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Tracys grateful to celebrate Father's Day

Tracys grateful to celebrate Father's Day

FAIRFIELD, Ohio -- For the better part of the last 18 months, Jim Leo Tracy had been faithfully arriving at the Mercy South cancer unit about a half an hour due west of Cincinnati each Tuesday morning to undergo his chemotherapy treatments.

The 78-year-old, whose son Jim Edwin is manager of the Dodgers, would roll up his sleeve so a nurse technician could inject the fluid, which is poison to some, but a last gasp at life for others. Jim Leo was pretty stoic about it. He'd bring a book or a magazine and while away the hours as the liquid coursed into his ravaged body drip by drip.

"You look around and see all the faces, the kids, especially," he said during an interview last month, his voice hoarse and barely above a whisper. "And you realize there are people who have it a lot worse than you. So I'm just grateful for every day. Grateful, that's the best word for it."

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For those 18 months, Jimmy the elder has been battling the recurrence of prostate cancer, which this time has invaded his bones like the plague. In early May, he was able to make it to Great American Ball Park for the first two games of a three-game series pitting his son's Dodgers against the hometown Reds. It was a chance for quality time between a father and a son.

This Father's Day is a time when people all around Major League Baseball pause to remember and celebrate that bond between generations, that person you looked up to as a boy or girl. He was that person who might have taught you the game itself, along with so many other life lessons. And so many people right now probably can relate to the story of the Tracys, who appreciate the times gone by and the time left.

Just before that Dodgers-Reds series, because of a fortuitous one-day break in the relentless baseball schedule, Jimmy the elder had pre-Mother's Day dinner with his wife, Virginia, and their three sons, including Jimmy the younger. It was the first time the family had been together for that occasion in decades.

Jimmy the elder sat in the stands with family members and an old friend on Friday night. He visited the clubhouse on Saturday and watched as another old friend, Dodger scout Carl Loewenstine, struggled to even sit in a chair. Like Jim Leo, Loewenstine is also beset by cancer that has invaded his bones. He had gone to the Cleveland Clinic only weeks earlier and received the bad news.

"I need to talk to him," Jim Leo said. "Anything I can do, any advice I can give him, I will."

But his own illness began to turn darker that week. He was too sick on Sunday to make it to the ballpark and on that following Tuesday, during his weekly clinic run, the nurse technician missed his vein when the needle was plunged into his arm for the chemo treatment, Jimmy the younger said. That night, he awoke with the arm swollen twice its size.

The doctors cancelled his chemo for a month to let the arm heal, never a good sign as cancer is spreading. His PSA, the blood test that defines prostate cancer, was above 600 during the treatments. Without the treatments, it has soared beyond 700.

A PSA level in a normal male is supposed to be between .4 and .5. When it rises beyond that, doctors get worried. Tracy's father is off the charts.

As Father's Day approaches, the clock is ticking.

"I've had some calls from my mother telling me my dad has had some pretty bad days," Tracy said recently. "The family is aware of it. They all know what's going on."

Asked if he felt the pressure of his father's distant illness coupled with the pressures of another baseball season, Tracy was stoic, like his old man.

"I'm very much at ease with it," he said.

Tracy has been living the last year on the edge of a knife. There are the travails of his team, but all that pales in comparison to the possibility that he won't see his father again. If the phone rings late at night, there's that instant chill and a hesitation to answer.

At times last year, Tracy wondered out loud whether his dad would make it through the end of the season.

But he did make it and when the Dodgers traveled to Cincinnati for those games last month, Tracy drove to the nearby suburbs on several occasions. He was able to spend some time with his family, and even threw out the first pitch on a Saturday night when his old high school team played a baseball game.

Hamilton-Fairfield is a community of small tract houses and shingled cottages that haven't changed much in the last 30 years. The homes that Tracy lived in as a boy, turning into a young man, are still there. A brother and family live in the one he remembers best, where he spent his most formative years. His dad and mom now live around the corner.

Former MLB pitcher Kent Tekulve grew up down the street. Walt Alston, another Dodgers manager of a bygone era, hailed from nearby Venice. The schools, ball fields and parks are all within bike riding distance.

