The game put them together. The disease brought them closer.
But until recently, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto and broadcaster Dave Sims never knew the deep similarities linking their cancer stories: two baseball guys with the same team, both knowing the chill of a diagnosis and loss of an organ — and both leaning on the game to survive.
Then last week, after each accepted an invite to tour Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Dipoto and Sims bumped into each other at a hotel lobby in Texas. The Mariners were in town to play the first-place Rangers. The pennant race was not their main topic. Instead, they talked of good fortune and second chances. They traded pats on the back and a “God bless.”
“Nothing momentous. Just some good words,” recalled Sims, a TV play-by-play commentator for Mariners games on Root Sports Northwest who underwent successful surgery for prostate cancer in January. “You know that you’re not going to live forever. But you always think it’s going to be the other guy.”
They were both the other guy.
On Tuesday, Dipoto and Sims met up again, this time on the Fred Hutch campus to learn about the science driving promising cancer therapies, further cementing their similar roads into and out of the disease.
They viewed, under glass, the Cincinnati Reds jersey and ball glove once worn by Fred Hutchinson, the Major League pitcher and manager whose 1964 cancer death inspired his physician brother, Bill, to establish a cancer center in his name. They marveled at the wall of baseball cards celebrating past Hutch Award winners. They quietly strolled through the Visitor Center, reading personal accounts from some of those cured by Hutch science.
And they spent an hour in the lab of Dr. Pete Nelson, a Fred Hutch prostate cancer researcher. There, they swabbed the insides of their own cheeks to remove cells, later seeing those cells via microscopic imaging. They also learned from Nelson about a recent study he led that found men with metastatic prostate cancer could benefit from screening for DNA mutations, including the “breast cancer” genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.
Finally, they went under a lab hood to extract DNA samples from strawberries.
“I want to learn,” said Dipoto, 48, who underwent surgery and radiation therapy for thyroid cancer as a young pitcher.
“It has dawned on me that when I share my experiences now with other people [about cancer treatment], maybe it’s more about the emotional than the physical,” Dipoto added. “Because the physical has changed so much over the years thanks to what people do at places like Fred Hutch.”
His cancer was discovered during a 1994 physical while at spring training with the Cleveland Indians. At age 25, Dipoto had posted a mysterious weight gain since the previous season, from 203 to 218. A tumor, detected on his thyroid, was responsible. During a subsequent surgical procedure, his thyroid and the tumor were removed. The mass was found to be malignant and additional tests showed the cancer had spread to some lymph nodes.
Dipoto underwent large doses of radiation therapy to burn out the malignant tissue. His feet and fingers swelled to the point that he struggled to put on his shoes and wedding ring. The bottom of his feet and the top of his head felt blazing hot. And he was instructed to temporarily stay away from his then-infant daughter and wife — with whom he shared a tiny apartment — to protect them from the radiation in his body.
“Emotionally, to go through it, it was the feeling of physical combat, like you’re at war with yourself to a degree,” Dipoto said. “You have to bounce back and get off the mat.”
After surgical staples were removed from his neck, Dipoto began soft-tossing a baseball from a chair. But it took about a year for his fastball velocity to return to its peak, upwards of 95 miles per hour. By then, he had been traded to the New York Mets.
“I will never forget one day in June 1995, my [pitching] stuff just came back. In one day. It just clicked. I felt like I was pitching in somebody else’s body. We were in Atlanta. I felt normal again. It was the first time I didn’t feel like I was moving under water, where I had heavy legs and a heavy head,” Dipoto said. “My performance shot through the roof.”
The treatment effects had subsided. The cancer was still there. A body scan, long planned for December 1995, showed malignant tissue remained. He underwent more radiation treatments and began the recovery process yet again.
But his family and the game he played saved him mentally, he said. His job as a relief pitcher had strengthened his overall resolve.
“The baseball life, especially being a bullpen guy, you learn to be resilient,” Dipoto said. He’s had no evidence of cancer since 1995.
“One day you’re going to take it on the chin (by giving up runs),” he said. “And the next day you’ve got to shut that out and get ready to go.”
It’s right there, trusting in a philosophy sharpened by the rises and drops of lengthy baseball seasons, that Dipoto and Sims share a larger outlook on a longer life. In the game, they both plucked lessons to get by and survive their darker moments.
“When you go to the ballpark, you never know what you’re going to see,” Sims said, describing how the baseball and cancer mindsets can merge. “No matter how bad it gets or how good it gets in the game, you’ve got to stay chill, you’ve got to stay calm and under pressure. You’ve got to perform.”
Following a physical exam last September, Sims, 63, posted an elevated prostate-specific antigen (PSA) number ― a test that often runs higher when prostate cancer is present. The results surprised him. He had been feeling great. Earlier this year, surgeons removed his prostate. Radiation or chemotherapy would not be necessary, they told him.
But he did enter the unsettling, post-treatment phase known by many cancer patients: scheduled blood tests to check for recurrence.
“In May, I remember being at the airport. This was a Thursday. On a Wednesday, I’d had the blood test done in Seattle,” Sims said. “My wife and I were on pins and needles. The doctor called and said, ‘Pleased to tell you you’re .01, you’re good.'
“And then,” Sims added, channeling the broadcast enthusiasm that endears him to fans, “I was like, ‘Yeah, baby!’”
At the mic, Sims is known for injecting energy into his calls with catchphrases like “Giddy up!” and “Boomstick, baby!” As a survivor, Sims is known for injecting prostate cancer awareness into conversations with guys his age. This year, as he traveled from city to city to broadcast games, he often asked friends: “When was the last time you had yours checked?”
“Our generation certainly talks about it a hell of a lot more than our fathers’ did,” Sims said.
He recalls one chat he had with a retired Mariners player at spring training this season. Sims asked his usual question: When was your last prostate exam? The ex-player admitted it had been a while. He got tested.
“Turned out,” Sims said, “he had [prostate cancer]. I then walked him through all the things that would happen (during his treatment, which was successful). When I saw him at the ballpark a couple of weeks ago, he gave me the biggest hug.
“You know, this year I’ve had a couple of 3:30 and 4:30 (a.m.) wake-ups in a cold sweat. But all in all, I feel great. I’m real lucky. I feel like I got a nice second chance. I don’t try to overthink it. I just go through my own little private walk-around prayer sessions, giving thanks for surviving.”
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Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith."