As he took his spot in the dugout, Todd Oakes quietly wondered how he would feel. Would his competitiveness remain as strong as ever? Would he react to a walked batter with a shrug? Would he still feel as much passion for coaching after surviving the horror of leukemia?
His uncertainty vanished with the first pitch.
“I can still get worked up,” he said. “If it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood. Man, I wanted to win.”
Oakes resumed his role as Gophers pitching coach this season, still weakened physically but in remission after undergoing a bone marrow transplant in September. He oversees a pitching staff that finished second in the Big Ten in earned-run average and needs another strong showing in the conference tournament at Target Field this week.
Some side effects linger, but Oakes is back doing what he loves with his sense of humor intact.
“I’m as good as I’m going to look for right now,” he said. “Not that I was any box of chocolates before.”
Oakes felt unusually tired last spring as he neared the end of his 14th season as a Gophers assistant. He became short of breath just climbing stairs. He knew something was wrong but delayed visiting his doctor until after the season. Tests confirmed cancer — acute myeloid leukemia.
“A few minutes later, the doctor says, ‘But it’s treatable,’ ” Oakes said. “That sounds better. Now we’re back on the right track.”
Oakes, 52, admits to being a “worrywart,” but he never allowed himself to consider the worst-case scenario. He didn’t ask doctors about survival rates, and he refused to ask, Why me? Instead, he looked at his illness as, Why not me?
He told his doctors and nurses that they would learn three things about him: “I’m stupid, I’m stubborn, but I am coachable.” Those characteristics steered his recovery.
Oakes spent 50 days in a hospital undergoing chemotherapy. On good days, he watched TV and updated his CaringBridge site, which became a therapeutic tool for him to express his emotions while updating the baseball community on his condition. Some days, he couldn’t do anything but sleep.
Oakes needed a bone marrow transplant, and tests determined his brother, Jerald, was a match. Todd is forever grateful for his brother’s gift — 5.1 million healthy stem cells. He left the hospital two weeks after his transplant and has received positive results in three subsequent biopsies. He considers himself lucky.
“Some people don’t get through the initial process,” he said. “They never get to hear that word ‘remission’ from the doctor.”
His lowest moment came during a conversation with the wife of former Gophers baseball player Rob Smith, who died from acute leukemia in late September. Oakes and Smith were in the same hospital a few rooms apart during treatment.
“They were sending him home because there was nothing more they could do for him,” Oakes said. “When [Smith’s wife] left the room, I sat and cried like a baby. That’s when it kind of really hit me, what this is all about.”
Oakes found support in an expansive network of friends and former players. Known as “TO” within the Gophers baseball family, Oakes has mentored hundreds of Gophers pitchers, including 18 selected in the MLB amateur draft.
His supporters held fundraisers in his honor during his convalescence. One event raised more than $20,000 to help with medical bills and featured a bidding war between Twins closer Glen Perkins and General Manager Terry Ryan over an Adirondack chair. Ryan claimed it with a winning bid of $3,400.
“I’ve been so close with him for so many years,” Perkins said of his former pitching coach. “He’s been a father figure for me and mentor and everything to me.”
Oakes’ son, Tyler, assumed his dad’s coaching duties in his absence and remains with the team as a volunteer assistant. Todd’s stamina and strength are returning gradually, but he’s still dealing with post-transplant complications known as graft-versus-host disease. Symptoms include nauseousness, a severe rash and fatigue.
“My legs feel like I run a marathon every day,” he said earlier this season.
But he’s on the road to recovery. Oakes also takes solace in the ripple effect that his illness has had on his players. Many of them routinely give blood now and also participated in a Be The Match marrow registry drive on campus. Sophomore pitcher Jordan Jess learned that he is a match and donated his stem cells in early February.
“I probably wouldn’t have signed up if it wasn’t for TO,” Jess said. “When they called, I was shocked. Then I was like, this is cool because hopefully I’ll get to help save someone’s life.”
Oakes can’t help but consider his cancer a blessing in that regard.
“A lot of ways it’s had a positive influence on people,” he said. “I remember when Jordan called and told me, I got tingles up and down my body. I got this sensation. It’s weird how it all worked out.”