"And if we had to we'd walk," Tracy recalls. "There was never any harm in doing that."

Tracy, now 49, grew up as the oldest of the three brothers. With his full head of sandy hair, he is the spitting image of the small-town farmer. He could have been the baseball coach at one of the local schools or certainly the football coach. Tracy lettered in baseball, football and basketball and almost went to college on a football scholarship. He played baseball instead.

"He could have done whatever he wanted in sports," his father said. "That's how talented he was."

The Cubs picked Tracy in the fourth round of the 1977 draft and then traded him four years later to the Astros, who never gave him a chance. The back of his baseball card says he played in 87 games for the Cubs during the 1980 and 1981 seasons. He had 46 hits in 185 at-bats, accumulating three homers and 14 RBIs. By the time he turned 27, he was on to a career of coaching and managing, working his way up through the system.


"My days are full. There's a lot for me to live for and look forward to."
-- Jim Leo Tracy

As he speaks, he still has that Midwestern twang, so evident in his long, drawn-out rambling, but endearing in his explanations about strategy decisions. Tracy loves telling stories. The kind of tales a kid once wove sitting around the camp fire roasting marshmallows on a humid summer night.

When he puts on his rimless glasses and sits across the room from his father, there is no doubt about the close link in the family tree. Twenty years from now, Jim Edwin will no doubt look like Jim Leo does today.

"As they say, the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree," Jimmy the younger says.

Driving around the old neighborhood, the Dodgers manager recalls a story to illustrate the type of influence his father had on him when he was a kid. There was a day when he came home from high school to rake and tend to the small front yard. Jimmy the younger wanted that yard to look like the smooth, green satin of a baseball outfield. And when his father came home, he was waiting for a pat on the back.

Instead, Jimmy the elder went over to drainage pipe on the side of house and pulled out three wet leaves that had malingered beneath the spout.

There was no yelling and screaming -- the dad said he never really had to scold his oldest son -- just three simple words: "What about these?"

"The lesson was simple," the Dodgers manager said. "From that point forward, even if you think you have everything under control, if you keep searching and searching there might be one other thing that you can utilize."

The manager obviously divined his work ethic from his father. He pores over charts and hitting matchups like his dad pored over numbers. Jimmy the elder was an accountant -- still is. Things were so tight as the three boys grew up that he worked for a local safe company crunching numbers during the day and for the township at night. This so he could pay the tuition as his sons went to the local parochial schools.

He was home from his day job long enough for supper then back out to work again. On his good days now, he still puts in four hours tumbling figures for a local concern.

"It keeps the mind nimble," he said.

Then there is his family, grandchildren and following the Dodgers on the satellite or computer. Those are the things that give him strength to keep the fire burning.

"My days are full," he said. "There's a lot for me to live for and look forward to."

Sometimes a deathly illness like the one Jimmy the elder is battling can be just as taxing on the care givers.

He learned he had prostate cancer more than a decade ago, ignoring bladder and prostate problems until it was too late. One night while lying in bed, he felt so poorly that he finally confided in his wife. She rushed him to the hospital. An enlarged prostrate revealed the type of cancer that is curable if caught early.

The Yankees' Joe Torre and the Cubs' Dusty Baker have both been diagnosed with it in recent years. But because of early detection, they had surgery, post-operative treatment and seem to be stable.

In Jimmy the elder's case, the doctors were fortunate enough to arrest it, but the cancer came roaring back with a vengeance in late 2003 and now is wrecking its havoc.

In recent months his weight has plummeted, and that once ox-like physique has begun to seriously dwindle.

"I hate seeing him with his shirt off," said his wife, Virginia. "It breaks my heart."

It is breaking the manager's heart, too, but as usual he remains stoic about it. On the outside, at least. The days are numbered, Tracy the younger knows. They are slipping away like the games on a baseball schedule. A win here, a loss there and in the end, no matter how the season ends, it's all in the book.

The Dodgers are in Chicago playing an Interleague game against the White Sox on Fathers Day. Jim Leo will be at home, still fighting the good fight.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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