Commentary

Darrel Akerfelds resolved to fight

Padres bullpen coach diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year

Updated: December 5, 2011, 9:22 PM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- Pitchers and catchers report for spring training in 76 days. But at one major league camp, they will be waiting on a coach.

If or when he arrives, they will place a water bottle on his locker-room chair. They will concoct a seaweed and garlic shake for him in the clubhouse kitchen. They will lay out small, medium and large uniforms for him, depending on how much he weighs. They will do everything in their power to make this the best spring of his life.

Last year at this time, the coach received troubling news. He had pancreatic cancer. Most patients live only 12 to 18 months after diagnosis, and all of them have every right to fall to pieces. But this coach did something completely opposite: He went back to work in a big league bullpen.

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To know San Diego Padres bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds is to marvel at him. In the span of one baseball season, while Justin Verlander was throwing no-hitters for the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals were lying in the weeds, Akerfelds might have had the most impressive performance of all. During the course of 162 Padres games, Akerfelds braved his chemotherapy, ignored his chronic fatigue, warmed up pitchers with a port attached to his body, wore a surgical mask on flights … and made it to the ballpark 148 times.

That included afternoon games, late games, day games after night games, night games after day games, 100 percent humidity games in Atlanta and wind-swept games in San Francisco. That included charting every single pitch by every single reliever in his bullpen. That included scouting every last hitter in the National and American Leagues -- and knowing, on demand, how to get each one of them out. That included listening for the bullpen phone to ring. That included listening for Heath Bell's jokes. That included taking 15 relievers and turning them into the second best bullpen in the NL.

All this after he was supposedly dying.


That boy running on the side of the road was Darrel Akerfelds.

[+] EnlargeDarrel Akerfelds
Akerfelds familyTeenage Darrel, the runner, with a trophy.

Go back 34 years to Littleton, Colo. -- circa 1977 -- and there wasn't a kid with brighter eyes, a quicker memory or a hardier attitude. Back before anyone uttered the word "cross-training," 15-year-old Darrel cross-trained. Every afternoon, in the hottest part of the day, he ran nine miles from Columbine High School to Jefferson County Stadium. He charged down Wadsworth Boulevard with his shirt off, dodging traffic. This wasn't some light jog. He would follow that up with a weight-lifting session. He was obsessed.

He turned even the simplest chores into a workout. His younger brother, Duane, was an aspiring baseball player, so before Duane's team practiced, Darrel would volunteer to rake the infield. He would tie a heavy car tire to a rope and drag it over the dirt, strengthening his lats. The team didn't have to thank him; it made Darrel's day.

Part of this was his personality, but part of it was learned from his father, Abes. For 30 years, Abes loaded and unloaded food at a grocery store warehouse. Every day, he woke up at 3:30 a.m. for the early shift so he could be home by 2:30 p.m. to coach his three sons -- all of whom wound up starring at Columbine High.

The oldest, Danny, ended up playing college football at BYU with Steve Young. Darrel became a Parade High School All-American as a linebacker -- known (predictably) for being able to run all day. He also threw 90 mph for the baseball team, where one of his favorite coaches was business teacher Dave Sanders. He would often talk to Sanders and the other coaches about whether he should stick with baseball, and they all told him absolutely yes. When the Atlanta Braves drafted him in the ninth round of the 1980 amateur draft, it validated the coaches' thinking. But he still preferred football, and in the spring of his senior year he signed to play both sports at the University of Arkansas.

His whole life was ahead of him. On the day of his high school graduation at Jefferson County Stadium, he ran the nine miles from Columbine to the ceremony, did a victory lap around the track then rushed to put on his cap and gown. Many of his classmates voted him most likely to succeed -- or to run a marathon.

Akerfelds
FamilyDarrel in football uniform after an Arkansas victory.

With the Razorbacks, he roomed with future NFL star Billy Ray Smith and started in the 1981 Gator Bowl against North Carolina. But no matter how much he lifted weights, Darrel was stuck at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. He couldn't imagine himself evolving into an NFL player, so he transferred to Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo., to focus on pitching.

