PAWTUCKET — It’s about two and a half hours before the first pitch on a Wednesday night at McCoy Stadium, and infielder Drew Sutton is spending time with his family. His wife of 3½ years, Staci, stands serenely by the railing in one of the boxes down the left-field line as Drew showcases son Ryder, days shy of turning eight months, around the field.
Even without the long brown hair Staci wishes that Drew would cut, Ryder looks more like his dad every day. He has the same blue eyes and the same face, especially when he smiles. He’s also got a habit already of staring hard at you, for about three seconds, and then cracking up in laughter.
These days, Drew and Staci are, in the words of Nashville pastor and family friend Byron Yawn, “without a doubt, the most obnoxious parents on the planet.” Every conversation with them is Ryder this and Ryder that, and how good and how big Ryder is.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been with a couple that’s happier as parents than Staci and Drew,” says Carol Grant, who hosted the Suttons in Providence in 2011.
There’s a good reason why. Drew Sutton’s first Father’s Day is a year later than he expected.
The worst moment of Drew and Staci Sutton’s life was supposed to be the best. It was that moment you get to clutch your baby to your chest for the first time, when the “Is this really happening?” idea becomes reified and real, when a lifelong dream for two people becomes true.
That’s what it was supposed to be for Drew, a guy described by Yawn as “built to be a dad — a big, giant kid himself.” That’s what it was supposed to be for Staci, a woman for whom being a mom felt like a life calling.
But in July 2011, Drew and Staci didn’t get to hold their daughter Karsyn until 22 hours after she had been born.
Until minutes after she had passed away.
“There’s nothing that I can say that can explain how we felt,” Drew says. “Just hopeless and empty and angry. Frustrated. Lost.”
The trouble had started at 27 weeks — late May, shortly after Drew had been called up for the first time to the Red Sox — with an ultrasound at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. It was Staci’s first ultrasound with Dr. Rafik Mansour, and it was supposed to be routine.
Instead, it revealed a black spot of fluid on Karsyn’s lung, about the size of a peanut.
The doctors weren’t too worried.
“You know how teenagers feel they’re just invincible?” she says. “That’s kind of how I felt my pregnancy was. And then that happened.”
Staci’s checkups were weekly in June. In early July, the doctors tapped Karsyn’s lung to remove the fluid, which surprised them by returning the next morning.
“It was not just fluid,” Mansour explained. “It was a certain type of fluid that has a little bit of fat in it. We did not know exactly where that originated from and why it happened.”
Even then, the prevailing thoughts from Drew and Staci were positive. At the very least, Karsyn would be easier to treat out of the womb than in. She might need to spend a few weeks, maybe even months, in the hospital after she was born. They understood that.
On July 23, Drew was with the PawSox in Buffalo when he got the call from Staci. Her water broke, she said. You need to get here now.
Drew got to the hospital about five minutes after Karsyn was born.
“She comes out, she’s screaming and yelling,” Staci remembers. “The prettiest sound I ever heard. Instant tears. It was one of the best moments of my life.”
“We’re unbelievably excited that she’s here and she’s aware and awake,” says Drew.
Her name is Karsyn. Staci had always liked masculine names for girls, and they had first scrawled out the unorthodox spelling on a napkin at an Olive Garden that spring.
Karsyn was quickly whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit where her lungs could be monitored, as expected. Drew and Staci visited her late that night, while she was on a breathing stabilizer in an incubator.
“She’s kind of laying there, having help breathing. And I say something, and she instantly looks up, like she knows my voice. She knows me,” Staci says. This is the first time she cries when telling the story.
“I put my hand in there, and she grabbed my finger. That’s the first time you really start to feel like a dad,” says Drew. “She was here.”
Early the next morning, the Suttons were woken up to the news that Karsyn’s lung had collapsed. Drew and Staci rushed down to the NICU, only to watch helplessly as doctors tried whatever they could to save their daughter’s life.
They prepped Karsyn for one last procedure, one last try to help her breathe on her own.
“She just crashed,” says Drew. “It just turned into chaos.”
The doctors at one of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals couldn’t stabilize Karsyn.
“The best minds of the whole department, we’re all scratching our heads trying to figure out a way of getting any better outcome,” Mansour said. “Nobody could.”
Born on July 23, Karsyn Estelle Sutton passed away on July 24. One day later, Drew and Staci walked out of the hospital, the two of them never lonelier.
“I felt cheated,” says Staci. “I had never felt that anger. … And I told God that I hated him. I told God I hated him.”
The weeks and months after Karsyn’s death were dark.
The Tampa Bay Rays’ Ben Zobrist, Drew’s best friend in baseball since they met in rookie ball seven years earlier, remembers the call he got from Drew the night Karsyn died.
"There weren’t a lot of words,” Zobrist said. “Just tears.”
