Plenty To Play For

Giants' Fransden plays all out for late brother

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.--From his spot in the front corner of the Giants' spring-training locker room, Kevin Frandsen likes to sit back and observe.

Sure, he'll laugh at Ray Durham's jokes, needle a few of the younger guys and partake in the occasional card game. But mostly, Frandsen stays quiet and takes it all in.

It can't get any better.

He's a 23-year-old from San Jose who grew up rooting for, and was drafted by, the Giants. He tore through the minors last season, earned a spot in the Futures Game and has become one of San Francisco's top prospects--a second baseman with sneaky power, a good glove and an unflappable demeanor. He is expected to spend the 2006 season at Triple-A Fresno and, if he continues his remarkable rise, perhaps succeed Durham as his hometown team's regular second baseman.

By all measures, Frandsen is living a dream. It's just not his dream.

Every time Frandsen steps to the plate this season, he will touch a tattoo on his upper back that says "D.J."

"I think about him constantly," Frandsen says. "I wake up thinking about him. I've had so many awesome experiences with the Giants the last couple years, and I know what a thrill he would have gotten out of this."

David (D.J.) Frandsen had two passions in a life cut short by cancer: the Giants, and his little brother's baseball career. It was not unusual for D.J. to catch the Giants on television inside Stanford Children's Hospital, then head straight from a chemotherapy session to Municipal Stadium to watch Kevin play college ball for San Jose State. Always, he was in the same seat: third-base side, fifth row, on the end--next to the tunnel.

"There were times when I'd be on deck," Kevin says, "and I'd look up and see him and think, 'Are you kidding me? He's here?' "

'Getting Blasted'

Of course he was. Kevin's games were D.J.'s therapy, his salvation. During his two-decade fight with cancer, D.J. lost both kidneys, survived a transplant, had months of dialysis treatment and received so much chemo that he referred to it as "getting blasted."

D.J. suffered from Wilms tumor, the most common form of kidney cancer in children. The first time it struck, after kindergarten, he lost one kidney and needed 18 months of chemotherapy. It returned three years later, but doctors were able to save half of the remaining kidney, and life returned to normal for the Frandsen brothers.

Kevin, three years younger, tagged along with D.J. and his friends every chance he got. They'd play ping-pong, watch the Giants and spend lazy days at the beach. Kevin remembers D.J. being "a machine" during this long stretch of good health--even with just half a kidney--and he would routinely whip Kevin on the tennis court.

D.J. finished high school and prepared to attend nearby Santa Clara. But before he enrolled, the remaining half-kidney failed -- or so they thought. While prepping D.J. for a transplant from his father, Dave, doctors discovered that the cancer had returned in most wicked form yet: It extended from his diaphragm to his groin and wrapped around his aorta. It took 10 hours of surgery, 13 months of dialysis and a transplant, but D.J. survived.

By then Kevin had become a star player at San Jose's Bellarmine Prep, though a heavy-hearted one. Through a senior season in which he hit .495 and was named first team all-state, Kevin would come home desperate for the latest medical news on D.J. -- only to have D.J. pepper him with baseball questions. Even when the cancer made its fourth appearance a few years later, striking D.J.'s liver and the area where his kidneys used to be, he would still attend Kevin's games at San Jose State.

Chemotherapy, radiation, dialysis, nausea, exhaustion, rain, cold, day, night -- it made no difference. Week after week, season after season, Kevin would emerge from the dugout and check the stands behind third base. Sure enough, there was his ailing older brother, a few hours removed from getting blasted.

With D.J. staring down his nightmare, how could Kevin not hang in against curveballs that started at his head? How could he not slide face-first into second base or dive into the stands for foul balls? How could he not break batting records, play nifty defense and give D.J.'s favorite team a reason to draft him?

"It's like they were each other's coach," their father recalled. "One coached the other to do better in baseball, and one coached the other to keep battling."

D.J. was in particularly high spirits in the spring of 2004. His Giants were just a few games out of first, Kevin was in hot pursuit of San Jose State's career hits record, and the draft was fast approaching. D.J. was hopeful that the Giants would select his little brother.

