Todd Oakes, who spent 18 years as Gophers pitching coach, mentoring the likes of Twins closer Glen Perkins, died Thursday after a four-year battle with acute myeloid leukemia. He was 55.
Oakes was beloved in the Gophers baseball community, and the team dedicated this year’s regular-season Big Ten championship to him, hanging his No. 25 jersey around the team’s dugout as his health declined.
“With a heavy heart, we are saddened to say that Todd passed away peacefully this morning,” Oakes’ family wrote on his CaringBridge site. “He was surrounded by his family with a cross in his hand and his favorite music playing.”
Oakes is survived by his wife, Terri, and their three sons, Tyler, TJ and Tanner.
Longtime coach John Anderson acknowledged how tough it’s been for the team to cope with their grief for the man everyone called “T.O.” The top-seeded Gophers were eliminated from the Big Ten tournament Thursday with a loss to Michigan.
“He was a tremendous pitching coach,” Anderson said of Oakes. “But I thought he was a wonderful fit for our program because of his values, the person he is and the servant leader that he was.”
Perkins played for the Gophers in 2003 and 2004 and remained very close with Oakes.
“There is not a single person more responsible for the career I’ve had than Todd Oakes,” Perkins, a two-time All-Star tweeted. “… He taught me that a bad day at the field is a better day than sitting at a cubicle.”
The five-year survival rate for acute myeloid leukemia is about 26 percent. Oakes 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.
“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.
After growing up in Spring Grove, Minn., Oakes attended Waldorf College in Iowa before transferring to Nebraska. He went 16-4 as a pitcher over two seasons with the Cornhuskers, earning All-Big Eight honors in 1983. He earned his bachelor’s degree in education.
Drafted by the San Francisco Giants, Oakes spent four years pitching in the minors before becoming a coach for 12 years in the Giants’ system.
Oakes took over as Gophers pitching coach in 1998, in part, so he could spend more time at home with his family.
All told, Oakes coached 26 Gophers pitchers who went on to become drafted, including his son TJ, an 11th-round pick by the Rockies in 2012.
“You talk to these kids, they won’t tell you about how [Oakes] taught them to throw a better breaking ball, or how to command the fastball,” Anderson said. “They’ll talk about the life lessons he taught them. Whether they were the first or the 15th pitcher, they all felt they were valued by him.”