CINCINNATI — In the few years he’s been in the big leagues, Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker had never had an interview quite like this one.
Sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Great American Ball Park before a game against the Cincinnati Reds the other night, he started out talking about being born and raised in Pittsburgh and what it was like playing for his resurgent hometown team.
Then the MLB.com reporter asked him about team chemistry, and as he talked in general about the various clubhouse personalities, his questioner smiled and probed: “Name names ... pleasssseeee.”
And before he knew it Walker was spilling the beans, right down to who sings in the shower.
The interviewer worked him like a crafty opposing pitcher, changing speeds, coming inside, then out. And he followed that lead:
“Who are the bookworms? The nerds? The geeks?” he was asked, and with laughter, but little hesitation, he answered.
When he finally was finished, he stood up, looked down at his 4-foot-10, 72-pound inquisitor, held out a hand and said: “You did a really good job.”
Meggie Zahneis, the 15-year-old Lakota West High School sophomore with strong Dayton ties, thanked him, worked her way up the dugout steps and headed across the field with that herky-jerky gait of hers.
Later, in the clubhouse, Walker marveled about Meggie: “She’s just fantastic. She’s incredibly witty and smart. It’s pretty neat meeting somebody who’s gone through what she has and see she’s still on top of her game. To come into a major-league dugout and hold her own like that is amazing really.”
As the first MLB.com youth reporter, she’s a bona fide sportswriter this season, possessing everything of her press box counterparts — big-league credential hanging around her neck, tape recorder in hand — except, at least on this day, the stereotypical mustard stain on her shirt.
And Walker was right. She is pretty amazing.
She was born with Hereditary Sensory and Autonamic Neuropathy (HSAN II), a rare disorder that impairs the sensations of pain, temperature and touch and, among other things, affects growth and mobility.
Her mom, Cindy, a graduate of Belmont High and the University of Dayton, said there are only about 50 known cases in the world.
Meggie has undergone 14 surgeries, including to her eyes, ears, mouth, feet and hips, and though her condition prevents her from doing certain things both big and routine, she overcomes her situation with talent, charm, an indomitable spirit and a great sense of humor. She has a maturity beyond her years and yet she’s very much a young teenage girl.
As Cindy — who along with husband Bob regularly chauffeurs Meggie to the ballpark — was walking away from her daughter, she asked: “Want me to hold onto your purse?”
“Mom!” Meggie answered.
“What?” Cindy said.
“It’s a satchel, not a purse,” Meggie said with teen exasperation.
Out of earshot, Cindy whispered: “She doesn’t want to come off as a girlie girl.”
Meggie need not worry. The big-league world — beginning with MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, as well as Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, who is the league’s director of educational programming, and especially the Cincinnati Reds organization — has embraced her as “quite a girl,” as her pal, second baseman Brandon Phillips, described her.
One thing you couldn’t help but notice was wherever she went in the ballpark everyone seemed to know her.
Whether it was Denise Thomas, the cashier in the press dining room, the fellow who runs the elevator and gave her a baseball card autographed by Chuck Harmon, the Reds’ first black player, or the other sportswriters, they all seemed happy to see her ... and she them.
On the field, where the Reds were finishing batting practice, she was acknowledged by Dusty Baker and Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier, and when Phillips saw her, he gave her a mighty hug.
“He hugged me with such force he knocked off one of my cochlear implants,’ she giggled later. “Every time I see him, he comes up and says ‘hi’ or gives me the rock (a fist bump.) Usually he gives my mom a kiss, too. I told him I was gonna interview him Wednesday ... and that I wouldn’t ask him anything too tough.”
Afterward, Phillips talked about Meggie: “You got to respect her. She goes through so many obstacles that a lot of people don’t even know about. She’s inspired a lot of people here. She’s really inspired me.”
Trouble started early
Meggie had medical troubles at birth. A breech baby, she suffered from meconium aspiration — the contents of her intestines seeped into her lungs — and soon after was found to have no reflexes, including a sucking reflex to eat, didn’t pass a hearing test and lacked muscle strength.
“She ate through a feeding tube her first three months,” Cindy said.
“Those first weeks were terrifying,” Bob said. “They came up with incorrect diagnoses. They said she’d be blind. That she wouldn’t live past 15.”
It took nine months for doctors to discover she had the HSAN II and after that the family found one of the few specialists in the world who deals with the disorder in New York City.
“Since we’ve been seeing her we know of one other woman in Cleveland who has it,” Cindy said. “But the symptoms are different from person to person. That woman can’t feel her feet on the ground so she can’t walk. But then she doesn’t have hearing loss.”
The decreased sensation to pain and other stimuli remains especially problematic, Bob said: “Meggie used to bite her lip when she slept and she could bite right through it because she felt nothing.”
Another time she stepped on a screw and never felt it pierce the bottom of her tennis shoe and plunge into her foot. She walked on it most of the day, only noticing later that “it felt kind of squishy in my shoe like I stepped in water.”