It was a wise choice again; the Seattle Mariners made him the seventh overall choice of the 1983 draft. By 1986, he was with the Oakland A's Triple-A team and got called up to pitch in two big league games. He was in a clubhouse with Jose Canseco, Dave Stewart, Terry Steinbach and Mark McGwire -- and listened to every word that rookie manager Tony La Russa told him. During the 1987 season, Darrel started out 10-3 at Triple-A, but had enough trade value that the A's could deal him to Cleveland for veteran second baseman Tony Bernazard. And so Darrel's odyssey began.

From 1987 through 1995, he pitched for Cleveland, Texas and Philadelphia in the big leagues and for almost every Triple-A city you can imagine: Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Oklahoma City, Colorado Springs, Buffalo, Syracuse and Vancouver. His family used to ask why he stuck with it, but they should've known the answer by then: Darrel looked on the bright side of everything.

Even so, he tried to put into words back then why he refused to give up baseball.

"I'm a lifer," he told them. "I'm a lifer."


When he could barely lift his arm anymore, Darrel became a coach. It suited him, because now it wasn't just him running on the side of the road.

He started out as a minor league instructor for the Padres in 1997, and when a player missed curfew or got caught with a girl in his room, he had to jog with "Ak." Sometimes, they would run 30 minutes or they'd sprint two 20-yard dashes, three 30-yard dashes and four 40-yard dashes in succession. Darrel could handle it, but the minor leaguers couldn't. And they stopped their shenanigans.

The Padres could see Darrel was a star in the making and promoted him to pitching coach for the Single-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. He won the organization's player development award in 1998 and was on a Quakes road trip in April 1999 when manager Tommy LeVasseur called Darrel's hotel room.

"Do you know where Columbia High School is?" LeVasseur asked.

"No," Darrel said.

"Some high school kids are being held hostage there. It's in Colorado, I think near where you grew up. Why don't you come down to my room."

When Darrel got there, he realized LeVasseur had the high school's name wrong; it was Columbine. Darrel froze. And then he heard the horrible news that Sanders, the coach who advised him to play baseball, had been killed trying to save children.

It was a torturous day for him, a day that made him value his own life even more. He worked harder and was promoted to be the Padres' Triple-A pitching coach in 2000. By June 2001, the big league Padres had an opening for a bullpen coach, and there was only one logical choice: Darrel Akerfelds.

His first day, the relievers didn't know what to make of him. Darrel strapped on his catching gear and from behind the plate was barking at them like a football coach. He would catch a pitch and say, "You ain't got s---, man,'' or, "This is puff stuff; I can handle this no problem.'' But he also was attacking every pitch with his catcher's glove, to show how motivated he was, and muffed a few in the process. He began laughing, the pitchers began laughing, and a bond was built instantly.

Most importantly, the team's star closer, Trevor Hoffman, quickly gave him his seal of approval. That first season, Darrel could play catch with Hoffman on flat ground and sense when his mechanics were starting to slip. In other words, he could get Hoffman out of a slump before there ever was a slump.

Darrel also would diligently study video -- of his pitchers and opposing hitters -- and the added plus was that he had a photographic memory. He could easily recall pitches and situations from months before. He would tell Hoffman he got a Marlins hitter out on a 1-and-2 changeup in May and that he gave up a hit to the same guy on a 1-and-2 fastball in July. "Why didn't you throw the changeup?'' Darrel asked.

"Gut feel,'' Hoffman answered. "Plus, I don't have your memory."

Darrel had always been this way. Duane refused to play poker with him because he was convinced Darrel could count cards. Darrel would memorize the NL and AL box scores daily and knew every jersey number of every major league player. Players would ask him, "Who got the win in Toronto last night?'' He'd spit out, "Luke Prokopec.'' Padres outfielder Dave Roberts nicknamed him "Rain Man.''

So it was easy to see why the Padres always had a dominant bullpen. Besides the fact they had a future Hall of Famer in Hoffman, their pitchers were among the most prepared in baseball. The team's regular pitching coach, Darren Balsley, had a calming effect on the relievers, while Darrel brought his fire-breathing intellect -- and even the starting pitchers wanted to be part of it all.

Akerfelds
Akerfelds FamilyDarrel with his infant son, Dalton, and his mother, Gloria.

