In the sunny, Mediterranean climate of the Livermore Valley in California, young Stephen Piscotty and his brothers played baseball for as far back as they can remember. Their mom, Gretchen, was always there to cheer them on.
She shuttled them around to their practices and attended their games in the suburbs of Livermore and Pleasanton, about an hour’s drive east of Oakland and San Francisco. Nobody was prouder than she when Stephen signed, in April 2017, a six-year contract as a star right fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals.
But their lives were upended only weeks later, when Gretchen was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a deadly neurodegenerative condition known to baseball fans as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She died on May 6, 2018, with her three sons and husband, Mike, at her side.
For his courage and dedication to his mother’s care, and for his advocacy for ALS research, Piscotty this year was named by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center as recipient of the 54th Hutch Award®.
Now playing for the Oakland A’s, Piscotty joins a pantheon of stars whose character and baseball careers reflect the grit and determination of local baseball legend Fred Hutchinson. The Seattle-born standout known as “Hutch” grew up to pitch for the Detroit Tigers, and he was managing the Cincinnati Reds when his life was cut short by cancer in 1964. In his honor, Fred’s brother — renowned surgeon Dr. Bill Hutchinson — founded the Seattle cancer center, which opened its doors in 1975.
On Thursday, July 18, Piscotty will be honored by the Fred Hutch community at this year’s Hutch Award Luncheon. Held on the field at T-Mobile Park, home of the Seattle Mariners, the luncheon and silent auction of sports memorabilia benefit lifesaving research at the cancer center. Since 2000, participants at the annual event have raised more than $6.5 million.
In May, months after he learned he had won the award from the cancer research center, Piscotty had a frightening brush with cancer himself. During a yearly skin-cancer screen the A’s offered to employees, doctors found melanoma on a mole on the back of his right ear. The mole was removed by surgery, and he missed only a few games. The cancer had not spread, and his chance of a full recovery is excellent.
“That certainly was a bit of a spook,” said Piscotty, in a telephone interview. “I am really grateful that it was caught so early. I could have just as easily skipped the screening, and it could have grown. I think my mom, or someone, was looking out for me.”
Among his friends on his former team is Adam Wainwright, a veteran pitching ace who won the Hutch Award in 2015.
“He is an incredible teammate who does wonderful, philanthropic things,” Piscotty said. “It speaks well for this award, because I know what kind of guy he is.
“It means a lot to me and my family,” he added. “My mom wanted to get her story out there so there would be more awareness about ALS, so maybe something could be done and no one else will have to suffer like she did.”
Often happiest on horseback, Gretchen was a lover of camping, hiking and rooting for her boys on those suburban baseball fields. Scholar-athletes all, his younger brothers Nick and Austin played for Duke and St. Mary’s College of California, respectively. Both were Major League prospects.
Stephen’s talents in high school won him a slot at Stanford University, where he excelled as an outfielder, third baseman and a pitcher. In the spring of 2017, his future with the Cardinals seemed rock-solid, and then his mother received the devastating diagnosis. For the rest of that season, Gretchen’s physical condition rapidly deteriorated, while her mind remained as sharp as ever. Based in St. Louis and traveling to other cities half the time, Piscotty visited his mom in Pleasanton whenever he could.
In December of that year during the offseason break, the Cardinals traded Piscotty to the Oakland A’s, which made it easier for him to spend more time caring for his mother. “I couldn’t imagine being 2,000 miles away from all that was going on,” he said.
Piscotty spent as much time as he could at his parents’ home during those difficult, final months, helping to feed Gretchen and move her in and out of bed — all while still going to bat for the A’s, the home team he had rooted for since he was a child.
After Gretchen died and the services were done, Piscotty returned to an emotional reunion with his teammates at a game in Boston. In his first at-bat against the Red Sox, he belted a home run over the Green Monster in Fenway Park. Rounding third, he patted his hand to his heart, and raised his eyes to the night skies.
Now recovering from a knee injury incurred last month in Los Angeles, Stephen will appear on video during the noontime event, which takes place during a day off for the home team Seattle Mariners. Legendary pitcher Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand but pitched for 10 seasons on four teams — including a no-hitter for the New York Yankees in 1993 — will deliver a keynote speech. Abbott was a Hutch Award winner in 1995.
Meanwhile, the Piscotty family is marshaling their grief to raise awareness about ALS. They created the ALS Cure Project, under the auspices of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, to raise money for scientific research aimed at finding a cure.
The Piscottys are no strangers to science. Although Stephen left Stanford to launch his baseball career, he came back on the offseason to finish his Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering through the Atmosphere/Energy Program.
“I was dealing with wind power, solar power and all the alternative energy sources. Obviously, you couple that with the study of climate change. It’s an important thing, and it could be the path I take later on,” he said.
His father Mike is a computer scientist who manages projects for nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and before she began raising her children, Gretchen worked there, too.
Not surprisingly, the Piscottys’ ALS efforts have a laser-like scientific focus. The goal is to fund research on biomarkers for disease — telltale changes in the brain or proteins that might appear in the tissues or fluids of people with ALS. Few exist for the disease. Useful biomarkers could serve as diagnostic tools for the condition and could be a first step toward developing targeted therapies.
“We’re trying to raise money for that, and once that is achieved, we can call attention to it for biotech companies or whoever has the tools to attack this disease,” Piscotty said.
Given his drive to save lives through scientific research, it is fitting that the celebration of Piscotty’s Hutch Award this month will be a means to do just that — raising money to advance cancer research at the center that shares a name with his new honor.
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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