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On Jan. 18, 1987, 30 hours after he accidentally exploded a five-gallon container of gas at his home in St. Louis County and set himself on fire, John O’Leary was certain to die.

He had suffered third-degree burns over 87 percent of his body, the kind of burns that sear through three layers of skin, through fat and through muscle, the kind people don’t survive, surely not a 9-year-old boy.

He was tied down to a hospital bed, on a tracheal tube, unable to breathe for himself, unable to drink or speak, eyes swollen shut. He was unrecognizable, unimaginable ... when a voice penetrated the deafening silence: “Listen to me, kid, you’re going to make it.”

Like lots of St. Louis boys, John was a baseball fan. He listened to Cardinals games. He recognized the voice instantly.

“And when you do, we’re going to celebrate. We’re going have ‘John O’Leary Day’ at the ballpark.”

A few moments later, Jack Buck walked out. He had heard about the accident from a friend of a friend of a neighbor. He didn’t know the O’Leary family, but he went to what is now Mercy Children’s Hospital St. Louis on a snowy evening to visit the boy. And as he pulled the doors of the burn center closed behind him, he stopped, leaned against the glass and cried.

A nurse came over to console him. “Is that little boy going to make it?” Buck asked. “Is he going to live?”

Such a gruesome situation does not lend itself to false hope. The nurse shot straight with the straight-shooting broadcaster. “Mr. Buck, I’m really sorry,” the nurse said, “but the condition he is in ... with the severity of the burns ... there’s really no hope of him surviving.”

Buck drove home. The following morning, he was back at the burn center, back in O’Leary’s room.

“Wake up, kid, I’m back,” he said, in that unforgettable voice. “Listen to me, you have to keep fighting. You’re going to beat this, you’re going to live. We’re going to have ‘John O’Leary Day’ at the ballpark and make it all worthwhile.”

The visits went on for the next five months, and John O’Leary kept fighting. When Buck wasn’t able to come to the room, he talked about O’Leary on the radio during broadcasts of the Cardinals games. He often sent players and athletes to visit in his stead.

John O'Leary

John O'Leary in a 1988 Post-Dispatch file photo.

He embraced a suffering kid he didn’t know from Adam, did everything he could to make a difference, and encouraged others — including Blues player Gino Cavallini and Cardinals outfielder Andy Van Slyke — to do the same.

In July 1987, some seven months after he first visited O’Leary, Buck made good on the promise. He hosted the O’Leary family for “John O’Leary Day” at Busch Stadium. During the game, he had John and his family up to the broadcast booth, and put them on the air.

At the time, John remained a disconcerting sight. He was strapped to a wheelchair, in a neck brace, bandaged head to toe. He had no muscle mass and no strength, and the fingers on both of his hands had been amputated. He knew the players, the stats, the game, but he couldn’t keep a box score or even write his name.

It was a pitiable situation, and one that pity wasn’t going to help. The following day, the O’Learys opened their mailbox to find something for John — a baseball autographed by Ozzie Smith. There was a note attached:

“Kid, if you want a second baseball, all you have to do is write a ‘Thank You’ letter to the man who signed the first one. — Jack Buck”

The next day, Denny and Susan O’Leary helped their son hold a pen in the stubs of his fingers and scribble a letter to Smith. They mailed the letter, and two days later, a second baseball arrived, with a note attached: “Kid, if you want a third baseball, all you have to do is ...”

So it went over the next many weeks. Throughout a 1987 baseball season that sent the Cardinals to a pennant and World Series, Buck kept sending baseballs, 60 of them in all, autographed by various players. Over the course of that time, the traumatized 9-year-old learned to write thank you letters all by himself. Before long, he was back in school, back believing in himself, back living.

The calls, letters, tickets and visits to the booth continued for years. Buck never stopped encouraging, and O’Leary never stopped fighting. The severely burned kid who was supposed to die went on to De Smet High School, then to college.

He graduated in the spring of 1999 with a degree from St. Louis University’s John Cook School of Business. On that day, Jack Buck was in attendance. He brought a package for John, and there was a note attached.

“Kid, this means lot to me. I hope it means a lot to you, too.”

As he read the note, O’Leary opened the package in disbelief. Inside was the priceless crystal baseball presented to Buck upon his induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The note concluded in vintage Jack Buck style.

“It’s yours now. Don’t drop it.”

O’Leary’s story is remarkable on so many levels. He started a successful real estate development business, became a chaplain at a children’s hospital and an inspirational speaker. He married the girl of his dreams, Beth, and they have a loving family that includes three boys and a girl.

Last week marked the release of O’Leary’s inspiring book, “On Fire,” which quickly has scaled the charts at Amazon.cοm. His miraculous account is filled with guardian angels, his mother and father, brother and sisters, doctors, teachers and friends, athletes such as Cavallini.

And prominent among them is a man the terrified 9-year-old didn’t even know, a man who understood the power he had to make a difference, a man who had the heart to use it.

“That guy ...” O’Leary said, pausing to let the emotions settle. “And what he did. ... He had no idea any of this was going to happen. He had no clue we would be rolling out this book 12 years after his death, or anything like that. All he knew was that he could do more for somebody else.”

Jack Buck was 77 when he passed away on June 18, 2002. John O’Leary is 39 now, making a difference, inspiring others. He has never dropped the ball.

Dan O'Neill is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch