . . . in a better place," Norb recalls, breaking down.

Mark went in last. He studied his brother. He thought about all the times he had told him not to drink and drive. He thought about a friend who had been killed in a drunken-driving incident, how he had told Matthew about her, how he had warned him to be careful.

He thought about the life that lay ahead. "I won't have you as a best man at my wedding. My kids won't have an uncle. There won't be anyone to cut down a Christmas tree with. . . ."

He punched his brother in the arm.

It might be the only hit Matthew ever surrendered without a fight.

He died early Friday morning, March 9, 2001. There was a memorial ceremony. There were photos and poems and songs. There were tributes from friends, and flowers, carnations, red and white, surrounding Matthew's Troy High baseball cap.

Mark took Matthew's glove. It's in his room at college. He looks at it now and then, but the feeling is so empty. What's a glove without the guy to wear it? What's a catcher without a pitcher?

"You know the worst thing?" Mark says now at the kitchen table. "I don't know what to say now when people ask if I have any siblings."

His mother looks up.

"Of course you do," she says. "You say you have a brother."

"He died," Mark says.

"You have a brother--"

"But--"

"He's just not here."

Mark looks at his mother. Sue looks at her remaining son. Remaining son? What kind of phrase is that?

Are your kids home for Christmas break? Are they headed out tonight? Are they drinking at someone's party? Are you assuming they can take care of themselves?

Here is the lesson of Matthew Lestan. Assume nothing. Leave no words unspoken. Hold them close, watch them closer, and do not wait for a victorious moment to offer a hug.

A catcher minus a pitcher. A family minus a son. In the end, Mark Lestan was indeed his brother's keeper. He just didn't get to keep him long enough.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch "Albom in the Afternoon" 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). To read the first part of the Dreams Deferred series, go to the link on www.freep.com.