Coach faces cancer with great attitude, support
Outlook great for Cubs' Pratt, as has been reaction from players
MESA, Ariz. -- Tom Pratt reported to HoHoKam Park for the start of Minor League minicamp in February just as he had for the last 12 years. But he was bothered by excruciating headaches that had been nagging him for about three months.
"They were like knives everywhere," Pratt said.
This season, Pratt was going to shift from Class A Daytona to the Class A Peoria team as the pitching coach. He'd been seeing a doctor for some neck problems and was told not to worry about the headaches.
"Finally, I just couldn't take it any more," Pratt said. "I was on a field one day and I couldn't even throw a baseball, it hurt so bad. I had to say 'uncle.' [The doctor] said it didn't sound good, so they sent me off to the hospital. That was on a Wednesday morning and that night I was in Barrow, brain surgery, and the tumor was removed. It was about the size of a plum."
When Pratt woke up from the procedure on Feb. 29, he was at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, surrounded by family. The tumor, which was cancerous, had been completely removed.
"They got it all," he said. "The only thing is, it's [a tumor]. It's very fast growing but does not spread."
On Thursday, Pratt was to be examined and have an MRI to determine the extent of the healing from the surgery.
"When it's healed enough, then they'll go attack," he said. "They'll go for the kill."
What's next is 14 months of almost daily chemotherapy and radiation.
"To be honest, when I first heard about it, and I was kind of in a delirious state from the surgery, the first thing that comes to my mind is Gary Carter and other baseball players who have died," Pratt said.
Carter, the Hall of Fame catcher, died in February. He had been diagnosed with four brain tumors last May.
"[The doctors] said, 'No,' " Pratt said. " 'First of all, we got it all. Second of all, it doesn't spread. It's not going anywhere. At worst, it'll just grow.' "
Pratt stopped by HoHoKam Park for a Cubs game shortly after the Cactus League season started. His wife, Peggy, and daughter, Amy, were with him. He was wearing a large straw hat and flashing the same bright smile he always has.
"I look back on my coaching career, my playing career, and what we always try to preach to all the guys is, 'Hey, deal with it,' " Pratt said. "That's what we tell them."
But this isn't the same as a bad outing in a Minor League game or losing control of your fastball.
"I know," Pratt said. "I don't take it lightly, but I'm going to for sure do what the doctors tell me to do because they know. I was out of the hospital less than 30 hours after the surgery, taking two 20-minute walks a day."
At HoHoKam, Pratt was greeted by body-crunching hugs from his former players. His passion for them and for the game is genuine and cancer can't affect that.
"He's in a great mood," said Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who was one of Pratt's projects in the Minors. "Different things happen in people's lives and how you approach them says a lot about you. The way T.P. is approaching this says a lot about him.
"His resilience and how he much he fights and how he understands he has to stay strong for everyone else is impressive," Samardzija said. "You don't see that too often. A lot of times people mope around and that's definitely not him. He's in a situation where he could mope around, and he's not, and he's happy and he's here. It means the world. It makes you feel good when you come into something that you were in good hands. T.P.'s great."
"I am so overwhelmed with the phone calls," Pratt said. "There were times in the hospital I didn't know how to handle it and couldn't handle it. It's so invigorating and so motivating. With these kids here, some of these guys, we shed a lot of blood, sweat and tears together. I've gotten very, very close. To see some of these guys who I know fulfill their dreams is incredible."
Pratt has been in the Cubs system long enough to have helped Kerry Wood in 2000 when he was coming back from elbow surgery.
"He's a tremendous player, he's a family man, a husband, he's a great person in the community," Pratt said. "I have all the admiration in the world for that guy. It's an inspiration every time I see that guy -- I want to be just like him. I do. And I'm 61 years old. I look at that guy and go, 'Man, you're my hero.' "
Wood remembers seeing Pratt three days before he had the surgery.
"He said he was going fishing right before camp started," Wood said. "Something like that comes out of nowhere. You need a good support group. He's been upbeat and come in here in a great mood, smiling. He seems like his normal self, but he's obviously got a tough road ahead of him."
Pratt has received support from unexpected sources, too. Cubs prospect Anthony Rizzo came up to Pratt and introduced himself. Rizzo was limited to 21 games in 2008 after he was diagnosed with limited state classical Hodgkins lymphoma. Now, he's projected as the Cubs first baseman of the future.
"I don't know him from Adam except what I've read about him," Pratt said. "He introduced himself and said, 'I'm a cancer survivor. Let's talk about what's going on.' How classy is that? That gave me goosebumps."
Rizzo downplayed his involvement.
"He probably has a lot more of a road to take than I did," the 22-year-old infielder said. "He has to go through it and I've been through it, so it's just helping other people out."
Rizzo was impressed with Pratt's upbeat attitude.
"You wouldn't be able to tell," Rizzo said. "That's what I was told when I went through it. Don't let it beat you, don't let it get you down, and that's what I did and that's the message I gave to him."
It's odd to have a player helping a coach. "It doesn't matter who it is," Rizzo said. "It's more than baseball, it's more than anything."
Some fans in Daytona have established a Facebook page dedicated to Pratt's journey, titled "We Will Fight This." There's another line: "And then we will all go fishing!"
"Everyone here in Daytona has T.P. in our thoughts and prayers," said Robbie Aaron, director of broadcasting and media relations for the Daytona Cubs. "He is and will always be a part of our family. We know how strong of an individual he is, and between that and his wonderful family and friends, we can't wait for him to overcome this and get back on the field again."
This isn't the normal Spring Training story. But Pratt is not just another coach. He's devoted his life to baseball and to the players under his watch. He's been back at HoHoKam Park in uniform for games at the invitation of manager Dale Sveum. Pratt has to wear a batting helmet for protection and the medical staff also wants him to stay below the dugout fence to avoid errant throws or foul balls. That's been tough.
"When Jeff Samardzija was throwing the other day, that was the best I have ever seen him throw," Pratt said. "I was up on the top step, I was overwhelmed. I was so pumped for him. And Mark [O'Neal, head athletic trainer] comes up and says, 'Hey, man, you've got to get out of here.' "
On Tuesday, Pratt was at Fitch Park with Oneri Fleita, vice president of player personnel, to watch the Minor Leaguers. Fleita wanted Pratt's opinion on the pitchers.
"That meant a lot to me," Pratt said. "[Fleita] asked a lot of questions about some of the guys I had before. It gave me a lot of worth and I felt I was busy doing something."
He was a little miffed at his wife on Wednesday when he sat down for this interview in the dugout at HoHoKam. Most coaches are at the fields before sunrise, but his wife had turned off the alarm clock so he could sleep late.
"She said, 'Go ahead and be mad. I'm looking out for you,' " he said, laughing.
He did need the rest. After all, he's got a busy summer ahead. Instead of going to Peoria, Pratt will stay in Arizona to continue his treatments. But he'll also coach at extended spring training and handle any rehab assignments.
He now wears a yellow "LIVESTRONG" wristband and also one that says "Team Pratt."
"There's no time to have pity," Pratt said. "I want to be around these guys. These guys are the epitome of Major League sports right here. To see the way these guys are playing now and how they conduct themselves in the dugout, it's overwhelming.
"We're going to win this fricking World Series here," he said. "We have a really good makeup. I'm loving it."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.