While her condition makes some daily tasks — putting in her cochlear implants, cutting up her food, combing her hair, tying her shoes — difficult at best and it prevents her from things like contact sports, she’s become a voracious reader, a talented writer and has found an all-consuming outlet in baseball.
A love of baseball
Meggie, her folks and her now 13-year-old brother Nick were sitting in the front row at a Reds game several years ago when Sean Casey, the team’s always-loquacious first baseman at the time, walked past and said, “Hi Meggie.”
“We had never met him, but somehow he knew her name and that got her going,” Bob said. “Then she started with the autographs and the memorabilia.”
Step into her bedroom in the family’s West Chester Twp. home and it’s like going into a baseball museum.
“I think it’s funny — when you look at my room and then my brother’s, you can’t tell which is the boy’s room and which is the girl’s,” she laughed.
She has rows of bobble-heads and mini-bats and autographed baseballs from the likes of Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey Jr. and Aroldis Chapman. There’s a poster signed by Ted Williams, a jersey inked by Derek Jeter and a collection of Joe Nuxhall things.
When one of her junior high teachers saw mention of the Breaking Barriers essay contest that Major League Baseball sponsors to honor Jackie Robinson, she encouraged Meggie to enter.
Meggie wrote of her own story — trying to overcome obstacles and other kids’ misconceptions of her and just be “a normal kid” — and how, like Robinson, she has a love of baseball.
When the contest deadline came and went, she assumed she hadn’t won. Then came the phone call from Sharon Robinson, who told her she was the grand prize winner and would be honored by the Reds and receive a trip to the All-Star Game in Phoenix.
“I was home alone when she called and I remember just screaming and running around the house,” she said. “The next morning when my mom woke me up for school, I asked, ‘Did it really happen or was I dreaming?’ ”
Robinson, who along with Phillips came to the school to make the presentation, was so taken by Meggie that after the All-Star Game she wanted her to have some more time with Selig and it was arranged for her to attend Game 3 of last year’s World Series.
“He had me come to his suite to watch the game and I was very nervous at first,” Meggie said. “Eventually I got more comfortable and after a little debate with myself, I decided to make a joke about Pete Rose being in the Hall of Fame.
“I said, ‘Hey, being from Cincinnati I think it’s an obligation to ask you about Pete Rose.’ At first he didn’t say anything, but then he started laughing and later he said that was one of the things that kind of endeared him.
“Albert Pujols hit three home runs that game and afterward I got a letter from Mr. Selig. I got it framed in my room now.”
She got it and pointed to one line, which read: “While we all were impressed by the historic feats of Albert Pujols that day, we were equally impressed by your achievements.”
Meggie beamed at that: “He was comparing me to Albert Pujols. That’s a pretty incredible comparison to make. It’s probably one of the biggest compliments I’ll ever be getting.”
Selig, who also had talked to Meggie by phone a couple of times, has said she is one of the most remarkable people he’s met.
Along the way he called Cindy and said he wanted to do something for her daughter but didn’t know exactly what. They talked about Meggie’s love of baseball and writing — and her dream to go to college — and he came up with the idea of the league’s first youth correspondent.
And so, along with that letter, there was a media pass to all major-league games in 2012 and a job offer.
Job is ‘awesome’
Meggie started her job at spring training in Arizona — “I went for just four days because I could only manage two days off school” — and then was at GABP for Opening Day, where she not only interviewed several Reds, but celebs like Nick Lachey, Josh Hutcherson of “The Hunger Games” — “that made a lot of my female classmates jealous” — and Eben Franckewitz, the young “American Idol” finalist.
She wrote a column or so a week for the first two months of the season — and developed an internet following from around the world — and now that school is out for the summer she’ll become more of a press box regular. She does her interviews on the field or in the dugout — “a 15-year-old girl in the clubhouse is a no-no,” she shrugged — and when the game begins she hunkers down in between the mostly middle-aged sportswriters and begins typing.
Before she had begun her Walker column, she was talking about her job — as she told Pirates publicity director Jim Trdinich in the dugout, “they call it ‘work,’ but it’s awesome” — when her dad happened to spot a bloody gash on her middle finger. She had no clue how it had occurred ... and quickly brushed it off like it was nothing.
“Look, this is all part of who I am and it’s always gonna be,” she said. “It’s not something I can take a magic pill and it’s all gone. But while it’s part of who I am, it doesn’t define me.
“No, this isn’t ideal for me, but day to day it’s no big deal. I don’t want to get too sentimental here, but my life’s goal would be to know I made a positive impact on another person’s life. Maybe some other kids with disabilities think they’re in a bad place, but then they look at me and say, ‘If she can do it, I can, too.’
“At the end of the day, that’s all I care about and when I’m on my deathbed — and who knows when that will be — I can say I helped somebody.”
When she returned to her computer — her “satchel” on the desktop next to her and that good interview in her digital recorder — she managed a quick smile and a lasting reflection:
“When I go to bed tonight I’ll just be laying there and thinking, ‘What a day! ... What a life, really!’ ”