Former Nationals all-star closer Chad Cordero is trying to make a comeback… (Dirk Shadd/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
PALM HARBOR, FLA. — It was after midnight when the last photo slid into the last envelope, and Chad and Jamie Cordero were done, finally, with their Christmas cards. The pictures were perfect: Jamie holding 18-month-old Riley, and Chad, the erstwhile closer of the Washington Nationals, standing and beaming. His right arm — the one the Nationals worked so hard, the one that eventually wore out — tight around his baby daughter Tehya, whose head, wrapped with a bow, reflected the meaning of her name: precious.
With the photos ready to send, the Corderos flipped off the TV in their Huntington Beach, Calif., home. Riley and Tehya were sleeping at Chad’s parents’ house some 40 miles away in Chino, his home town. Jamie was fresh off surgery to fix an old gymnastics injury. The crutches made it difficult to get around. A night off to prep for the holidays. Normal parenting stuff.
Nothing since that night — since the phone rang and they raced to the car and drove like hell, only to discover their baby girl Tehya had died — has been normal. They now know statistics about SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome, and have met parents like themselves, with losses new and old, nearly all of them still wondering, “Why us?”
They have endured the unspeakable pain of burying their daughter, of visiting her grave every day — family picnics sometimes, each parent alone with Tehya at others. And eventually, they made the bold decision to head east — east, for baseball — trying to hold together their life as Cordero tries, simultaneously, to hold together his career.
“I want to do it for her,” Chad Cordero said.
As he sat in the dining room at his family’s rented apartment not far from his new spring training home — in Dunedin, home to the Toronto Blue Jays — those words felt appropriate, not at all forced. The Corderos must figure out how to move on from all-encompassing grief while still honoring their daughter. Making it back to the big leagues, where Cordero hasn’t held a stable job since early 2008, would be one way, one small way, to accomplish that.
“It’s therapy for him,” said Edward Cordero, Chad’s father.
But this is not as simple as sports serving as savior. The image of Cordero from his Washington days — just 23, neither a husband nor a father — is so far removed now. In the District, he will always be associated with the summer of 2005, with baseball’s return, when he pulled on his flat-brimmed cap and fearlessly saved almost any game the Nationals asked, 47 by year’s end, more than anyone in baseball.
“Just happy go-lucky,” said his pitching coach back then, Randy St. Claire. “. . . Nothing ever seemed to shake him.”
He is shaken now. There are times during spring training when he heads to a bathroom stall at the Blue Jays’ complex, closing the door to cry. There will be times ahead — on a plane, on a bus — when he won’t be able to hold back.
“I’m gonna lose it,” he said. “I know it’s gonna happen.”
But there are things the Corderos want people to know: how Tehya smiled from her first days, how her dark hair covered her head, how Riley kissed her. They can smile at that. But just because the full-on, physically crippling breakdowns happen less frequently now — no longer round the clock, maybe not even every day — this remains impossibly difficult.
“It was, like, so hard — for weeks,” Jamie Cordero said, haltingly. “Like you didn’t want to go to sleep, because you just felt that much further away from her, like it really happened. But looking back right now, I’m just glad those first few weeks are over, because it’s just like hell.”
Chad Cordero, baseball pitcher, and Jamie Moody, gymnast, got together after their college days at Cal State Fullerton. They married in November 2008, just months after Chad’s shoulder gave way, after he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum, after the Nationals let him go.
That was supposed to be the difficult part of life, working back from the major uncertainty that goes with major shoulder surgery. Wedged into all those travails — solitary rehab, time back in the minors, a brief major league appearance with Seattle, a return to the minors with the New York Mets — are little, innocuous events that mean so much now. Last September, despite his 1.69 ERA in 17 appearances in Class AAA, the Mets didn’t call up Cordero. Instead, he drove home for Tehya’s birth.
“Looking back, if I had missed those three weeks,” Cordero said, “it would have been so much harder with what happened.”
What happened? Inevitably, the question hangs everywhere around the Corderos now, even as people – experts on SIDS, parents they meet in a support group, the coroner’s office – tell them there is no blame.
“My wife, she blames herself,” Edward Cordero said. “Jamie, as the mom, she blames herself. Everybody blames themselves.”