But on Mother's Day weekend, his breathing turned labored. He was rushed to the hospital, but his condition continued to deteriorate and he fell into a coma.

As the draft neared, D.J. received last rites.

Whatever It Takes

With his parents saying their goodbyes and the priests gathering around his hospital bed, D.J.'s vital signs began to flatline. Then, suddenly, shockingly, the jagged lines of life returned to the monitor. Strong and stronger they grew until D.J. finally came to. He opened his eyes, looked around and asked, "What are all you guys doing here?"

Two weeks later, his dream came true: The Giants picked Kevin in the 12th round, pronounced him a second baseman and assigned him to short-season Salem-Keizer. By the time Kevin reported, D.J. had gained enough strength to join his parents on trip north to watch the opener. A month later, after hitting .296 in 25 games, Kevin broke his collarbone on a collision at second base. He returned home to heal and spend time with his big brother. "Even just being around him at that time, just us sitting quietly in the car driving to the hospital -- nothing could top that," Kevin said.

On August 26, D.J. took his parents to dinner for their anniversary. The next day, his lungs failing from years of chemotherapy, he was admitted to Stanford Medical Center. The doctors requested an MRI exam, but D.J. was too anxious to climb in the tube alone. So Kevin held him. For what felt like four hours but was actually one, Kevin stood next to the machine and held his dying brother's hand.

The end came a week and a half later. D.J. had beaten cancer for 19 years and lived to see his brother play in the Giants organization, but he had grown too tired to fight anymore. He told his parents goodbye and sent his love to his girlfriend. Then, a final request: "Tell Kevin, 'He's the world to me.' "

D.J. was 25.

Four months later, in January 2005, Kevin was invited to big league camp for spring training. He met Willie Mays, chatted it up with J.T. Snow and played well enough to earn a roster spot on the Giants' high Class A affiliate in San Jose. His first full season in professional baseball began in his hometown.

He kept his grieving parents company, slept in his own bed and played in his college stadium. But not everything was as it had been: There was an empty seat at the end of the fifth row. Kevin had not gotten the tattoo on his back, so each time he stepped to the plate, he'd tap his bat twice. "I knew D.J. was there with me," he said.

After a slow start, Frandsen hit .412 in June and was promoted to Double-A Norwich, where he spent all of five weeks and participated in the Futures Game. Promoted to Triple-A Fresno, he continued to flourish, batting .351 in 20 games, using the whole field and demonstrating gap power with 10 doubles.

The Giants, pleasantly surprised by Kevin's progress, sent him to the Arizona Fall League, then invited him to big league camp again as a nonroster player. He was the only Giant to appear in the team's first 16 spring-training games and, despite an 0-for-12 start, was hitting .324 with two weeks of spring training left.

Though an assignment back to Fresno was likely, Frandsen clearly had impressed the Giants with his bat, his glove and his approach.

"We see him as a starter eventually in the big leagues," said Dick Tidrow, the team's vice president for player personnel. "What we'd like him to do is play a full year at Triple-A because he really got there in a hurry. But if we had to call him up, would I be insecure with that? No.

"He strikes me as having a real drive to succeed, but he takes a day-to-day approach. If he goes 0-for-4, the next day is a new day. A lot of guys aren't that sure of their ability or can't leave yesterday behind. But he can."

Frandsen's offense has come around faster than the Giants expected, thanks in part to that broken collarbone two years ago. (It allowed him to hit the weights and improve his lower-body strength.) But Frandsen, who reminds some of former Giants second baseman Robby Thompson, knows it's the little things that will light his path to the majors: airtight defense, moving runners over, setting the table for the power bats behind him.

There is only one thing that he can't do--one thing he won't do.

He won't take a minute of this for granted.

"People say that you'll play in the big leagues, but you can't believe it," he said. "You have to prove you belong. Too many guys get to Triple-A their first year in pro ball, or when they're 23, and things don't work out for whatever reason. I'm just lucky the Giants gave me the opportunity. I have to keep focused and play my game."

D.J. wouldn't stand for anything less.

Jon Wilner is a sports writer for the San Jose Mercury News.