On days when ace Jake Peavy wasn't starting, he would sometimes saunter down to Darrel's bullpen just for the comic relief. Darrel, in those days, wore his hair long -- a little bit like a mullet -- and would catch grief, particularly from fans in San Francisco. Peavy would guffaw at it all and also notice that whatever happened in the bullpen stayed in the bullpen. The relievers were generally allowed to goof off for the first five innings -- eating candy or wrapping towels around their heads to look like Princess Leia -- but Darrel would never report back to manager Bruce Bochy, or later, manager Bud Black and blame a bad outing on their antics.

"I've been in bullpens where you can't trust your coach,'' Bell said. "You might say, 'Man, that guy should've made that catch,' and the next day the manager knows what you said about your teammate. With Ak, I can say, 'Why don't we pinch hit here?' It's just part of the game; you're trying to win. And it doesn't get back to people. I'm sure Buddy [Black] knows a lot of stuff that happens in the bullpen. But he doesn't know 100 percent, and that's the good part. Ak kind of keeps things to him.''

That was the private, quiet side of Darrel, the side that had perspective on life. In addition to the Columbine incident, he and his wife had been through a divorce, and he badly missed his only child, his son Dalton. Then in 2005, his older sister, Debbie, was killed when her car collided with a Denver bus. Darrel saw the horror on his mother Gloria's face that day, and it made him realize again what's important: relationships.

He treated the Padres' pitchers like they were his sons, and his bullpen was usually the strength of the team, largely responsible for the team's NL West titles in 2005 and 2006. When Peavy won his unanimous Cy Young Award in 2007, one of his first calls was to Darrel. The whole team doted on Ak, and one of Darrel's most rewarding seasons was the surprise of 2010.

Picked the finish last in the division by almost every prognosticator, the NL West title came down to the final day of the season. Between Bell (career-high 47 saves), Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson (the latter two set "holds" records), the bullpen was almost unhittable -- leading the major leagues with a cumulative 2.47 ERA. The Giants ended up winning the division and then the World Series, but it was a dream year, the kind of year that had Darrel Wayne Akerfelds thanking his lucky stars.

And then his stomach began to hurt.


A month after the 2010 season, Darrel had lower lumbar back surgery in Colorado to correct a vertebrae problem. But a week following surgery, his stomach was aching. He would rarely want to eat and began dropping weight. He began suffering from upper-back pain and assumed it was from favoring his lower back after surgery. He began to look gaunt, and in a span of two days in December, all he ate were two cartons of yogurt. There was a brown growth on his nose, so he decided to see a doctor. The growth wasn't the problem.

His skin was turning yellow and his eyes were discolored. He tested positive for jaundice and underwent a CT scan. The results showed an inflammation or blockage in his pancreas. A biopsy was ordered, as Christmas was nearing, and Darrel had to wait 24 hours to find out if he had pancreatic cancer.

[+] EnlargeDarrel Akerfelds
kerfelds familyDarrel, Duane and their father, Abes.

"In that 24 hours, I was really able to prepare myself for the worst,'' Darrel said. "I pretty much had two choices. Either I could find out about this and be sad and sorrowful and feel sorry for myself. Or during those 24 hours, I could decide, 'Hey, if it comes back positive, I need to figure out what I need to do to try to rid myself of the disease.'"

Lab results confirmed the tumor, although Darrel's Colorado doctor was confident the cancer hadn't spread outside the pancreas. A radiologist told Darrel he thought the tumor was one of the smaller ones he had seen, and Darrel assumed it was the size of a pebble. But it was actually an inch and a half in diameter, and he needed to be in chemotherapy as soon as possible.

Darrel was told it would take three to four weeks to get an appointment with an oncologist, which seemed like an eternity. But that's when his second family -- the Padres -- stepped up. He had left a message with team doctor Harry Albers on Dec. 28, alerting him of his condition, and within an hour Albers had called Darrel back. He asked Darrel to fly to San Diego the next day. By the 30th, Darrel had seen an oncologist. By Jan. 4, he was in chemo.

The news traveled quickly within the Padres organization. Black, who was close with Darrel, knew it was a devastating diagnosis. He called Darrel Dec. 28, afraid his friend might be inconsolable. But Darrel told him, "Blackie, I'm going to come to work. I'm going to do everything I'm capable of doing until I can't do it any longer.''

