Darrel Akerfields Uses Baseball For Cancer Therapy

DENVER—Since his youth, baseball has been Darrel Akerfelds’ passion.

Now, it has become his salvation.

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December, Akerfelds continues intensive chemotherapy, with the hope that the tumor will eventually shrink enough that it can be removed.

Meanwhile, Akerfelds finds peace on the baseball field. He is in his 10th season as the Padres’ bullpen coach and is going about his job today just as he did in his first season as a coach, finding therapy in the time he is in uniform, working with the members of a bullpen that has the lowest ERA in the major leagues.

“The field is where I need to be,” said Akerfelds, 49. “The field is my energy. It is the mental health side. Being around the team and doing what I do has been the best mental therapy for me. And physically, I’m holding up.”

Akerfelds received the news in December. Looking jaundiced and feeling pain, he went through a series of tests that revealed the tumor on his pancreas.

“That 24-hour period after the CT scan when they find the tumor and when you hear back, there are a lot of things going through your mind,” he said. “There is a little bit of sorrow, a little bit of sadness. It was during that time that I decided I was going to take it on full force, regardless of the verdict.

“At that point, they didn’t know if it had spread throughout my body or if it was still early. Obviously, if it had spread, things would have been grimmer. But that was something I decided I’d deal with. So when the results came back my mindset was, ‘OK, what’s the next step?'”

Making It Work

Initially there was talk of a radiation treatment.

“That would have been five days a week, and I wouldn’t have been able to be with the team,” he said. “The thought of that was a bummer, but then they came up with the plan of chemotherapy.”

So far, so good. “I haven’t had any nausea or fatigue,” he said. “I’ve been able to stay in shape and do my job.”

Akerfelds has made few concessions on the field. He had to fly back to San Diego for treatment every Tuesday during spring training, costing him one day a week with the team. But the way the treatments have lined up during the season, he has missed only one game so far. Akerfelds was able to take advantage of either the Padres being at home or scheduled off days on the road to schedule his treatments. The Padres’ 10-day trip to Colorado, Minnesota and Boston in June cames during a break in Akerfelds’ treatment program.

And on the field, Akerfelds has made only one sacrifice, and that was under orders from manager Bud Black. He is not allowed to warm up pitchers in the bullpen.

“I miss it,” Akerfelds said. “I will catch a couple of guys on flat ground. There are times when I want to get a feel for their stuff, how the slider spins or what rotation the change-up has. I want to see the release point better, but I understand the decision that I cannot catch anymore.

“I have a stent (a small metal mesh tube) in my pancreas that helps. The tumor is pressing on the pancreas, squeezing it off, which messes up my insulin levels, and the stent helps deal with that,” he said. “With the stent, if I miss a ball or a ball bounces up and hits me in that area.  . . . Well, I guess that’s not too good. Buddy didn’t want to take that chance. I told him I could wear a chest protector. He laughed and told me we weren’t going to risk it.”

Pressing On

But then that’s Akerfelds. He has never been one to back down from a challenge. The guy has a gung-ho approach.

A graduate of Columbine High in suburban Denver, Akerfelds originally attended Arkansas to play football and baseball. As a freshman he started for the Razorbacks at linebacker in the 1981 Gator Bowl, but he was so drawn to baseball that he transferred after that year to Mesa State (Colo.) JC so he could focus on pitching. It paid off. He was the Mariners’ first-round draft choice and the seventh overall pick in the 1983 draft.

“He is a tough-minded person,” Black said. “When I found out about his situation, I was devastated, but what he has done has become an inspiration to all of us to keep moving forward. He has handled (it) with such dignity and class. He is a proud guy.”

And he is optimistic about what lies ahead. The tumor is pressed against an artery. With the chemotherapy, the plan is to shrink the tumor so that it is not touching the artery, and then to surgically remove it. There has been progress, but so far not enough for doctors to move forward.

“The surgeon said as long as the chemo keeps making it smaller, there is a chance the tumor will move away from the artery,” Akerfelds said.

And as long as there is a chance, Akerfelds finds hope.