“When you deal with these things,” said Yawn, who himself lost twins late in a pregnancy, “there’s really no playbook. It’s extraordinary pain.”
Drew threw himself back into baseball. He got called up again by the Red Sox on July 26, two days after the death of his newborn daughter, when J.D. Drew got hurt. He found himself playing third base that night, his mind numb. He admits the game helped him suppress his emotions for a time.
Staci couldn’t do that.
“I was not the same person,” she says. “I didn’t want to be around anybody. The whole time, I was, ‘I just want to be with Karsyn. I want to be in heaven with my daughter.’ ”
“When you get to that amount of pain in your life,” Drew says, “death doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. It’s such a deep hole that you’re in, such a dark place. All the things you were hoping for were just taken away from you.”
The two saw only one solution: to try again.
The doctors told Staci to wait six months. Having never discerned a reason for Karsyn’s health problems, they couldn’t assure her that the same thing wouldn’t happen again. One doctor even told the Suttons there was a 25-percent chance it would happen again — a statement that, nearly two years later, still makes their blood boil.
“I had to try again,” Staci says. “That meant maybe losing another child. But I wasn’t able to completely move on without trying again.”
They waited until January, when Staci became pregnant with a boy. That wasn’t the only difference in this pregnancy. Staci dyed her blond hair dark. She ate organic foods and took different vitamins. She stayed home in Dallas, away from Drew, for the length of the baseball season.
She didn’t buy anything for seven months. She couldn’t bear the thought of having to return another pair of unused New Balance sneakers.
“I wouldn’t let myself get emotionally attached,” she says. “I was still waiting for those words, that something’s not right.”
“For us, there was no ‘out of the woods,’ ” says Drew. “We had our baby in front of us, and then she was gone. It was a long, long wait to see if he was going to be healthy.”
Away from his wife for the first time since they had been set up by a teammate after the 2008 season, Drew endured the longest season of his life, playing for three different organizations.
“I probably thought more about quitting baseball than I have in one season,” he confides. In the final two months of her pregnancy, Staci’s fear abated enough to allow her to decorate a nautically themed nursery for their son. He would be named Ryder, since Drew wouldn’t let her name him Ryden, after her favorite country band.
That fall, with Ryder’s due date a week away, Staci underwent another Caesarean section to deliver him on Oct. 8.
This time, they got to hold their newborn right away.
“They handed him right to me,” Drew says, “basically saying, ‘He’s good.’ ”
“It was just kind of surreal,” says Staci. “I have this beautiful healthy little boy, and he’s coming home with me. He was just the most amazing perfect thing. I’ve never been happier.”
“It was a long wait for Ryder to get here,” Drew says. “A long, long wait.”
You can see right through the clear water of the Llano River to its rocky bottom. On some land Staci’s family owns on the river — a little west of Austin, a lot north of San Antonio — there’s a pair of tiny waterfalls that come together.
Karsyn Falls, they call it now, after the Suttons spread their daughter’s ashes there.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her,” says Drew. “What she would look like right now, what she’d be doing.”
“I know she was only here for 22 hours, but I pray that her life has an impact on somebody,” Staci says. “I may never know what it is or if it even happens, but that’s my prayer.
“I know one day I will see her again. My faith in Christ, I will see her again.”
Drew and Staci are better parents because of what they went through, they say. They acknowledge that they appreciate Ryder more than they may have appreciated Karsyn had she been born healthy.
They are stronger people now, too, welded together by a hardship they only could have endured together.
“Pain is still pain,” Drew says, “and there’s only one way to get through pain, and that’s to go through it.”
They’re back at McCoy, and with Ryder giggling in his arms, Drew isn’t worried about that night’s game with Charlotte, or how Jose Iglesias’ emergence affects his chances of playing in the majors this season, or about going 0-for-4 the previous night. It’s been a while since Drew Sutton has worried about an 0-for-4.
He’s happy to be home for a few more days and that the upcoming road trip is only four games and not the usual eight. Ryder won’t change too much while he’s gone.
So Drew’s spinning Ryder around on his shoulders, and Staci mentions how she and her sisters have talked informally about a pregnancy pact, of all trying together at the same time. January, they’re thinking.
“Maybe we’ll have another daughter,” she says, her voice simultaneously tinged with hope and a little nostalgia. She raises her voice a little in Drew’s direction. “January?”
With Ryder in his arms, Drew looks at Staci. He stares hard at her, about three seconds’ worth, then cracks up laughing.
Like father, like son.
Husband and Father of Three.
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Drew Sutton, and his wife, Staci, are shown with their eight-month-old son Ryder. The Suttons celebrating Father's Day for the first time since their newborn daughter died in July 2011.
BY TIM BRITTON Providence Journal Sports Writer firstname.lastname@example.org