The lightning bolts Michael Wagaman felt shooting through his eyes were normal, he thought. Must be how it feels to get old.
Same with the aching shoulder that had subsided but later returned. Wagaman had braced his fall from about five feet while unloading furniture from a truck a couple weeks earlier, and the pain was only mild.
It was all fine, the longtime Bay Area sports writer known colloquially as “Wags,” thought. Aches and pains of your mid-50s go away with time. He’d always been reluctant to see doctors anyway.
But, heeding the advice of his ex-wife, who remains his close friend, Wagaman went in for a check-up.
On June 3, while covering a Red Sox-Athletics game at the Oakland Coliseum for the Associated Press, Wagaman’s phone lit up. His Kaiser Permanente medical test results were in: he had a brain tumor.
If Wagaman held off on seeking medical attention much longer, he could’ve been fully paralyzed or dead, doctors later told him.
At his lowest points, Wagaman couldn’t walk or talk. He couldn’t feel the left side of his body or eat without a feeding tube.
After getting surgery to treat a tumor on his brain stem last August, Wagaman spent six weeks in the hospital. He suffered two seizures and two minor strokes on the operating table and had to undergo a second operation to address complications.
“I kept telling the nurses: ‘Just get me back to a press box. That’s all I need,’” Wagaman told KNBR.com. “It was my belief that if I got to a press box, I’d be okay.”
Just over a year after getting diagnosed with a brain tumor, Wagaman, 56, is back in the press box, making wisecracks and chronicling baseball at Oracle Park and the Oakland Coliseum. He still isn’t fully recovered, and might never fully return to his health prior to his traumatic brain injury, but is working regularly and has a newfound perspective on life.
Wagaman, a freelance journalist who regularly covers the Giants, Athletics and Kings, couldn’t have made it to this point without the help of the Bay Area sports community he has worked with over the past four decades — help that shocked and galvanized him.
“That outpouring of support — I feel that with all the people that donated, called me, texted me, checked on me, came and visited me, I owe it to them to give my recovery my all,” Wagaman said. “Because they all did what they didn’t need to do, but they all did what they did out of the goodness of their heart. So I owe it to them to give my recovery a full, honest effort for them believing in me.”
For six weeks, Wagaman was a bad patient at Vacaville Medical Center. He was frustrated and anxious and would lash out at nurses.
His family made shirts that said “Team Horrible” with a photo of the Disney character Grumpy on it because whenever someone would ask Wagaman how he was doing, he’d always respond “horrible.”
Late at night, Wagaman would try to sneak out to the 7/11 across the street to go buy a Big Gulp – his craving. Of course, given his physical state, he didn’t get far.
He was frustrated. And he was hurting.
The Aug. 22 surgery — the Wagamans won’t ever forget Operation Day — came with several complications.
While under the knife, Wagaman had two seizures and two strokes. Because of the way his arteries wrapped around the lesion on his brain stem, too much cerebrospinal fluid leaked when the surgeons drilled into his skull. That caused extreme swelling, discomfort and a form of Bell’s palsy. (Because of how Wagaman’s face drooped, friends and family would tease him by calling him Sloth from “The Goonies,” which he found hilarious).
Beyond that, Wagaman lost feeling temporarily in half of his body. His right jaw became dis-hinged, making chewing impossible. A bout with pneumonia didn’t help.
“I was in so much friggin’ pain,” Wagaman said. “They had to give me everything they got.”
Early on, Wagaman didn’t know if he’d ever walk again. The pain made him doubt his ability to ever return to work.
Every morning, Wagaman would wake up and see how little progress he made. Nobody knew how slow his recovery was more than him. Wagaman was convinced his career as a sports writer was over. How would he ever be able to sit through a 3-hour baseball game, let alone focus and write about one?
Before the surgery, Wagaman and friends did some internet research and concluded he’d only be in the hospital for a week or two. People without heavy-lifting jobs can return from the hospital in a week or two, maybe a month tops, the all-reliable internet told him. His slow recovery grinded on him.
But a message from his son changed his perspective.
Stop focusing on where you are and realize how far you’ve come. A month ago you couldn’t walk. Two months ago you couldn’t talk. Be thankful.
“Once I took those expectations away, I started appreciating where I’d come from,” Wagaman said. “The stress, I quit having anxiety attacks. Everything. And it enabled me to really appreciate — I tell my son and I tell everyone who listens: no matter what I went through, I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet. Because I’m still here. There’s people who went to bed last night who didn’t wake up. There are people in pain that wish they were in the kind of pain I was because theirs is so severe. So how could I be mad? I’m alive. I’m still here to experience this pain. And yeah, it hurts and it’s discomforting and all that, but I’m alive.”
After six weeks in the hospital, Wagaman underwent speech, physical and occupational therapy. He’d lost 30 pounds of muscle and needed to re-learn how to walk and talk. And while the toughest part was behind him, he still required another surgery in January to insert a shunt into his brain to help with the spinal fluid leaking and swelling.
Last Christmas, when Wagaman’s son came home from college at UC Irvine, Wags surprised Michael by getting up off his chair and walking under his power to get the door and greet him.
It was the best gift he could’ve given.
“I was awestruck,” Michael, who graduated from college in front of his dad this weekend, said. “Because right then and there, I knew my father was going to be okay.”
When Wagaman was growing up in Vallejo, he’d create weekly newspapers for each family member. He’d interview his mom about the upcoming week’s dinner menu and write about whatever was going on in his siblings’ lives. There were no copy machines back then, so he hand-wrote everything over and over again.
After two semesters of junior college, decided to work part-time for the local paper in Vallejo’s sports section. He was only 17, but with the help of too many mentors to name, Wagaman learned the business. He learned what information to include and how to convey it.