Black had been told about the pancreatic cancer statistics and knew his bullpen coach might have a year or less to live. But Darrel was the longest tenured coach on the Padres' staff; the manager felt he deserved to be able to call his shot. Pitchers and catchers would be reporting in a little more than a month, and Black told Darrel he could report, too.

"Ak, our main concern is your health,'' Black said he told Darrel. "But hey, if you're able to come to the park, you're coming.''

So this past February, the bullpen coach with the mullet showed up at spring training with no hair, courtesy of the chemo. He called the pitchers and catchers together for a talk. He told them to ignore it, that he would be returning to San Diego every Tuesday for treatment and that if he wasn't back by Wednesday, not to worry. He told them he still intended to play catch with them and that he hoped he could still shag flies with them and maybe run with them. Dang it, he had to run with them.

He begged them not to write his jersey number on their cleats or to wear Livestrong wrist bands. He wanted the disease to be invisible, a non-factor.

"For God's sake,'' Bell said later, "he treats it like the flu.''


In his private moments, Darrel knew he would live by two calendars: his baseball schedule and his chemo schedule.

He and his surgeon, Dr. Randolph Schaffer, mapped out a plan that would get Darrel to the ballpark, get him to chemotherapy and hopefully shrink the tumor enough that it could be removed by midseason.

It was a lofty endeavor. No one knew how badly the treatments would tax Darrel's body and immune system. And the truth, according to Schaffer, was that only 1-in-5 pancreatic cancer patients is a candidate for surgery. Of those, only 20 percent live five years past their operation.

[+] EnlargeDarrel Akerfelds
Akerfelds familyDarrel with his father, Abes.

But from the look on Darrel's face, you would never have known the odds he was facing. His relievers didn't know it, his fellow coaches certainly didn't know it and when opening day arrived in St. Louis on March 31, 2011, no one in Busch Stadium knew it. As the lineups were announced, the Padres' bullpen coach had the widest smile on the diamond.

Everyone was watching him, and it was going to be that way all season. Black already had told him he was not going to let Darrel catch in the bullpen, because God forbid a ball hit him in the stomach, rupturing the tumor. Darrel didn't want to hear that and routinely asked Bell to play catch.

"I play catch with him,'' Bell said, "but I don't rear back as much. I'm still throwing it pretty good, but I'm not letting loose. & Or I won't throw long toss as much that day if he's throwing with me. Just little subtle things like that.''

Right away, in early April, there was a test of Darrel's stamina. The chemo had left him feeling chilled during night games, and on April 8, the Dodgers and Padres tried playing on a rare cold and damp night in Southern California. There were four substantial rain delays, including one for 67 minutes after the top of the sixth inning. All of the coaches could see Darrel fading.

He was wearing two uniform jackets and was utterly pale. Dave Roberts, the former player who is now the Padres' first-base coach -- and a cancer survivor himself -- told Darrel to go home. "Because we were all miserable,'' Roberts said. "Ak's all bundled up and trying to get through it, but there was just no need.''

He wouldn't leave. "I had pitchers to get ready,'' Darrel said. By 11 p.m., his ankles were swollen and his voice was weak. But he stayed in the bullpen until the interminable game was suspended at 1:40 a.m.

"When I got home, I couldn't fall asleep fast enough,'' he said.

If he couldn't have surgery, his goal was to get through all 162 games. He figured he had an outside chance. The plan was to undergo chemo three Mondays in a row then take a Monday off. And the first Monday off happened to be a day the Padres were in Chicago.

He was glad to be there, then he wasn't. The temperature was 34 degrees at first pitch, along with snow flurries. The wind blew violently. Darrel was so chilled he spent the first five innings in the dugout, something he had never done before. Black wouldn't take his eyes off of Darrel, nor would Roberts. They shook their heads at how stubborn he was, how strong his work ethic was, how insanely upbeat he was. But they also knew the truth.

He needed them. He needed baseball.


By the end of April, Darrel's streak was over.

