Relief pitcher Dustin McGowan had what they call “a career year” last season for the Miami Marlins.
That’s a remarkable achievement for a player who has weathered Tommy John elbow surgery as a minor leaguer, multiple injuries in the major leagues, and for the past 12 years has pitched with an insulin pump in his back pocket to keep his type 1 diabetes in check.
It’s that kind of pluck that put 34-year-old McGowan this month in the same company as Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle and Carl Yastrzemski as a winner of the Hutch Award, which was established in 1965 to honor the courage and inspirational example of Fred Hutchinson, the legendary Seattle native who died of lung cancer after a brilliant Major League Baseball career. Hutchinson pitched for the Detroit Tigers, and as manager of the Cincinnati Reds took them into the World Series the year he discovered his cancer.
In the outfield of Seattle’s Safeco Field Wednesday afternoon, McGowan was honored as winner of the 52nd Hutch Award during the annual luncheon fundraiser to benefit research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, founded in 1975 by Fred’s brother, “Dr. Bill.”
“I am very blessed, obviously, to be here,” said McGowan, with a nod to his wife, Jillyann, sitting at a table in front of him. “In the last couple of days, I’ve had a chance to visit the research center, and today visit Hutch School. It is truly amazing what they are doing here. … I wish there was more of this in the world.”
McGowan marveled at the list of 51 other Hutch Award winners. “They are some of the greatest players ever to play our game,” he told the Hutch Award Luncheon audience of 800 people. “But better yet, they’re some of the greatest people to play the game. Any time you are put on a list with those guys, it’s a true honor.”
Thanks to a generous matching gift from the Richard C. Goldstein Private Foundation, the luncheon this year has thus far raised $650,000 for Fred Hutch research, and additional donations are still being counted.
McGowan, a tall and handsome son of the South, grew up in the tiny town of Ludowici, in the southeast corner of Georgia. By happenstance, he played baseball in high school against a good friend from another town just an hour down the road: St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Adam Wainwright, who was last year’s winner of the Hutch Award.
The Marlins’ reliever earned his Hutch Award in part for the charitable work he does off the field. Shortly after he signed with the Marlins last year, he and Jillyann discovered that less than a mile from the ballpark in Miami was the Diabetes Research Institute. Their oldest daughter, eight-year-old McKensy, also has Type 1 diabetes, and the McGowans decided they would become involved with DRI and bring other families dealing with diabetes to the ballpark, signing autographs and answering questions.
McGowan said he was especially grateful for the support of his wife. They were not just high school sweethearts — they have been friends since they met in the fourth grade. “She is my lifeline,” McGowan said. “She’s the one who should be up here getting this award.”
A visit to Fred Hutch laboratories prior to the luncheon is a long tradition for Hutch Award winners, and on Tuesday McGowan and his wife were hosted by Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb and given a peek at the kind of work that goes on day and night in her lab. Joining them was Jim Rice, the Hall of Fame left fielder who spent all 16 of his years as a ballplayer for the Boston Red Sox, and was the keynote speaker at Wednesday’s luncheon. The celebrities were treated to a lesson in micropipetting. They mastered the technique like athletes.
At Wednesday’s luncheon, Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland noted that one of his “favorite facts about the Hutch” is that it is the only comprehensive cancer center named after a baseball player. “We are proud of our roots,” he said, “and proud to have the Hutchinson family so well represented” at the event. Gilliland noted that scientists, like ballplayers, operate as a team — a team that not only includes other scientists and technicians, but the patients whose lives they hope to save. “It takes a team, but that team working together can make a difference,” Gilliland said. “We aim to cure cancer with the insights we’ve gleaned around immunotherapies.”
Among those addressing the gathering was one of those patients whose life has been saved by this emerging generation of therapeutics. David Dunnington of Seattle described his shock when he was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma, but after taking the immune booster known as Keytruda three years ago, he has no evidence of disease. “This is what they do at the Hutch,” he said. “You enter into this as a hopeless case, and they offer you the possibility of a way out.”
He noted that Gilliland, in a prior position with Merck, and his team played a key role in bringing that experimental drug to market, and he thanked him from the lectern, noting that curative therapies not only save the patient, they “protect families from the sorrow and grief of losing loved ones.”
The Hutch Award Luncheon is uniquely not just a celebration of science, but a celebration of baseball and a reminder — even under the gray skies of a particularly cold Seattle winter, that Spring Training is only a few weeks away. So there was plenty of baseball talk as well, some of it from Rice, who was literally the successor to Ted Williams and Yastrzemski as the Red Sox’ left fielder playing beneath the famed Green Monster. In his career he hit 382 home runs, had 1,451 runs batted in, and a .298 batting average. He fielded questions from an audience well-acquainted with his greatness, and told one broken-hearted Red Sox fan why his team lost to Cincinnati in the 1975 World Series. “I didn’t play,” he said. He was hit by a pitch that broke his hand with just 10 games left in the regular season.
Rice also spoke about the battle for Most Valuable Player honors in the 1975 season. His stats up to that point of injury were nearly identical to teammate Fred Lynn. At the close of the season, he said the result was “Fred Lynn: MVP. Jim Rice: crying.”
The event, of course, was also a fundraiser, including a much anticipated silent auction of baseball memorabilia. The line of the day went to Seattle sports radio commentator Mike Gastineau, who said, “Your collection is not complete without an autographed picture of Lou Piniella kicking a hat.” Indeed, there was such a photo available of the former Seattle manager having one of his famous fits over another bad call by the umpire.
The day, however, belonged to a tough pitcher with a big heart, who said he learned from his parents how to deal with adversity. “I never gave up,” he said. “From an early age my parents said of me ‘Don’t quit.’ Sure there were times when I thought I may never play again, after all the surgeries, but it wasn’t going to be because of lack of trying. That’s one thing I didn’t do: look at the mirror at the end of the day and say I didn’t give it all that I had.”
Prior to the event, McGowan said he was anxious about speaking in front of an audience. “It’s the only thing that makes me nervous,” he said. “I can stand on the mound in front of 30,000 or 40,000 people, and I am able to just shut them out.”
He needn’t have worried. At the end of his talk, it was clear this pitcher had hit one out of the park.
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at email@example.com.