MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Baker still celebrating biggest victory over prostate cancer

Baker still celebrating biggest victory over prostate cancer

SAN DIEGO -- John "Dusty" Baker Jr. is a 14-year prostate cancer survivor. Still, every six months he has the doctor check the marker for a disease that kills a man every 20 minutes.

Right now, his PSA (prostate-specific antigen) is very good.

"Miniscule," Baker told MLB.com in an exclusive interview about the subject on Thursday night at Petco Park before his Nationals defeated the Padres, 8-5.

For the man who is managing the Nationals after a three-year break from baseball, it wasn't always that way, of course.

Baker's story is certainly germane any time of year, but it's particularly poignant as Father's Day approaches on Sunday. Each year since 1996, Major League Baseball teams with the Prostate Cancer Foundation to raise money and awareness about a form of cancer that is diagnosed in almost 200,000 American men annually.

Through the Home Run Challenge, baseball fans are encouraged to visit HomeRunChallenge.org to make a one-time pledge for every homer hit during games played from June 13-19.

Milken on Home Run Challenge

The point is to make men aware of the disease by reaching out, said Baker, who years later also recovered from a mini-stroke near the end of the 2012 season, when he was managing the Reds.

"I just think it's big for men to talk about it because most men don't talk about it as much as women talk about breast cancer," Baker said. "I mean, the awareness has grown, but men don't talk about it. They don't talk about it unless they get it or they know somebody else who had it before. Then they reach out. I'm always pushing screening, and early detection is the key."

Baker is not the only Major Leaguer to contract prostate cancer. The list includes Joe Torre, Larry Lucchino, Dave Lopes and Derrick Hall.

Torre was manager of the Yankees in 1999 when he was diagnosed. He's now chief baseball officer for MLB and a spokesman for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Torre and Milken on cancer

"Like in the game of baseball, the breaks don't always go your way," Torre said in a recent public-service announcement for the foundation. "One in seven men will get diagnosed with prostate cancer. Over 26,000 will die every year. That's half a stadium."

Those are stunning figures. Despite intense research and development to find a cure, those numbers haven't significantly declined in the past 10 years.

In late 2001, Baker was about to embark on what would be his last season as manager of the Giants when he found he was in jeopardy, following a pattern of family history.

Baker's late father, Johnny Sr., was an eight-year prostate cancer survivor at the time, and the younger Baker had long been doing work for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

He had also lost his mother-in-law to breast cancer a couple of years earlier. So each year, Baker already had been paying close attention to his PSA as a precautionary measure.

"I started tracking my own, and mine went up, barely, every year: 1.5, then 1.7, 2, then 2.1," he said. "And then it suddenly went up two points in a year."

An elevated PSA level in the blood reveals an excess of protein produced by cells in the prostate. It is not necessarily a solid marker for cancer, but it distinguishes that something is amiss, and that the prostate needs to closely be examined.

Baker's results led to the dreaded biopsy, and when he was told he had cancer he was incredulous.

"So I said, 'Really, are you serious?' And the first thing is denial," Baker said. "You're like, 'There's no way, this can't be right. I'm feeling good, I have none of the symptoms, I have no trouble urinating, I have no trouble doing anything.'"

It took two weeks for Baker to get a grip on the issue. Every person told he or she has cancer has their own moment when the coping mechanisms come into play and the mind is crystal clear about what lies ahead.

Baker was on vacation, mulling his treatment options when he was told to take a walk along a mountain trail on verdant Kauai, the northwestern-most island in the Hawaiian chain.

"I kind of had this spiritual feeling, like I was walking through my life," Baker said. "And then it started raining, and I was by a tree. I didn't get wet, and I felt like I was sheltered from the storm. It seemed that all things were clearing up, and I looked at that mountain and I just knew that everything was going to be all right. Right then, I made up my mind that God was going to protect me."

There are multiple ways of treating prostate cancer, including radiation, hormone therapy and chemotherapy, but most likely during its more advanced stages, it is treated with radical prostate removal surgery called a prostatectomy.

Baker had the choice between a prostatectomy and radiation therapy. Based on a discussion with his wife, Melissa, he chose the former.

"I only had about two months before I had to go to Spring Training," Baker said. "And my wife tells me, 'Honey, we have to be aggressive with this because I can't lose you, you know, I just had our child and I just lost my mother.' It was a pretty traumatic time."

Baker is even in a more defined risk group. African-American men are 56 percent more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than white men, and are nearly 2 1/2 times as likely to die from the disease, the Prostate Cancer Foundation reported on its website.

Worse, 70,000 men require additional treatment due to a recurrence of the disease.

Baker never needed radiation or chemotherapy and considers himself one of the fortunate ones. Fourteen years later, the disease has not returned. Baker was a .278 hitter with 242 homers in 19 seasons for four teams, but is remembered most for his eight seasons playing for the Dodgers. In his 21st season as a manager, he has a .528 winning percentage.

By any definition he's had a successful career. But his greatest success, he said, is learning how to live his life.

"I mean, it changed a whole bunch of things in my life," Baker said. "You start trying to help other people head it off and you try to figure out why these things are going on. Is it our diet? Is it our water? Is it our atmosphere?

"I was really grateful for a lot of things. I started seeing birds again, listening to them, seeing stars again, not being totally encompassed with work all the time. You deal with it because of your family. I knew I had a lot to live for."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.