On a sun-drenched Thursday afternoon on the outfield of T-Mobile Park in Seattle, more than 700 supporters of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center met to honor a player from a rival team, Oakland A’s slugger Stephen Piscotty, as the winner of the 54th Hutch Award®.
In addition to tributes to Piscotty, this year’s Hutch Award Luncheon fundraiser featured talks by Fred Hutch scientists and an uplifting keynote address by pitcher Jim Abbott — who has only one hand yet threw a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993, during a 10-year career in the majors. “I was born without a right hand, but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it,” he said. “A lot of people have a bigger fight than I did.”
Abbott spiced up his delivery by taking a moment from his speech for a quick game of catch with one of his fans in the Seattle audience, Pearl Jam lead vocalist Eddie Vedder, a longtime supporter of the luncheon.
The Hutch Award honors noted Major League Baseball pitcher and manager Fred Hutchinson, who died of cancer in 1964 and became the namesake of the cancer center founded by his brother. The award honors current MLB players who most embody the fighting spirit and competitive desire that “Hutch” was known for on and off the field.
Piscotty, 28, was hailed for the compassionate care he gave his mom, Gretchen. Gretchen died last year of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also known to baseball fans as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The award is also a nod to his support for science: Piscotty and his family have since launched a charity, the ALS Cure Project, to support research to stop the neurodegenerative disease, which takes the lives of 6,000 in the United States each year.
Piscotty delivered his thanks to the crowd in a video. “The goal is to find a cure and give folks hope,” he said. “It was a very challenging year, not just for me, for my entire family. We felt good about everything we did in supporting my mom, and we were able to have a lot of lasting memories.”
Piscotty’s father, Michael, traveled from the family home in Pleasanton, California, to accept the award on his behalf at the luncheon. He called Abbott one of his heroes and noted, “You never know when life is going to throw you a curveball, as it did when Stephen was diagnosed with melanoma.” The small mole on his son’s right ear was caught early and removed successfully last month, and he has fully recovered.
The purpose of the luncheon is to raise money for cancer research at the Hutch. Through a silent auction, a raffle and donations that were matched by an anonymous couple, yesterday’s event raised more than $575,000. Since the Hutch began hosting the luncheons in 2000, participants at the event have raised more than $7.1 million.
Among those attending the luncheon was Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger, who was attending with his wife, Amanda.
“We’re just hoping to spread more awareness and raise more money to find a cure for cancer and get as many people as we can behind it,” Haniger said.
Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland noted the unique relationship between his institution and the national pastime — he runs the only cancer center in the country named for a baseball player.
“No other cancer center on the planet does that, and it’s just a wonderful marriage,” Gilliland said. “It’s about the values we share with the Major League Baseball community — the players that we honor today exemplify the community spirit that we all have about curing cancer.”
Gilliland noted that he was chatting before the luncheon with Michael Piscotty as they stood inside the stadium in front of a picture of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. “It’s poignant to understand the connection we have with Major League Baseball, with families and that connection to research,” he said.
Fred Hutch infectious disease researcher Dr. Steve Pergam also brought home to the luncheon audience the personal impact of cancer research. As a high school student, he developed acute kidney disease, and 15 years later — while he was a practicing doctor and medical school teacher — he required a kidney transplant. The matched donor was his mom.
A year later, as he put it, “the ground shifted.” Likely because his immune system was suppressed, he developed a second life-threatening condition, non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He still recalls vividly sitting in the chemotherapy infusion suites with patients he had diagnosed with cancer only weeks before. “Cancer is like lightning. It can strike any time,” Pergam said.
Thanks to a chemotherapy regimen developed by doctors he now practices with at Fred Hutch, the cancer was cured. “My tumors completely melted away,” he said.
“Today I work at Fred Hutch as an infectious disease clinical researcher in large part because of what the center gave me: time,” Pergam said.
Keynote speaker Abbott, who himself received the Hutch Award in 1995, had toured the research center the day before the luncheon. “It is filled with amazingly dedicated and purposeful people,” he said.
He also lauded “the people underneath,” the crews who keep the Fred Hutch campus humming. During his visit to the Hutch laboratories, Abbott was given a rare “underground” tour of the labyrinth of pipes and ducts and fans and boilers that serve the laboratories. “It’s a team over there, working for a common cause,” he said.
A native of Flint, Michigan, Abbott spoke of how his second-grade teacher in that tough town taught him how to tie his shoes. “He had gone home at night and worked with his own shoes to figure out how a student in his classroom could tie his shoes. He had two hands. He was working with one clenched fist. That’s the generosity. That’s the spirit of giving that came from my home town.
“That’s the spirit I saw again yesterday, at the Hutch,” Abbott said.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto stayed for the Hutch Award Luncheon before heading to Sunday’s ceremony in Cooperstown, New York, to induct Mariners legend Edgar Martinez into the Hall of Fame.
“Every one of us, whether personally or those close to us, have experienced the fear associated with battling cancer,” he said. As a young pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, Dipoto underwent surgery and radiation therapy for thyroid cancer.
As the crowd of Hutch supporters left the outfield to leave the stadium, they walked past row after row of seats in T-Mobile Park, every aisle seat of each row embossed with the likeness of Fred Hutchinson. In the audience were more than a dozen of his family members.
In a ballpark, with an award shared now with 54 baseball greats, and in a cancer research center, Fred Hutchinson's legacy continues.
As Dipoto said, “The bond with the baseball community is unquestionable. It’s real.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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