His doctors told him he needed to have his stent replaced, and the only available day for the procedure was a Wednesday -- a game day. He raced to see the Padres' schedule, hoping there was a night game that day. But they were playing the Braves at 12:35 p.m., and the only time the hospital could get him in was 1 p.m. It was a quick procedure, but he would need anesthesia. Making the game was impossible.

His next close call came the following month. The team had played in Milwaukee on Wednesday, May 11, and because the Padres were off the next day in Colorado, Darrel switched his treatment to Thursday. His plan was to fly with the team Wednesday night to Denver, then catch a commercial flight to San Diego later that evening. He wore a surgical mask on the flight because cancer patients can't afford to catch the cold or flu, and the other passengers kept staring at him, wondering what communicable disease he had. He said nothing.

[+] EnlargeDarrel Akerfelds
Akerfelds familyNew father Darrel Akerfelds with toddler son Dalton.

For hours, the plane sat on the tarmac in Denver because of ice and snow. Passengers kept staring at him. Finally, at 2:30 a.m., the fight was canceled and Darrel asked his now 20-year-old son, Dalton, to come pick him up. He had to fly the next morning to San Diego, get his chemo and rush back to Denver for the game on Friday, May 13. Some of his friends thought he was just going to make himself sicker. But he didn't care.

By June, he had settled into a somewhat simpler routine. Roberts, who had survived his battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2010, kept leaving water bottles on Darrel's clubhouse chair. "Hydrate, Ak,'' Roberts would say, "Hydrate.'' He would also bring Darrel natural juice drinks to boost his immune system, something that helped Roberts battle lymphoma. The drastic seaweed and garlic shake tasted bitter; Darrel liked the Green Goddess, full of broccoli and celery, better. They even began to whip them up for Darrel in the Padres' clubhouse kitchen. Anything for Ak.

In the middle of the month, the team traveled to Minnesota and Boston, and Black let Darrel bring Dalton on the trip. Dalton wasn't a ballplayer -- he was a drummer for a Denver band called My Last Serenade -- but for one week, he flew on the team charters, shagged flies and wore a full uniform in the bullpen. Because of baseball, father and son had spent virtually 20 summers apart. But not this summer.

Darrel thought the timing of the Minnesota-Boston trip was perfect, because by now he was hoping he would be a candidate for surgery in July. His first two rounds of chemo, the tumor had shrunk 25 percent. The next two rounds of chemo, it shrank another 30 percent. There was optimism. But during the third round of treatments, the tumor stayed the same size. Darrel's body began taking on water and becoming bloated. Doctors wanted to switch to a different blend of chemo, putting the surgery on hold.

The new treatment began right after the All-star break -- a three-day course of chemo that involved Darrel wearing a fanny pack that administered two milliliters of medicine into his port every hour. The team was about to play three games in Florida and four in Philadelphia, which meant Darrel would miss the three Florida games. When he watched them on TV, he saw Bell carrying the bullpen clipboard and answering the bullpen phone -- doing Darrel's job. Part of him wanted to cry, but as soon as he saw the relievers wearing their Princess Leia towels, he started to laugh.

Black had adamantly told him not to bother joining the team in Philly, that it wasn't worth flying across country for four games -- especially with the new chemo to tolerate. Darrel agreed that if he was fatigued, he wouldn't go. On the day of the first Philly game, July 22, none of the Padres saw Darrel at the hotel. In the back of their minds, they figured this was it; the cancer had finally slowed him down.

And then, just an hour before the first pitch, Darrel burst through the clubhouse door.

"Of course,'' Black said, grinning. "Of course.''


A fifth round of chemo was coming on Aug. 8, 9 and 10, while the team would be in New York playing four against the Mets. This time, Black convinced Darrel it made no sense for him to fly to Pittsburgh for the games right before on Aug. 5, 6 and 7. Darrel acquiesced, even though it meant he would skip an unheard of seven straight games.

He watched every one of them on TV with his girlfriend, Julie Marvin, who had been by his side since the diagnosis. During the broadcasts, he would tell her how to pitch Andrew McCutchen and David Wright, how to pitch every player on either team. His mind was still there; his body had to catch up.

[+] EnlargeDarrel Akerfelds
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelPadres bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds watches pitchers throw during spring training last February.

