12/17/2010 4:37PM

Baez moves forward by helping others

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Rudy Baez, the pride of Boston and Santo Domingo, has been on the phone to Michael Martinez lately. Before this week, they knew of each other only by name, as brothers in arms, having in common only the way that their lives as Thoroughbred jockeys came to an end. Martinez was paralyzed from the chest down in a crash at Golden Gate Fields last September. Baez suffered a similar fate in an accident at Rockingham Park in 1999.

The difference, and it is considerable, is that Baez was 49 when he was injured, approaching the final act of a career that had risen to the heights of 4,874 winners. His home ground was Suffolk Downs, where he reigned supreme as one of New England’s most popular sports stars.

Martinez, on the other hand, was 24 when he went down and in the midst of his break-out season. With 168 winners at the time of his fall, he ranked 13th in the nation and was beginning to bark at the heels of Northern California icon Russell Baze at meet after meet.

Martinez has had just three months to deal with the fact that, short of a miracle whose name is not yet known, he will never walk again. The hope that he might have been a candidate for stem-cell therapy flickered and died within days of his diagnosis. Now, with a wife and son – born just days after the accident – Martinez faces a life redefined, with challenges far removed to the physically competitive world with which he had become familiar. It was about those challenges that Baez, on the urging of Jockey’s Guild executive Darrell Haire, gave Martinez a call.

“I told him it takes about a year before your body gets used to your injuries,” Baez said this week from his home in Wakefield, Mass. “In that time, you go through a lot of ups and downs. You get infections. You get depressed. There were a lot of times I dreamt to be dead. It can be very, very tough.

“But you got to go forward,” he said. “It does get better. I remember when I was in the hospital it really helped me to go spend time with the other guys in wheechairs. The doctors, nurses – they can only tell you so much. It’s those guys who lived in the chairs who could tell me what I needed to know. I think Michael listened to me, and if he did, I hope it will help him.”

This was not an unusual gesture. Baez has spent much of the decade since his injury reaching out to others in his condition. He makes himself available as a resource for the ongoing efforts of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund – from which he receives support of $1,000 per month – to comfort and counsel the scores of riders like Martinez who have been paralyzed. Baez also is a regular visitor to a nearby Boston hospital, where he huddles with young people who have, for whatever reason, lost the ability to walk.

“Knives, gunshots, there’s a lot of guys get hurt because of gangs,” Baez said. “They look at what happened and think their life is over. I tell them it’s not.

“For some reason, when I fell I didn’t die,” Baez went on. “I could have been killed very easy, but I wasn’t. Because of that, I got to think the guy up there let me live for a reason, and it’s up to me to figure out that reason when I wake up every day.”

Even in a world fraught with the unexpected, it would not be unreasonable to think the Baez family accepted more than their lifetime ration of bad luck when Rudy went down. Not so. Five years ago, his wife, Judy, underwent both surgical and radiation treatments for a malignant tumor discovered in her mouth.

“I almost lost her,” Baez said. “You don’t want to see your worst enemy have cancer. For a year, she went through hell. I would take her to the hospital and be right by her side all the time, just like she did for me when I got hurt. She was so brave, and now she’s doing very well. We’re a couple of soldiers, we two.”

And always on the march. When Suffolk Downs is running, Baez spends his days in the jockeys room as counselor, confessor, and all-around inspiration. His status is derived not only from his relentlessly positive attitude in the face of his injury, but also because of his 13 Suffolk Downs riding titles hanging on the wall.

In title, Baez is sort of an ex-officio clerk of scales, although his insurance status does not allow him to accept any kind of salary for what amounts to volunteer work on his own time. Suffolk Downs provides Baez with a small stipend for gas, along with a car specially outfitted with hand-controls and wheelchair transport.

“I’m very grateful,” Baez said. “There is nothing more important than having something to do, every day, all the time. You got to keep busy – get out of the house, go to the gym, see people – anything to keep your eye off your situation. If you sit home alone and do nothing, you will think a lot of bad things.”

For Baez, such dark times have passed, and he promises the same for a young colleague like Martinez.

“I will tell you,” Baez said, “and I mean it, there are days when I wake up I don’t even know I’m in a wheelchair. I feel I’m walking, and I go through the day like that – going, going, going – and then at night I am tired from all the things I did, and I fall asleep watching TV, just like anybody would.”

Only in a different kind of chair.