Todd Oakes’ No. 25 jersey hung beside the Gophers dugout Wednesday afternoon, as coach John Anderson addressed his ballplayers, with tears welling in his eyes.
Oakes, the team’s pitching coach for 18 years, was placed in home hospice this week after another painful turn in his four-year battle with acute myeloid leukemia.
Anderson has been counseling players and coaches, helping them balance their grief for the revered “T.O.” while preparing for the biggest Gophers baseball games in years starting Thursday.
“We’re at an institution of higher learning; this is another life lesson for [the players],” Anderson said. “This is life. This happens. People get sick, and people go through these horrific battles with cancer, leukemia and different diseases. And it’s in all our lives, and the timing’s never good for any of it.
“So they have to learn to manage their emotions and still get through their daily lives, and at the same time, keep Todd in their thoughts and their prayers.”
The Gophers hold the slimmest of leads, a half-game, atop the Big Ten standings heading into a three-game series against Ohio State. They are seeking their first Big Ten title since 2010.
Known as T.O. throughout the Gophers family, Oakes has been a key mentor for many pitchers, including Twins closer Glen Perkins. Junior Toby Anderson, who was named Big Ten co-pitcher of the week after throwing a four-hit shutout at Purdue on Sunday, said he wouldn’t have come to Minnesota if not for Oakes.
“My dad coached me growing up,” said Toby Anderson, whose father, Jeff, was Oakes’ teammate at Nebraska. “He had full trust in T.O., so that was kind of the decision for me. He trusted him, I trusted him, and I don’t regret a single minute of it.”
The biggest lesson Oakes has taught?
“The never-give-up attitude,” Toby Anderson said. “He’s gone through more in four years than a lot of people go through in their lives. And as bad as that is, he’s been able to inspire thousands of people by it through his Caring Bridge site.”
The five-year survival rate for acute myeloid leukemia is about 26 percent. Oakes, 55, was diagnosed in 2012 and spent 50 days in a hospital undergoing chemotherapy.
When he needed a bone-marrow transplant, his brother, Gerald, stepped up as a match, and donated 5.1 million healthy stem cells.
“Some people don’t get through the initial process,” Oakes told the Star Tribune in 2013. “They never get to hear that word ‘remission’ from the doctor.”
Oakes did twice. He fought off the disease in 2012 and again in 2014 before the leukemia returned for a third time last September.
About three weeks ago, the father of three took a turn for the worse.
Meanwhile, the resurgent Gophers have reeled off a 19-6 stretch, as they continue distancing themselves from last year’s ninth-place Big Ten finish.
However, Anderson knows the players have weightier thoughts on their minds.
“I think the news we got about Todd Oakes and his battle with leukemia touched us all,” he said. “I’m more worried about them emotionally.”
The longtime Gophers coach with 1,205 career victories said he had a good cry with Oakes’ wife, Terri, when she called Tuesday to say they were moving Oakes into hospice. The call came when the Gophers were on a four-hour bus ride to Brookings, S.D., for a game against South Dakota State.
After the game — a 7-6, 10-inning loss — the coach shared the news with the players.
“There were a lot of guys crying, a lot of hugs going around,” Toby Anderson said.
But John Anderson said Oakes still had his sense of humor when he visited with him Wednesday morning, saying Anderson looked worse than he did from all the stress of handling the pitching coach duties, too.
When Oakes’ leukemia returned last September, Gophers players wanted to do something in their pitching coach’s honor. So they worked the parking lots and raised $7,000 for cancer research.
Unable to go see Oakes in person on Wednesday, the players instead put together a video tribute.
They dressed in full uniform for practice, and sat individually in front of a camera and offered words of encouragement for Oakes.
Then, with the “Minnesota Rouser” playing over the sound system, they took the field and mimicked their victory handshake.
“[Oakes] doesn’t want it to be a distraction,” Toby Anderson said. “He wants us to go out and do our thing, and I think that’s how we’re going to honor him.
“We’re going to go out and put our hearts on the field, and I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to stop us from winning the Big Ten this weekend.”