He had now missed 12 games battling the disease and decided he would skip just one more. His final round of chemo was Aug. 22, 23 and 24. The Padres had a day off on the 22nd and were in San Francisco on the 23rd and 24th. His plan was to miss the game on the 23rd, but catch a commercial flight after his 1 p.m. treatment on the 24th and hail a cab to AT&T Park in time for the 7:15 start. He ran this by Black, who again said absolutely not.

"You'll sit at the airport for two hours waiting for your flight,'' Darrel remembered Black telling him. "You'll have to wear your surgical mask. You'll fly an hour and a half. You'll sit in a cab for an hour and a half in traffic. All this after chemo. And then we'll play our game and you'll fly another hour and a half to our next stop, Arizona. We'll get in at 2 in the morning. Listen to how that sounds, Ak.''

Darrel had no answer, so he met the team in Arizona on Aug. 25. After this latest round of chemo, he looked brighter. His hair was growing back. Not a mullet yet, but he had hair. He also had a gotee. His skin color was normal. From the outside looking in, no one would have known he was supposed to be dying. By the end of September, he was eating donuts and chugging milkshakes, attempting to gain all of his weight back. He was up to 240 pounds, only five pounds less than when he was diagnosed in December 2010. He almost seemed robust.

The season might have been putrid for the last-place Padres, who went 71-91, but somehow Darrel had managed to suit up for 148 of those games. "He had one of the best baseball years of all time,'' Black said. After the last game on Sept. 28, Darrel said his goodbyes to his manager, to Roberts and to Bell, and all of them came to the same conclusion.

He might have needed them. But they needed him, too.


Two weeks later, on Oct. 11, Darrel underwent surgery. His mother, Gloria, and father, Abes, flew in from Denver for it. So did his two brothers.

The hope was that after eight months of chemotherapy, Schaffer would be able to remove the tumor. But when the doctor opened Darrel up, the tumor was still clamped down on an artery, making it too dangerous. Even more disconcerting, Schaffer said the cancer had spread outside the pancreas to the top of Darrel's liver. "Darrel knows that his chances of living a few more years are unlikely,'' Schaffer said.

Darrel's family took the news badly. They were stunned because he had seemed so strong, because he had never been pessimistic about the cancer in front of them, because they still saw him as the kid who used to run nine miles up the side of the road.

Gloria was the most visibly disheartened, which bothered Darrel. "That's one of the reasons I want to survive this,'' Darrel said. "So I don't have to have my mom go through the emotions again that I saw her go through with my sister.''

That's why after the October surgery, Darrel tried to remain upbeat. He was the only one who talked confidently about the future. He told the family what the new game plan was, that he would undergo radiation on his pancreatic tumor and chemotherapy on the new cancer in the liver. The idea was to maintain the cancer as long as possible, hopefully for years instead of just months.

"Nothing's impossible,'' Darrel said. "There's always new researches, there's always new drugs. You can maintain it for a long time or within the next year or whatever, and they can come up with something new that can get rid of it. Nothing's impossible.''

But in the month that has passed since surgery, Darrel has weakened. Duane has noticed it, the family has noticed it. During the operation, Schaffer had to perform a stomach bypass because of some blockages. Darrel needed to be fed through a tube, and his weight dropped again. Before the surgery, he was 230 pounds. He was down to 214 in November, hoping the downward spiral would stop.

"It's interesting,'' Duane said. "He never showed one ounce of weakness when the baseball season was going on. There wasn't one time. Here he was with pancreatic cancer, where 50 percent of the people don't live 10 months. And he was out there shagging, running down balls, catching pitchers, all of it. It wasn't until the season was over that he began to look weary. I think it's because he misses it.''

So now there are 76 days until pitchers and catchers report, and Schaffer already has asked Darrel what his plans are for 2012.

"I'm going to spring training,'' Darrel said.

A lot depends on how he handles the radiation and chemo and whether he can hold his weight. But Black wants him there, the bullpen wants him there, his doctors and family want him there.

"If he gets through this," Duane said, "it's going to be with baseball.''

It's all planned, then. The water bottles and the seaweed and garlic shakes. His clipboard and scouting reports. Nothing's impossible.

He might just have to walk before he runs.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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