Extra Innings: Cancer survivor returns to throw first pitch
- on April 12, 2012
They all hoped he could get it across the plate.
One year after Garett Barraza was diagnosed with Burkitt’s leukemia — after he lost his hair, his health, his spot in the outfield playing for the Shawnee Pilots baseball club and many things boys can expect to enjoy at 12 — he returned to the 3&2 Baseball East Complex to toss a ceremonial first pitch before Wednesday’s Pilots game.
A healthy flow of black curly hair now spilled out from under his blue Pilots cap. When asked to come back and throw the first pitch, he said yes right away.
But behind the smiles and “We Love You Garett” signs was concern. Could he do it? And if he failed, in front of his friends and family and television news cameras, would he feel bad on a day designed to make everything feel OK again?
‘A slap in the face’
Farrah Cashero, wife of Pilots coach John Cashero, each longtime family friends of the Barrazas, called Garett’s mother, Gentry Barraza, on the afternoon of the Pilots’ Fall 2010 season championship game. Garett hadn’t been feeling well for a while, and had missed consecutive games. But on this day, in order to compete for the title, the Pilots needed to field one more player.
“Your team needs you,” Cashero told Garett when he picked up the phone.
He didn’t want to let his friends — many of whom he played with since first grade — down, and in what would be his last game with the Pilots, Garett won a trophy with his teammates. Tradition holds that the boys who win shove their fists in plastic tubs of Double Bubble gum, chew a piece and slap a wad on the dugout ceiling.
Not long after the celebration, Garett checked into a hospital with an excruciating toothache. That pain, he now says, would end up being the least worst of what he’d endure in the year to follow.
Garett would need nine rounds of chemotherapy to combat the disease. There in the hospital bed, he thought about, among other childhood memories, the ballpark. After awhile, he said he couldn’t quite get the images right in his mind anymore.
With just two rounds of chemo left until Garett’s nine-round battle was up, complications hit. Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome, a toxicity developed during chemotherapy, rendered Garett partially paralyzed. He couldn’t move or talk for days. It was so bad his parents first thought he had experienced a stroke.
His dad, George Barraza, who was once an assistant coach for the Pilots when Garett played, had to carry Garett up the stairs, to the bathroom, had to put him in the tub. Even as Garett regained his speech and some movement, feeling in his left side was, and still is, limited.
“It was a slap in the face,” George Barraza said.
Doctors told the Barrazas that Garett may regain full use of his left side, but nothing is guaranteed.
They go to physical therapy several times a week, where his father said inroads have been made. They will also visit a specialist every four weeks for the next five years to monitor a disease that is now in full remission.
‘Thinking of lucky days’
Garett’s been practicing his pitching for weeks now, at least since “The Hunger Games” film premiered at the Dickinson Westglen movie theatre in Shawnee. That’s when he was asked to come back for the first pitch, and when he did not hesitate in reply.
The setting of the question was fitting, as Garett aspires to be an actor.
His favorite films are of the superhero variety, and he also favors the film adaptation of one of his favorite books: Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
After Garett’s story first appeared in The Dispatch in May 2011, Kinney found the story online and later contacted the family to arrange a Skype visit with Garett.
The surprises didn’t end there.
When Garett clicked to begin the video chat, Zach Gordon, an actor from the film, appeared next to Kinney.
Garett had the opportunity to ask a celebrity that one question he always wanted to know: what’s it like to be an actor?
There will be a lot of auditions, a lot of chances, Gordon said, and the ones you don’t get are simply those not made for you.
“‘Don’t give up,’” Garett remembers being told. “‘Just keep going.’”
Working on his pitch cut into time spent perfecting his acting skills in case auditions ever take place for a film adaptation of another one of Garett’s favorite books, Lincoln Pierce’s “Big Nate.”
And, perhaps with his visit with Kinney reaching out fresh in his memory, Garett made it known that he’s a fan of actress Chloe Grace Moretz — in case, you know, she ever wants to talk shop.
Before last week, Garett and his 8-year-old brother, Braden, would often go to the backyard of their Leawood home — the Barrazas moved from Shawnee to be closer to family during Garett’s battle — to practice.
Garett likes to joke about how Braden acted like his older brother was trying to hurt him.
“He’d jump out of the way every time I threw it,” Garett said.
Wednesday afternoon, the family arrived at the ballpark an hour early, and Garett squeezed in a few more practice pitches before he’d be called to the field.
“I just hope I get it on the first pitch,” he said.
Garett has never been a pitcher. From first through fourth grade, he plied his trade in the outfield for the Pilots.
One afternoon, in 2008, Garett stepped up to bat. It was kid pitch baseball, where, as Garett likes to emphasize, pitchers hurl the ball at you as fast and as hard as they can.
He was just trying to not get hit when he took one big swing and knocked it out of the park. He still has the ball from that lucky day.
“Thinking of lucky days made me have nine months of luckiness in the hospital,” he said.
Here comes the pitch
The way Garett likes to characterize his journey, to borrow a saying from his dad, is to call it a roller coaster.
First there was the slow climb: the pain, the uncertainty, the treatments. Then, once over the hump, everything would be easier traveling downward. That period slowly began last fall, when Garett felt well enough to go to a haunted house with his family, the Casheros and their, son Hunter Cashero, one of his best friends.
But even at the battle’s most challenging points, when his brothers would cry and his parents struggled, Garett would be the one reassuring them, telling them it would be OK.
“We’d have to leave the room,” Gentry Barraza said. “My husband would say, ‘If he can do this, we can do this.’”
“He got us through it,” George Barraza added.
And when he was well enough, Garett would sit in his room and look at his home run ball, and at old pictures and try to remember it all.
But it took coming back last week to remember the feeling. The posters on the fences, the team-colored blankets parents wore on the cooler days, the large red Icees from concession stands.
On the day Garett was supposed to pitch, forecasters called for rain. Dark gray clouds hung in the sky, and green, yellow and red radar loomed on area weather reports. But, for this game at least, it stayed away.
John Cashero handed Garett a ball signed by the Pilots before the game.
“Put this in your room and always remember us,” he said.
In reply, Garett said he’d like to use it for his pitch.
Then the Pilots — coach, players, Garett and his dad — assembled before all the eyes and cameras. Before saluting “The Star-Spangled Banner,” George Barraza wrapped his arm around his son and looked off into the sky, smiles trending upward on their faces.
And then it was time. Everyone hushed. It was just Garett and a catcher 20 feet before him. In a matter of seconds, Garett wound up and uncorked a heater that broke the plate. Right down the middle.
“It just brought back that time when everything was OK,” his father said.
The teammates run and scream, their parents clapping and hollering from behind the fence. The Pilots are playing a team called the Titans, which features several more of Garett’s former teammates.
Garett paces in the dugout, talking to teammates who return from the field.
“I like that he’s back,” his friend Hunter Cashero said. “I was always used to him in the dugout.”
Back in the dugout, Garett looks up at the gum wads hanging like stalactites in a cave. He figures his addition is long gone by now, what with being several seasons removed from the game.
He one day wants to return to the field, to play baseball and basketball again, part of the “everything” he promised his parents he would do when he wouldn’t be bedridden anymore.
Today, though, that means being a coach. And although the Pilots now have more experience on the field than Garett, he said there is one thing he can offer should his team find itself in trouble: hope.
“That’s the thing you have to have no matter what the situation is,” Garett said.