Brewers coach LeBoeuf undeterred by cancer battle

Popular member of Minor League staff shares love of the game with players, family

Brewers coach LeBoeuf undeterred by cancer battle

MILWAUKEE -- The little milestones mean so much these days to Al LeBoeuf, a popular coach in the Brewers' Minor League system who has been fighting to reclaim his legs from cancer. Like the day he appeared in Spring Training to visit the players he worried he'd never see again. Or the morning earlier this year when he returned to the golf course. Or the day later in summer when LeBoeuf, fitted with braces on each of his lower legs, threw batting practice.

Some milestones are even smaller. A couple of weeks ago, LeBoeuf wiggled his toes for the first time in more than two years. He called the experience "wonderful."

"There used to be a lot of things in this world that would bother me," LeBoeuf said. "But after laying in a hospital bed not being able to sleep because you thought you were going to die, things change. There are more important things in life than the little things we worry about.

"We should just be thankful for what we have. My wife, Laura. My son, Mac. They've been off the charts through this whole thing. I'm a blessed man. I really am."

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The greatest test of Al LeBoeuf's life began on a golf course in May 2012, when LeBoeuf was in his first season as hitting coach for the Brewers' Triple-A team. He traveled to Huntsville, Ala., on an off-day along with manager Mike Guerrero to meet Double-A manager Darnell Coles, and LeBoeuf thought nothing of it when his calves began to cramp on the 16th hole.

Back at work the next day, LeBoeuf and the team traveled to Tucson, Ariz., and, oddly, his big toes went numb after batting practice. A few days later in Las Vegas, the sensation began to spread up both of LeBoeuf's legs.

Doctors first suspected a nerve injury in LeBoeuf's back, but they instead found a cancerous spot on his left hip that was probably caused by a long-ago plunking at Triple-A Portland in 1985, when LeBoeuf was a promising Phillies prospect. He suffered a terrible bone bruise and was never the same player again. Over the years, LeBoeuf developed a blood cancer at that spot, which in turn produced a rare neurological disorder called POEMS syndrome that damages nerves.

At the time, LeBoeuf's doctors said they knew of only 200 cases in the world, and they offered a grim diagnosis. If untreated, POEMS can be fatal because it spreads through the body to vital organs.

But LeBoeuf's case was caught relatively early. He underwent a stem cell procedure and multiple courses of chemotherapy. Slowly, LeBoeuf began to regain feeling in his legs.

"It was motivating for me to see that when he was down, going through that stem cell transplant, he seemed to know everything was going to be all right," said Mac, who's now a junior first baseman and outfielder at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla. "I thought that was pretty neat."

Mac was a freshman-to-be at the time of his dad's diagnosis, and he considered putting off college to stay home in Tampa, Fla., to help. His parents convinced him to go to school, so Laura LeBoeuf was Al's primary caregiver during the early stages of his treatment at the nearby H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute.

Al graduated from a wheelchair to a walker, then to forearm crutches. This past spring, he was back on the golf course. In the summer, LeBoeuf was throwing batting practice and hitting fungoes. Eventually, he was able to take a few steps without braces on his legs.

"When we got married 27 years ago, I took those vows seriously -- for better or worse, in sickness and in health," Laura said. "I told Al, 'This is part of being married.' I know he felt bad in the beginning, like I had the burden. But more than anything, I felt bad for him because there was nothing any of us could do. I couldn't clear that cancer. I couldn't make him walk again."

So they helped where they could. When LeBoeuf returned to full-time coaching duties in the Rookie-level Arizona League this year, his son went along as an unofficial assistant. Both men expressed their gratitude to farm director Reid Nichols and other club officials for green-lighting Mac's involvement.

"It was like the 'Man Show,'" Mac LeBoeuf said. "We went to the ballpark every day, worked out, hung out. It was a pretty cool opportunity I was able to have, and I learned a lot from it."

So did dad. It was the first time in 25 years that he'd been at the Rookie level, and the challenge extended beyond the physical.

"I tell you what, that level right there is more work than the Double-A, Triple-A, big league level," LeBoeuf said. "You have to say the same thing over and over again. Over and over again. The millionth time you say it, it might sink in. At the lower levels, you have to teach the kids how to work."

LeBoeuf is a living example for those kids. At first, he didn't explain the braces on his legs to the players, some of whom instead went to Mac for answers.

Eventually, the story began to spread, so Al shared it with the entire team.

"A lot of them were stunned," Al said.

"I think the players were like, 'Oh my God, he's dealing with this at the same time he's out there in 110-degree weather hitting fungoes,'" Mac said. "It made them think, 'We may be hurting a little, but other people have been through worse.' I think it was really motivating for them."

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LeBoeuf has been undergoing physical therapy twice a week in Tampa with an old friend named Hap Hudson, who worked as an athletic trainer for the Cardinals, Phillies and Blue Jays organizations. The two go all the way back to LeBoeuf's own playing days with the Phillies.

Hudson introduced a new type of treatment that has given LeBoeuf the ability to move his toes. Now that he's better able to support his own weight, he switched to a less intrusive style of lower leg braces that allow better movement. Al is able to help Laura with household chores again. Every Wednesday during the offseason, he travels to Lakeland to work with Mac's college team.

"They say I'm going to have a full recovery, but unfortunately, there's no timetable for nerve regeneration," LeBoeuf said. "So I'm at the mercy of that. But I'm getting to the point now that my way of life is OK."

Little by little, life is returning to normal.

"It sounds strange to say, but I would never take this experience back," Laura said. "Through it, we've come on the other side as happier people … and I'm so happy for him that he's back on the field doing what he loves and what I honestly believe he was put on this Earth to do."

Mac put it this way: "I've learned so much from my dad. Mostly that the more you fight, the better the outlook you're going to have when you come out on the other side."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.