Wagaman has now worked as a sports reporter for 40 years. The first professional event he covered was a Giants game at Candlestick Park — he’ll never forget the mug of beer and steak on Roger Craig’s office desk. He’s covered three Giants World Series, Matt Cain’s perfect game, a Raiders Super Bowl, the Tuck Rule Game, an MLB All-Star Game and countless other Bay Area sports events.
Since 1996, Wagaman has worked as a freelancer, mainly for AP, meaning he’s not a full-time employee but works regularly. Because he’s not on a specific beat, he has to be able to parachute into different situations and stay up to date on the A’s, Giants and Kings in order to report accurately and comprehensively.
“He always has a keen eye for what the story of the night is or what might be interesting,” Janie McCauley, Wagaman’s longtime friend and coworker at AP, said.
When talking to professional athletes, Wagaman likes to strike up conversations with players about topics outside their day jobs to level with them.
Wagaman has always been quick to offer up a detail or quote from the opposing team’s clubhouse, since reporters covering the home team can only be in one place at once. He’s just as quick to playfully snark about the Giants or A’s on the field.
Reporters who have worked with Wags through the years love his ability to give — and take — playful jabs. They appreciate that he asks good questions and can fit in in any scrum despite his transient, stadium-hopping job.
So when Wagaman was incapacitated, even though most didn’t know the extent of his traumatic brain injury, a cadre of people who have been touched by Wagaman left the sidelines.
Right before leaving work for his craniotomy, Wagaman told Carlos Rodón, the Giants All-Star ace in 2022, that he’d be gone for a few weeks. Rodón, who had gotten to know Wagaman, teased — you can’t leave in the middle of the season — before telling the writer that he and his family would pray for him.
While Wagaman was recovering from the surgery, Padres manager Bob Melvin, whom Wagaman covered when he was the A’s skipper, sent him a video message.
“Heard about your predicament, but I know who you are and I know you’re going to push through this thing,” Melvin said. “And you’re probably angry right now and you’re probably looking forward to getting back to the ballpark where you belong. We’re all praying for you. I know you’re going to get on the other side of this thing. Hope to see you soon.”
Matt Chisholm, the Giants’ vice president of media relations, hugged Wagaman when he found out what the journalist was going through, Wagaman remembers. Shooty Babitt, the former Athletics player and current scout for the team, collapsed into tears at the Coliseum.
“When it’s someone close like that, and you always feel like it always happens to the best people,” Babitt said. “To the good people. It always seems like that. That’s how I felt. I was stunned.”
“He was my mom’s favorite player growing up, so that hit me a little bit harder,” Wagaman said.
Scott Ostler, a longtime columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, would call Wagaman to check in almost daily. TK QUOTE TK
The messages and love along with his family, kept Wagaman going.
“It takes a village to help someone get over something traumatic,” Wagaman said. “I’m going to give Bob a huge fucking hug. That was so motivating for me, man.”
Wagaman’s son set up a GoFundMe shortly after the craniotomy. He’d come home early from college to help take care of his dad. He showered his dad with daily love and encouragement.
“I told him ‘I’m supposed to be your hero. You’re my hero, son. For the way you matured, handled your schoolwork, you’re kicking ass with school. And you took care of me. You’re my hero,’” Wagaman said.
With the GoFundMe, the junior Wagaman didn’t expect much, but was quickly shocked.
Donations and thoughtful messages from across the sports media world rang in. The $32,000 eventually raised more than covered Wagaman’s medical expenses.
Baseball writers in Seattle, Houston, Milwaukee and Washington D.C. donated. Marcus Thompson, the 2021 California Sportswriter of the Year, contributed. Marty Lurie, the KNBR host whom Wagaman didn’t even know, surprised him with $250.
“We rally around each other,” McCauley, the veteran AP scribe, said.
The San Francisco Giants sent a listed $5,000 and the Athletics’ donation was also in the four-digits. The Giants also gifted Wagaman a DoorDash gift card, made sure he had parking close to the ballpark once he returned and offered free press dining meals instead of the standard $18.
“You think about the Giants organization, you think of them as a business,” Wagaman said. “Now I think about them as a business with a heart.”
Wagaman is still recovering, but he returned to work in March. His first baseball game was helping McCauley out on Opening night in Oakland. When he was a mile away from the stadium, his heart started pounding. He got butterflies. The hairs on his arm stood up.
“I’m like ‘Oh my God, am I ready for this?’ Who would’ve thought that the Oakland Coliseum, that press box, would be a comfort and a safety net for me? And it was. The moment I got there, I felt like I was okay.”
When he returned, Wagaman told reporters that he didn’t want anyone to coddle him. He’d answered enough questions over the past six months about how he was doing. He wore an eye patch for a while and still walks with a cane. His memory still isn’t great and the right side of his face will be partially paralyzed for the rest of his life; he’s coming to grips with the numb feeling.
But he’s thrilled to be back. Last weekend, Wagaman watched his son graduate from UC Irvine with two majors. This week at Oracle Park, with the Padres in town, he got to see Melvin for the first time since the surgery.
“I didn’t know if I’d have him back,” McCauley said while choking back tears. “But from Day 1, he was determined to come back…He amazes me. He’s inspiring. His speech isn’t quite the same, his gait is not quite the same, his energy is not quite the same, but his spirit to do this and to get back has been an inspiration and a motivation.”
He’s taken about four or five weekly assignments for AP, he said. He decided to share his story because if his experience can help one single person or one single family going through something similar, “then everything I went through is worth it,” Wagaman said.
“He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t do anything,” Wags’ hero, Michael, said. “He couldn’t eat. Now look at him. He’s able to drive, able to walk — with a cane, but still. He’s able to do his daily activities. He’s just alive.”