Scoggins: Gophers pitching coach makes most of extra innings

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 20, 2013 - 11:02 PM

After a leukemia diagnosis and bone marrow transplant, Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes’ recovery has inspired others to donate time, money, blood and stem cells.

hide

Todd Oakes’ battle with leukemia prompted several Gophers players to routinely donate blood and sign up for the Be The Match marrow registry. “A lot of ways it’s had a positive influence on people,” Oakes said. “It’s weird how it all worked out.”

Photo: CARLOS GONZALEZ, Star Tribune

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

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.”

 

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com.

 

  • related content

  • Chart: Big Ten baseball tournament info

    Monday May 20, 2013

    Who: The top six finishers from the regular season — No. 1 seed Indiana (17-7 in Big Ten), No. 2...

  • Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes received a bone marrow transplant to help him recover from leukemia.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

New England 2/1/15 5:30 PM
Seattle
Detroit 69 FINAL
Philadelphia 89
Portland 94 FINAL
Cleveland 99
Sacramento 102 FINAL
Toronto 119
Boston 98 FINAL
Minnesota 110
Dallas 94 FINAL
Houston 99
Denver 93 FINAL
New Orleans 85
Brooklyn 102 FINAL
Atlanta 113
Oklahoma City 92 FINAL
New York 100
Charlotte 86 FINAL
San Antonio 95
LA Clippers 94 FINAL
Utah 89
Washington 44 3rd Qtr 10:57
Phoenix 56
Toronto 1 FINAL(SO)
New Jersey 2
Pittsburgh 0 FINAL
Washington 4
Chicago 2 2nd Prd 14:30
Los Angeles 2
Temple 86 FINAL
UCF 62
Winthrop 75 FINAL
Coastal Carolina 68
Lafayette 59 FINAL
Colgate 54
Northeastern 60 FINAL
Drexel 65
Wake Forest 76 FINAL
Florida State 82
Rhode Island 64 FINAL
Fordham 63
Delaware 82 FINAL
James Madison 88
South Carolina 58 FINAL
LSU 64
New Hampshire 63 FINAL
Maine 58
Seton Hall 80 FINAL
Marquette 70
Binghamton 68 FINAL
UMBC 56
American Univ 54 FINAL
Navy 64
Elon 65 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 82
Wright State 76 FINAL
Oakland 84
Minnesota 58 FINAL
Penn State 63
Duquesne 55 FINAL
Richmond 86
SMU 63 FINAL
South Florida 52
Hartford 66 FINAL
Stony Brook 72
Albany 47 FINAL
Vermont 44
Hofstra 79 FINAL
William & Mary 100
UNC-Asheville 74 FINAL
Longwood 64
Radford 84 FINAL
Char Southern 77
Holy Cross 0 Postponed
Loyola-Maryland 0
Duke 73 FINAL
Notre Dame 77
Texas Tech 36 FINAL
Oklahoma 81
Oregon State 55 FINAL
Arizona State 73
Morehead State 82 FINAL
Austin Peay 69
Drake 69 FINAL
Bradley 57
Lehigh 62 FINAL
Bucknell 68
Rice 48 FINAL
Houston 59
Missouri State 57 FINAL
Illinois State 67
Loyola-Chicago 47 FINAL
Wichita State 58
Nebraska Omaha 64 FINAL
South Dakota St 86
Northern Iowa 59 FINAL
Southern Ill 52
Louisville 81 FINAL
Boston College 72
St Johns 74 FINAL
Creighton 77
East Carolina 58 FINAL
Memphis 70
Georgia Tech 70 FINAL
Miami-Florida 50
Miss State 73 FINAL
Ole Miss 79
Clemson 68 FINAL
NC State 57
Indiana 67 FINAL
Purdue 83
Kansas 64 FINAL
TCU 61
Oregon 52 2nd Half 3:54
Arizona 79
Air Force 56 2nd Half 3:00
San Jose St 49
Stanford 32 1st Half 0:45
Washington 24
Rider 56 FINAL
Siena 49
Dayton 76 FINAL
Richmond 62
Eastern Kentucky 53 FINAL
Jacksonville St 73
Saint Josephs 0 Postponed
Saint Louis 0
UMBC 71 FINAL
Binghamton 55
Akron 60 FINAL
Ohio U 72
Ball State 72 FINAL
Miami-Ohio 55
Memphis 56 FINAL
Cincinnati 44
East Carolina 32 FINAL
(2) Connecticut 87
Murray State 59 FINAL
Eastern Illinois 75
Kent State 63 FINAL
Central Michigan 65
UT Martin 64 FINAL
Tennessee St 58
Eastern Michigan 56 FINAL
Western Mich 83
Bucknell 61 FINAL
Lehigh 76
Indiana 57 FINAL
Michigan State 72
Colgate 56 FINAL
Lafayette 58
Fordham 66 FINAL
Davidson 45
Duquesne 76 FINAL
St Bonaventure 64
George Mason 66 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 70
Detroit 59 FINAL
Youngstown St 58
Army 0 Postponed
Boston U 0
Loyola-Maryland 0 Postponed
Holy Cross 0
SMU 58 FINAL
Tulsa 74
Oklahoma St 54 FINAL
Kansas State 52
West Virginia 57 FINAL
Texas Tech 73
Denver 56 FINAL
South Dakota 82
Northwestern St 46 FINAL
Central Arkansas 63
Austin Peay 67 FINAL
SIU-Edwardsville 87
Kansas 61 FINAL
Iowa State 56
Bowling Green 50 FINAL
Northern Ill 67
Penn State 64 FINAL
Minnesota 75
San Jose St 80 FINAL
Air Force 83
Boise State 82 FINAL
Colorado State 83
Utah State 51 FINAL
Wyoming 86
San Diego State 50 FINAL
Fresno State 57
Nevada 45 2nd Half 3:01
UNLV 68
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Do you favor the plan for expanded athletic facilities at the U of M?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close