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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Baseball the right medicine for Padres coaches battling cancer


SAN DIEGO -- One by one, they lined up along the first-base line for home-opener introductions. A winter's worth of waiting behind them, a summer's worth of memories in front of them.

The bullpen coach, who every Tuesday during spring training flew home to San Diego for chemotherapy to battle pancreatic cancer -- then returned in time for Wednesday's workout.

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The first-base coach, who one year ago was taking chemotherapy while fighting Hodgkin's lymphoma.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the rest of your San Diego Padres. ...

Some things, advance scouts can't chart. Some things, computer programs can't predict. And on this very different Tuesday for a team looking for traction following last summer's shocking 90-win season, the home opener served as renewal of a different sort.

"Top to bottom, from ownership to the front office to everyone in the clubhouse, I've received nothing but great support from day one," said Darrel Akerfelds, 48, starting his 10th full season as San Diego's bullpen coach, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last December, brushing a few tears away during a dugout conversation.

"It gets overwhelming at times, how much care there's been."

"I feel great," said Dave Roberts, 38, the first-base coach who played 10 seasons in the majors and remains a legend in Boston for the stolen base that changed Red Sox fortunes in the Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. "Being back in uniform and being with these guys ... it's very humbling to be a part of this group."

Not standing on the baseline during intros Tuesday, but not far from everyone's thoughts, was Hall of Famer and Mr. Padre Tony Gwynn, who spent his winter undergoing radiation treatments for a tumor in his mouth. Gwynn, coaching San Diego State University's baseball team at Cal State Long Beach, is scheduled to be in the Padres' broadcast booth on Wednesday afternoon.

"It's crazy," Los Angeles outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. said the other day in Dodger Stadium. "Three guys who are a part of Padres history at one point or another all get cancer within months of each other.

"At this point, it seems like all three are on the winning side. Thank God. He's the only one who can help."

Akerfelds, a former linebacker at the University of Arkansas who played in the 1981 Gator Bowl and was a roommate of All-American Billy Ray Smith's, is in remarkable shape for a man who has been hooked up to a chemotherapy drip for 11 of the past 12 Tuesdays. Doctors told him he would have many side effects, but he's been able to elude two that would have knocked him out of spring training: Nausea and fatigue.

Some duties have been curtailed -- he's not allowed to catch in the bullpen, for example -- but mostly, Akerfelds is doing most of what he does: Coach. And Padres pitchers maybe are providing the best medicine this side of chemo, carrying on like nothing has changed.

"If we treated him any differently than usual, I think it would be weird," closer Heath Bell said. "We don't really feel like he's sick.

"It's like he's just getting to leave once in awhile. And it's no biggie."

When it is a biggie, Akerfelds has his own clubhouse support group. Aside from Roberts, there's Mark "Stump" Merila. A Padres bullpen catcher, Merila is thriving now after being stricken with a brain tumor that was diagnosed in 2005.

"We've been leaning on each other," said Roberts, who will undergo a PET scan -- a test that aids doctors in measuring organ functions such as blood flow, oxygen use and glucose metabolism -- in Boston when the Padres play there June 20-22.

The man they call "Doc" is scheduled to undergo PET scans twice a year as the real docs continue to monitor his levels and make sure the lymphoma stays in remission.

"I feel as good as I've ever felt," Roberts said.

Gwynn Jr. said his father, who was diagnosed with parotid cancer in August, is headed in that direction after a long fall and winter during which, for a time, he couldn't close his right eye, couldn't smile, was partially paralyzed on the right side of his face, lost his appetite and felt as if the skin was burned off his face.

But by mid-winter, Gwynn, 50, was back coaching his Aztecs baseball team from day one, and in March, doctors told him he was cancer-free.

"When I left for spring training, he was still not feeling good," Gwynn Jr. said. "When I saw him [several days ago], he was starting to feel a little better.

"I don't know if it was the baseball season, but it certainly seemed to give him a boost."

Opening day boosts so many of us, on so many different levels.

Then you watch Akerfelds, and you understand there's a whole different level of inspiration.

"Not even today, how about every day?" Padres manager Bud Black said. "When we heard the news in December, your heart just sinks. What he's meant to me, to the coaching staff, to the players, and to see him continuing to be himself and doing his job ... it's remarkable."

The plan is to shrink the tumor in Akerfelds' pancreas enough so that it moves away from a nerve and allows him to become among the 15 to 20 percent of pancreatic cancer victims who are candidates for a Whipple operation, a surgery in which doctors usually remove parts of the pancreas, stomach and other organs.

Approximately 25 percent of the patients who undergo the Whipple procedure are cured.

Akerfelds is scheduled for one more chemotherapy treatment in his latest round Monday. Then, after the Padres return from a series against the Cubs in Chicago on April 20, he will undergo tests to determine whether he can undergo the Whipple procedure.

"I hate to miss games," Akerfelds said. "But, hopefully, I'll miss about a month here in a couple of weeks."

Last week in St. Louis, close to 20 Padres -- including Merila, 39 -- went to see the NHL's Blues on their night off Friday. When it was finished and it was time to return to the hotel, there was a brief hesitation over Merila, whose brain tumor interrupted his motor skills enough to knock him into a wheelchair a few years ago.

"Hey Stump, cab?" Bell asked.

"How far is it to the hotel?" Merila wondered.

"About five blocks."

"No, man, I'll walk!"

"A year or two ago, no chance he's walking," Bell said Tuesday.

The Padres are hoping -- planning -- for the same kind of recovery for Akerfelds, who once upon a time played long toss with Bell (among others) as a matter of routine. But as he conserves strength for the fight of his life, that's out for now.

"He's going to finish his treatments, and then have surgery," Bell announced before a 3-1 victory against the Giants on Tuesday. "And then in June or July, we're going to be playing catch again."


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