On July 20, 1991, Dave Righetti came on in relief for the San Francisco Giants to protect a two-run lead against the Expos in Montreal. This wasn't anything out of the ordinary for the two-time All-Star pitcher, who handled pressure-packed late-game situations on a nearly daily basis. What none of his Giants teammates knew was that his usually focused mind was thousands of miles away.
A day before in Righetti's home state of California, his wife's sister, serving as a surrogate, had given birth to triplets more than two months early.
"In the pit of your stomach, not being here when somebody's hurt, or you know you need to be somewhere, there is this lousy feeling you carry all day," said Righetti, who has been the pitching coach of the San Francisco Giants since 2000. "This angst that you have. And in this case, I have already missed the birth. I had no idea about anything else. My only worry was just of not being there."
Righetti caught a flight out of Montreal to be with his wife, Kandice; his sister-in-law Kayla; and the three tiny triplets, Nicolette, Wesley and Natalee. The premature infants, all of whom weighed less than 3 pounds at birth, had complications that required immediate attention. Natalee faced the most serious issue. The third of the triplets, she had received less oxygen than her siblings because she was in the back of her aunt's uterus.
"A doctor met me and had a pamphlet in his hand," Righetti said. "At that time I could tell there was something wrong. And I could see it on his face a little bit. And he was trying to talk to me about it. And he was hesitant, and I said, 'Oh gosh, something is going on. Will you please tell me?' He practically handed me the pamphlet that was about hydrocephalus, which is a bleed in the brain. And I was reading and the first thing I saw was cerebral palsy. I knew one of these kids was in trouble. So, that is how it was. And now I am in a little bit of a panic."
Righetti and Kandice went to the hospital chapel and prayed. The triplets were the children they'd so desperately wanted, though Kandice could not carry a child to term herself. Each of the children sustained complications: Wesley suffered the least, Nicolette has been hearing-impaired since birth and Natalee has cerebral palsy, which has partially disabled the left side of her body.
Today, the Righetti triplets are almost 21 years old and thriving. It hasn't been an easy road, but they are alive and well. Natalee has written a book about her journey and her family's story: "Beautifully Different: Living a Grand Slam Life Despite My Disability."
In the book, which includes a foreword written by her father, Natalee shares intimate details of her parents' courtship and struggle to have children. She writes about her efforts to overcome her disability and takes readers through the grueling physical therapy sessions she endured as a child and teenager. Natalee also discusses how being the daughter of a professional athlete and living with CP has informed her perspective on how to handle life's curveballs and conquer obstacles. She hopes to inspire young women, who often struggle with society's ideas about what is normal, what they should look like and how they should act.
"It is important to have a positive outlook on life when you are facing challenges," Natalee said. "Focusing on the good in your life when things are not going the way you want them to, or you are just facing challenges like a disability or any kind of challenge. There are a lot of challenges in life. That was what I wanted to get across to people. No matter what you are faced with, you can accomplish anything you want to, if you want it bad enough and are willing to work hard for it."
Natalee spent years in physical therapy learning to deal with the partial paralysis of her left side. Thanks to her dedication, perseverance and a love of sports instilled in all the Righetti children, Natalee played softball (a la Jim Abbott, the one-handed pitcher who played for the Angels and Yankees) and volleyball, where she stood out as a server with an unorthodox delivery. Her hard work and determination have been an inspiration to most people she encounters, and especially to her siblings.
"In my teenage years, I watched my sister play volleyball outside in the front yard every day," Nicolette "Nikki" Righetti said. "She would play hard in the mud and in the rain. It motivated me to work harder in sports and in dance. If I felt like I wanted to quit or the pressure was too much, Natalee would tell me not to let the negative surroundings get in the way of doing something I love to do and keep my head high. It made me want to fight against the hard obstacles in the everyday life such as in school, dance and at home. Like Natalee, I always tell myself not to give up and keep going after my dreams and do things I want to achieve in life."
Of course, baseball has also been a constant in the Righettis' lives. Dave's father, Leo, starred at shortstop with the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. Before he retired in 1995, Dave had a 16-year career with the Yankees, Giants, A's, Blue Jays and White Sox. All three of the Righetti kids love baseball, but Natalee stands out as a die-hard fan.
"Dad was away and there is a reason -- it is because of this game called baseball," Dave said. "And instead of the kids being angry about it all the time, it was like a celebration. [Natalee] gravitated towards that, I think, because of me. And she really is a devout fan. I mean, even to this day, she will sit there and watch these games. But even when she was younger, she really got into it and knew all the players. And just wanted to know everything about each one and knew their stats."
For Natalee, baseball has been a way to bond with her father and a safe haven for her to escape some of life's tougher challenges.
"Baseball has always been something that I love because of [my dad], and how hard he works in baseball," Natalee said. "Whenever I go to baseball games, it is somewhere where I feel proud to be. And it is away from everything at home and all the challenges I face on a daily basis, and school…It is where I go to just forget about everything. I can focus on being at the stadium and enjoying the ballgame, the fans and all the noises. Just all the excitement."
Dave brings lessons from his parenting challenges to his work as a pitching coach.
"Patience, No. 1. The patience that you have to learn each day," Righetti said of raising triplets. "And even though there are setbacks, you cannot get down. And you have to stay even- keeled. ... I gained a lot of experience from being around the kids and my wife. I think in a lot of ways it has helped as a coach.
"In Natalee's case, she is really a bulldog. And just her get-after-it-ness, I guess you can call it. It really comes out in a lot of ways. When I am not feeling good about somebody or the team is not doing well or I think we should be doing this or that, I will think about her occasionally and just the way she gets after it."
Natalee is attending junior college in Northern California, where she is studying communications. She also serves as a motivational speaker and seeks to inspire others with her message of hope and dedication.
"[My disability] is an ability in the way that I am embracing it, and using it to inspire others and be a role model to people with disabilities, and without disabilities," Natalee said. "It has shown me that I am capable of a lot. Just with having one good side, and the other side not being as well-functioning, I am still capable of so many things. I can do pretty much anything anybody else can do. I just do it a little bit differently."
"Beautifully Different: Living a Grand Slam Life Despite My Disability" is available at Amazon.com. Natalee will be signing copies of the book at AT&T Park on Friday before the Giants play host to the Texas Rangers.