Souhan: U pitching coach has plenty of relief help during difficult time

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 14, 2012 - 7:55 AM

Supporters have rallied behind Todd Oakes while he undergoes leukemia treatment -- not the least of whom is son Tyler.

The poet Donald Hall describes baseball as "fathers playing catch with sons." Todd and Tyler Oakes wish it were still that simple.

Todd Oakes, the longtime University of Minnesota pitching coach, is undergoing a bone marrow transplant this week as part of his treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. His family is hoping he'll be able to return to work this winter.

While Todd is convalescing, his oldest son, Tyler, will act as a combination substitute, intern and carrier pigeon for his father, the man who taught him how to pitch, and coach.

"Everything I've learned, is from him," Tyler said.

Near the end of the Gophers' most recent season, Todd told family members that he felt exhausted. A series a tests revealed the leukemia.

He spent 50 consecutive days in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. Tyler said the hope is that the bone-marrow transplant will allow Todd to return to his job by January or so.

Tyler pitched at the U and spent one year in the Tampa Bay organization. He spent the past two years as a graduate assistant coach at South Dakota State while finishing his master's degree.

The search for a temporary replacement at pitching coach who could complement Todd Oakes' teachings wasn't complicated. Gophers head coach John Anderson spoke with Tyler, Todd's progeny and proxy.

"When this came up, '14' approached me about being a volunteer," Tyler said, referring to Anderson by his uniform number and nickname. "What I know about pitching is based on what my dad taught me, and what I went through playing here and growing up around him. So our philosophies are very similar."

For every ballplayer who builds a life-changing career in the big leagues, there are thousands who, if they want to live the baseball life, must embrace low pay, long hours and daunting travel. The Oakeses are as much a baseball family as the Ripkens, even if their portfolios beg to differ.

Todd earned a varsity baseball letter at Spring Grove (Minn.) High when he was in the seventh grade. He became a second-team All-America and graduated magna cum laude at Waldorf College in Iowa, then became a second-team All Big Eight performer and third-team academic All-America at Nebraska.

He spent 16 years in the Giants' organization as a player and coach, meaning his wife, Terri, and his three sons saw the insides of a lot of cheap apartments and dilapidated ballparks.

"Ever since I remember, I was sitting in the stands with my mom, watching baseball wherever my dad was coaching," Tyler said. "We'd live in La Crescent, Minnesota, during the offseason. During the season, we'd go wherever he was. We saw a lot of Shreveport, San Jose and Phoenix.

"We'd go to the ballpark with him and sit in the dugouts or shag during BP. My mom did a good job. She made us sit and watch the game while all the other kids were running around after foul balls, which I think helped us develop as baseball players, and people. My mom's been the glue of the whole operation."

The family's together now. T.J., who, like Tyler, pitched at the U, is back on campus, taking classes, following his first year in the Rockies' organization. Tanner is playing at Augsburg.

Tyler said their father still is teaching from the hospital bed. Todd has attracted more than 30,000 visits to his CaringBridge website.

"The support we've received has been amazing," Tyler said.

Twins pitcher and former Gopher Glen Perkins is among the many who have helped raise money for the Oakeses, and friends will hold a benefit Nov. 10 at the Ridges of Sand Creek Golf Course in Jordan.

"I think he's inspired a lot of people," Tyler said. "It's almost like he's still coaching, through his website. He's not feeling sorry for himself. He's taking this in stride and trying to turn it into a positive."

Tyler sounds like a coach.

"I think he's taking that whole competitive spirit into a different phase," he says of his father. "It's all about the mindset."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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