Big Hearts

Photo: Stephen Travarca

I wish you could’ve met my father.

Black and white photo of baseball player running to home plate and team waiting to congratulate him

Dad gets a warm welcome “home” from his teammates.

George Kalafatis was a gentle giant. A first-generation American, he grew up in Queens, New York, the son of Greek immigrants. 

Dad was a super-athlete. From an early age, the baseball diamond was his special place. At Long Island University, he played first base and batted .533, leading his team to a couple of conference titles in the 1960s. He also met my mother in college. 

Drafted by the Detroit Tigers, Dad went on to shine in the minor leagues. In Alabama, old-timers still remember that magic night when George Kalafatis pounded a record-setting four home runs for the Montgomery Rebels in a 13-0 victory over the Birmingham Barons. 

With Mom’s encouragement, Dad prepared for life after baseball by going to law school. A friend introduced him to Mark McCormack of the International Management Group (IMG), where my father brought team sports into the fold. He later started his own agency. Among his clients were some of the biggest names in professional sports. 

One evening in 1995, my family gathered to celebrate my brother’s birthday. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner. The next day, Dad said he felt tired. He sat down, put his head back and died. 

He was only 50 years old. 

He wasn’t overweight. He wasn’t a smoker. He wasn’t a drinker. He was in good shape. But just like that, Dad was gone. 

The autopsy revealed myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that can lead to sudden cardiac death. I remember doctors using the phrase “the silent killer.” Unbeknownst to my father, his heart had been under attack for some time, the aftermath of a virus that likely dated back to his ballplaying days. 

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. As you’ll see in our cover story, however, Cleveland Clinic — with its long history of cardiovascular breakthroughs — remains at the forefront of care, research and education in this space. As Lars G. Svensson, MD, PhD, Chief of the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute, sums it up so well: “Finding new ways of doing things better remains part of our DNA here.” 

And let’s be clear: You make this possible. Philanthropy seeds and speeds the innovations that bring cardiovascular patients of all ages from around the world to us. 

I still miss my father every day. He left us too soon, but it fills me with hope to know that the loved ones of so many others will have another shot at life — because of Cleveland Clinic and the big hearts of people like you.