Champions, connections and cancer

SEATTLE -- Baseball connects our lives as surely as those 108 red seams stitching together the Rawlings leather.

I thought about this last Sunday as I biked in the 100-mile Obliteride, the annual Seattle bike ride to raise money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center here. The center is named after Fred Hutchinson, a former major league pitcher and manager from Seattle. He made his debut in the same 1939 game that Lou Gehrig's playing streak ended, and gave up eight runs in less than an inning that day. But he went on to win 95 games and be an All-Star.

Gehrig died from the disease that bears his name at age 37, two years after Hutchinson's debut. Hutchinson died of cancer at age 45 in 1964, three years after managing Cincinnati to the World Series. He was diagnosed with lung cancer prior to the '64 season, yet managed the Reds into August, a mere three months before he died. (His last game was 50 years ago this week.) A year later, his brother, Dr. William Hutchinson, created the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in his honor. It is one of the finest cancer research centers in the world.

Since 1965, baseball has honored Hutchinson every year with the Hutch Award, which is given to the player who best exemplifies his fighting spirit and competitive fire. Last year's recipient was Raul Ibanez, and other recent winners include Barry Zito and Jon Lester.

I was participating in the Hutchinson Center's Obliteride in the memory of a friend and former teammate, Mark A. Thomas, who died from pancreatic cancer at age 45 two months ago. His father, Mark Thomas, is the great friend and passionate baseball fan I have often referred to in my columns by his nickname, Scooter. Cancer has been rampant in Scooter's family. Two brothers and a sister died from it. Another sister died of leukemia at a young age. Scooter has survived two separate bouts of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, his survival in large part due to research on stem cell treatment by the Hutchinson Center.

Mark Jr. learned he had pancreatic cancer, one of the worst forms of cancer there is, during spring training this year while he was still living in Arizona. He returned to Seattle for treatment but died 99 excruciatingly painful days later. Just before he passed, his mother, Jackie, leaned over his bed and told him, "You never got a final at-bat."

Like his parents, Mark was an enormous baseball fan. He absolutely loved the game. When I visited him in the hospital, he, his parents and his brother were all watching a Mariners game. As Scooter said of his own cancer, watching baseball is what kept him going through his years of chemo treatment at Seattle's Swedish Hospital.

Mark Jr. also was a friend of veteran reliever Jamey Wright. They connected through Wright's brother-in-law, Tony; Mark was like a big brother to Tony's two children. "They treated him like a jungle gym," Wright said.

"It's sad, so sad," Wright said. "He was such a great guy. He and Tony were best friends. He was around before Tony's kids were born. Then he would watch them or pick them up at school or whatever was needed. He was just an awesome guy. He would do anything for anybody."

Mark's obituary ran with a photo of him standing in front of a plaque inside the Hall of Fame, which was a special place to him. To honor their son, Scooter and Jackie plan to spread a portion of his ashes somewhere in Cooperstown, where Gehrig and so many other winners are immortalized, including 11 Hutch Award recipients.

Like the players with their plaques on the Hall of Fame walls, Mark will live on in Cooperstown.

Mark Jr. was the winning pitcher when our college softball team won the 1989 intramural championship at the University of Washington. We had been trying to win that championship -- and the coveted T-shirts that went with it -- for so long that very few of the players on our team still were in college, or actually eligible to play that 1989 season. (What can I say? No one ever checked to see if we were still enrolled.)

Just out of the army, Junior was filling in for his father, who had broken his ankle while tagging out a runner late in our semifinal victory. I was a young reporter covering the Mariners for the Bellevue Journal-American and used the paper's typesetting equipment to print a commemorative account of the championship game.

Showing the exquisite control of his father, Junior painted the corners, walked none and allowed no more than a single run in any inning. "I'm going to have a chocolate bar named after me," said Junior.

I made up that quote as a reference to Ken Griffey Jr., who did have a chocolate bar named after him that same year, which was his rookie season in Seattle. The finest player in Mariners history, Griffey is sometimes credited with keeping the team in town, and Safeco Field is occasionally referred to as the House That Junior Built. But the image at the end of each row of seats at Safeco Field isn't Griffey. It's a bronze relief of a player more important to Seattle: Fred Hutchinson.

As I said, baseball connects. And it did so throughout my ride.

The 100-mile Obliteride route took us past the UW campus and McMahon Hall, where Tim Lincecum and I lived on the same floor (albeit many more years apart than I care to acknowledge). It took us under Interstate 90, which at its western end connects Safeco Field to Fenway Park at its eastern end. At Fenway, Ted Williams' 502-foot home run is marked by the red seat where the baseball landed.

Williams hit that home run off Fred Hutchinson.

The route took us a block from the Seattle Tennis Club, where I got my start in sports writing by typing up accounts of the Statis-Pro baseball board games I played to pass time as a night security guard. It went through the Rainier Beach neighborhood, where Hutchinson grew up, and through Issaquah, near where Ibanez, the most recent Hutch Award recipient, lives. It went past the Seahawks' headquarters, where former minor league second baseman Russell Wilson, the most popular athlete in Seattle, works.

Rod Mar, who was our softball team's second baseman in 1989, is the Seahawks' photographer. He is one of the finest sports photographers in the world -- he took first place in the Pictures of the Year International competition for his work at the 2008 Beijing Olympics -- and has shot for Sports Illustrated and ESPN, among other media outlets. (Rod photographed me riding naked on a bike for a Body Issue story last year.) Unfortunately, he has no photos from our championship game in '89 because he double-exposed the negatives.

Rod isn't the only one from that softball team who did all right for himself in sports. Eric Radovich, the center fielder who made the brilliant throw home when Scooter broke his ankle, is an official scorer and PA announcer for the Mariners. Chip Lydum, whose two-out, two-run single gave us the lead in our final at-bat, is the UW associate director of athletics and oversaw the remodel of Husky Stadium. Luke Esser, a former state legislator, and Dan Lepse, assistant AD and sports information director for Seattle Pacific University, have covered games for the Associated Press. Bruce Orwall, senior editor for Europe, Middle East and Africa for the Wall Street Journal, has covered a couple of Olympics with me. Tim Hevly, who replaced me on the team when I moved to St. Paul to cover the Twins, is the Mariners' director of baseball information.

Even the man I paid to make the flannel jerseys for us after we won, Jerry Cohen of Ebbets Field Flannels, was just honored by the Baseball Reliquary.

And I have covered baseball for a quarter century, writing from 19 World Series, including when the Red Sox, White Sox, Giants and Angels finally ended their long championship droughts. Of all the championship games I've experienced, though, the one that sticks out most in my mind is our intramural championship game.

When I completed the Obliteride, I rode down to the UW campus and paused at the field where we won that game. The softball field is no longer there -- it has been replaced by a new track for the UW -- but I looked out and remembered that victory. And I remembered our pitcher that day, Mark. As I was trying to take a decent selfie, a passerby asked if he could help me with the photo. And as he did, I explained the meaning of it all. My voice cracked with emotion.

We won that championship 25 years ago when we were all young and had so much life ahead of us. Sadly, Mark, who was the youngest of us all, did not have nearly enough life ahead.

Cancer, unfortunately, connects us almost as much as baseball.