Chip Scoggins: Resolve doesn't waver in face of terrifying diagnosis

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2012 - 1:50 PM

Paul Bargas is determined to pitch this spring, a year after being stricken with a debilitating disease discovered to be brain cancer.

Paul Bargas last pitched in 2010 for Class A Asheville. He became ill not long after being traded to the Twins.

Photo: Tony Farlow, Courtesy photo

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Paul Bargas is determined to be on the field when the Twins begin full-squad workouts in spring training in early March.

The lefthanded pitching prospect doesn't know how much he will be able to do, or whether the Twins view him as a starter, middle reliever or late-inning specialist.

He doesn't care. He just wants to play baseball again and not think about the nightmare he has survived to reach this point.

For months last winter, Bargas watched his health deteriorate. Headaches left him incapacitated. He felt nauseous constantly. His weight plummeted. Doctors put him through every test imaginable trying to find an accurate diagnosis.

Finally, they got an answer in April: primary central nervous system lymphoma. Brain cancer.

"Nobody ever wants to hear that," said his wife, Victoria.

But something happened. They felt relieved. Sure, the news also came with fear and anxiety. But at least they had an answer. Paul didn't allow himself to consider the worst-case scenario. To him, he was handed the ball in a bases-loaded jam and told to get out of it.

"Succumbing to the idea of dying would be, in my eyes, like backing down from a fight," he said. "Regardless of how big it is, whether it's a hitter or a disease."

• • •

That motivation raged inside Bargas throughout this hardship, which began shortly after the Twins traded for him from Colorado in exchange for catcher Jose Morales in December 2010. Bargas, who spent 2010 in Class A, was excited about a new opportunity, humbled that another team wanted him.

"Then five days later I end up laying in the hospital and I can't even remember my name," he said.

Bargas, 23, was told he had viral meningitis, but the symptoms persisted. He married Victoria, his high school sweetheart, in Mexico in early January, but the entire cruise was a blur. Victoria rushed him to the hospital when the ship docked because he was disoriented. The diagnosis again was meningitis.

He didn't feel 100 percent when he arrived in Fort Myers for spring training two months later, but he was eager to make a positive first impression. A few days into camp, he woke up disoriented, vomiting and in need of help. The Twins had him hospitalized for a week and then referred him to UCLA Medical Center for further testing.

Bargas approached a Twins executive before he left and asked if he could address the entire team, even though he hardly knew any of his new teammates. Bargas vowed to get healthy and return to baseball. He urged them to take advantage of their opportunity and thanked the team for taking care of him. One team official described the speech as "breathtaking."

Bargas returned to California and underwent a battery of tests. MRIs, CAT scans, a brain biopsy, spinal tap. He suffered a grand mal seizure in the car as Victoria drove him to a doctor's appointment. He weighed 213 pounds at spring training but was down to 155 within a month. He hadn't weighed that little since he was 14.

"I couldn't eat, I couldn't even open my eyes because my head hurt so bad," he said. "To be honest, I don't remember a lot of it because of the trauma on my body, I guess."

Victoria felt scared and frustrated as her husband's condition worsened.

"It's like we were on this wild rollercoaster that seemed like it would never end," she said.

• • •

The diagnosis brought a range of emotions, but Bargas threw himself into his recovery. He showed a fighting spirit through chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. He studied everything about the disease, his medications, the side effects of chemo, how the transplant process works.

He didn't lose hope when an MRI revealed more lesions on his brain. He made them put his PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line in his right arm because he didn't want anyone touching his throwing arm. Victoria kept a daily log of his walks around the oncology corridor.

"He was probably stronger than all of us," she said. "All of us were sitting back, panicked, worried. He's up ready to walk a mile."

A few doctors cautioned him about his goal of pitching again this season. That made Bargas want it even more.

"I said, 'You're going to have to hold your reservations until the end to see what happens,' " he said.

Bargas' faith always has been important to him, and cancer only strengthened it.

"I got to a point where I just gave to it to God and said, 'I know you're going to get me through this,' " he said. "I feel like I have so much more that I was put here to do."

He had his best MRI yet in early November, and his weight has returned. He started working out again last week and responded favorably. His next step is to get his pitching arm in shape.

"It actually feels good to be sore from doing something," he said.

Victoria has noticed a change in him the past two weeks.

"You can just tell he feels better and is getting back into his old routine," she said. "Getting his life back in a sense."

• • •

Bargas has an MRI scheduled in early February and is hoping doctors clear him to report to spring training. It's never easy to predict a long-term prognosis, but Bargas sees his short-term goal clearly.

"If you're asking me, I'm going to be ready by spring training," he said. "I'm not going to put it past me. There's nothing that's impossible. I'll take it as goes. If it doesn't happen or I get advised otherwise, I'll take whatever comes. There's no way of knowing where I'm going to be in a month."

He knows exactly where he wants to be, though. On the mound, staring down a hitter, contemplating the right pitch to throw at that precise moment.

"Baseball is what he lives for," Victoria said. "I've never seen him want to do anything else but play baseball. To see him get back on the field is going to be really rewarding and fulfilling in every way."

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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