Friday, May 18, 2018

This Blast Was For Mom

By Jeff Kallman

Robinson Cano got bopped for 80 games after a drug test turned up tainted by furosemide. It's a drug used to treat high blood pressure, but it can also be used to mask actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances even if it isn't a PED itself.

No matter. One of baseball's least assuming Hall of Fame aspirants, with a reputation as one of the nicest and most charitable men in the game (as a Yankee, he often stopped on streets near the ballpark to play stickball with kids and formed a group to build schools in his native Dominican Republic), Cano's reputation sank overnight.

Even if he was going on the disabled list concurrently for a broken hand. Even if he really did take furosemide under a Dominican doctor's prescription for blood pressure issues. Even if baseball government had him dead to right — because furosemide itself doesn't draw an automatic suspension, but baseball was able to prove somehow that Cano used it to mask something else. (He tested positive for furosemide in the offseason, appealed the suspension, but finally dropped the appeal as he hit the DL, apparently.)

Miguel Cabrera has gotten so fed up with feeling unappreciated for how often and how long he played while injured that he told reporters he's finished with all that. He was due off the DL (hamstring) Monday but back and hip soreness pushed his return back.

"When you are doing bad," the one-time Triple Crown winner said, "they crush you. They crush you. They say you're bad, you should go home, you don't deserve anything, you're old. I say, 'Okay, I'm done playing hurt.' Now I take my time."

And Cabrera has a point. Joe and Jane Fan don't see past the surface as often as not. They see a player's performance tumble and assume he's not trying hard enough or he's aging or he wasn't all that great to begin with. When they see one of the game's genuine greats beginning to tumble, they assume he's lost it without pondering there might be a reason other than age. It might be injuries such as Cabrera has dealt with. (Back issues left him with a so-so 2017.) Or, it might be psychological compromise.

But injured reputations and injury-compromised players aren't all making news in the game this week. Sometimes players find it difficult to produce under outside emotional impositions. Difficult, but not always impossible.

In 2016, Stephen Piscotty looked like a Cardinals' comer. Twenty-two home runs, .800 OPS, 35 doubles, and 3.0 wins above replacement-level. Last year, he played a sliver above replacement level and the talk was about how the Cardinals could get him back on track.

But it turned out that, last May, his mother, Gretchen, was diagnosed formally with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known commonly as Lou Gehrig's disease. Piscotty clearly played under an overweight burden. During the offseason, the Cardinals found a way to deal Piscotty to the Athletics, close to his family's home and thus allowing him to be close enough to his mother while she fought.

She lost the fight at age 55 on May 6 this year, all but a full year after she got her diagnosis. Her son first took one day off, then came back and ripped a liner up the pipe for a base hit his first time up off the Astros' Lance McCullers. McCullers was kind enough to step off the mound and let Piscotty savor a loud ovation A's fans poured onto him in sympathy.

"I know this game in general can be emotion," McCullers tweeted after the game, "and I can only imagine what he was going through today. I wanted to give him some time to come up and have the fans recognize him. I just wanted that moment to be his."

Piscotty then took bereavement leave to join his family in saying goodbye to his mother, returning to the A's in Boston Tuesday night, two days after his first Mother's Day without her.

Batting for the first time in the top of the second, with one out and the A's up 2-0 thanks to a two-run double by Matt Chapman in the first, Piscotty fell behind 0-2 against Eduardo Rodriguez. Rodriguez served him a slider down and in. And Piscotty tore it into the Green Monster seats, taking a none-too-slow jog around the bases and putting his right hand over his heart as he turned toward home plate to finish the circuit. Just as he'd done after his hit off McCullers following the news that his mother was gone.

"Coming around third," he said after the game, "I just immediately started thinking about my mom and kind of put my hand over my chest like she would do." As he'd told the San Jose Mercury News a week earlier, it was Gretchen Piscotty's way of telling her son, her husband, her family, that she loved them, when speaking became difficult to impossible as she fought the too-fast-advancing killer.

Piscotty was swarmed by teammates when he returned to the dugout. "To hit a home run in his first at-bat [back] like that," said manager Bob Melvin, "there's something in the air. Probably Gretchen."

It was a staggering moment for an outfielder who'd actually been given the option — after four games missed to mourn the loss of his mother while joining his family to celebrate her life — to take Tuesday off after a red-eye flight from Oakland to Boston. Piscotty politely declined the option, playing as his manager described, "on little sleep and a lot of adrenaline."

The blast pushed the A's closer to the 5-3 win they'd end up banking, impressing the Red Sox, who've now lost four out of five to the A's on the season and who've been struggling a bit of late following their rip-roaring season opening. "We haven't been able to put them away," Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters after the game. "They're young and it seems like they're turning a corner. Whatever they're doing over there is pretty good."

Gretchen Piscotty's death struck a nerve around baseball itself, since it was known last winter that the Cardinals were willing to deal her son closer to home if the deal was right for them. Practically the moment her death was made public, the family established a fund to raise $100,000 in her name toward ALS research, and Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish — turning his own struggles aside for a moment — wrote a check for $10,000 for the fund.

Piscotty and the A's set up a concurrent YouCaring fund in her memory, also aimed at ALS research, with the A's themselves agreeing to match up to $50,000.

After last season ended, Piscotty moved into his family's home — which his father, Mike, hustled to remodel in order to accommodate his wife's newly-diagnosed condition (the speed with which it advanced convinced her she may have had the disease far longer) — and took particular pleasure in being his mother's chauffeur, driving her and her friends around the region in an RV fitted with a special wheelchair lift.

She'd once savored her me-time when her husband and sons went to A's games as they were growing up. Mike Piscotty remains a lifelong season-ticket holder and admits he rooted for the A's even against the Cardinals, "except for one guy." Now, his wife savored having her family close and kind to her, especially her eldest son, who fell into the habit of ending nightly sessions with his guitar for her by playing "Amazing Grace," the song she played on a music box against her stomach when she was pregnant with him.

"She thought I could hear it," Piscotty told the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser after he was traded to the A's. "Amazingly, that's one of my favorite songs. I've always loved it." Once, Piscotty and a high school buddy in the Giants' minor league system, Will LaMarche, strapped on their guitars for a duet on the song.

"I'm tearing up thinking about it," LaMarche told the Chronicle. "Gretchen put her iPad down and listened to Stephen take the lead, and I could sense the mother-son connection there, I just could feel that bond."

He should have been in Fenway Park Tuesday night. He'd have seen that bond hammered home with an exclamation point the moment Piscotty's drive landed in the Monster seats.

"It's been an emotional week," Piscotty admitted. "I've been a little cried out, so I didn't tear up or anything." He didn't have to. The hand over his heart as he jogged toward the plate almost said more than the home run did.

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