For John "Dusty" Baker Jr., then with the Giants, now with the Reds, it was a spiritual awakening. Baker was on vacation, mulling his treatment options when he was told to take a walk along a mountain trail on verdant Kauai, the northwesternmost island in the Hawaiian chain.
"I kind of had this spiritual feeling, like I was walking through my life," he said during a similar lengthy one-on-one interview last month at San Diego's PETCO Park. "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."
Torre, now nearly 68, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in March 1999, only months after his Yankees had won the World Series by compiling 125 wins, the most by any team from beginning of the season to end of the postseason in history.
Baker, who just turned 59, was diagnosed in December 2001, only months before he would lead the Giants into the 2002 World Series.
Their stories are certainly germane any time of year, but they are particularly poignant as we approach Father's Day. Each year during the first two weeks of June, Major League Baseball teams with the Prostate Cancer Foundation to raise money and awareness about this form of cancer that is diagnosed in almost 200,000 American men each year. Since 1996, MLB has helped raise $28 million for the disease through the Home Run Challenge, with a goal of $2.5 million this year.
Prostate cancer is treated in various ways, including radiation, hormone therapy and chemotherapy, but most likely during its more advanced stages, is treated with radical prostate removal surgery called a prostatectomy. Torre immediately underwent the surgery, and then had radiation and hormone therapy the following offseason. Baker simply underwent the prostatectomy.
Neither Torre nor Baker has had a recurrence in the years since they had surgery. But neither considers himself cancer-free, either. Larry Lucchino, the president of the Red Sox, has battled non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and prostrate cancer since 1985. He explained the plight of the cancer patient with a simple statement.
"I don't declare myself 'cured,'" he once said. "I'm a superstitious baseball executive who doesn't believe in claiming victory in the seventh or eighth inning. What I am is a 'survivor.'"
Baker and Torre both concur, having had different reactions after their various procedures and treatments.
"I was going to do whatever I could to extend my life, because my first daughter was 3 years old at the time, and the first thought that came to my mind was that I wasn't going to be there for her," Torre said. "Just extend my life. I mean, that's all you can do with cancer."
"I was really grateful for a lot of things," said Baker, whose son, Darren, was also 3 at the time of his father's diagnosis. "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, I mean, for my son and for my wife, who stuck with me. My mom and my dad. I support a lot of people in my family."
Back in 1999, Torre had had a physical in the New York area before heading to Spring Training. The blood test showed that the PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) level in his blood was elevated and that it should be re-tested when he arrived at Florida.
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. In the past, if the reading was below 4.0, most doctors wouldn't consider a person as a prospective prostate-cancer patient.
According to the National Cancer Institute, now a reading as high as a 10.0 can be considered "moderately elevated" and "recent research found prostate cancer in men with PSA levels below 4.0."
Torre said that a big upward change in the number from one year's exam to the next is now cause for major alarm.
"I mean, I've been around people that have PSA's of eight or nine, or 10 or 11, and don't have prostate cancer," Torre said. "It might be an enlarged prostate, so there are other things that can cause it. But it is the change that should get your attention, as I came to find out."
After eliminating other possibilities, like an enlarged prostate and a urinary infection, Torre was told he needed a biopsy of his prostate to determine if he had cancer, and if so, the extent of it.
"Well, you really can't prepare for it, but you expect the worst, at least I was," Torre said. "And I remember being at a game, and I left early because I knew I was getting the results that day, and I was driving back to Tampa when I got the phone call from the doctor."
The news he received changed his life, sending him on a voyage of surgery, therapies and lifestyle changes.
"The way I approached it was like a chronic disease, and you do whatever you can to extend your life, because if you say after surgery that [the cancer's] all gone, then all of a sudden you get back to doing things that you shouldn't be doing, eating habits, not exercising," he said. "So I always looked at it like it's something I had to be aware of, get tested regularly and do all of that stuff on a rest-of-my-life basis."
In late 2001, Baker was about to embark on his last season as manager of the Giants when he found he was in jeopardy, following a pattern of family history.
Baker's 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."
Those results led to the dreaded biopsy, and when Baker was given the results he was incredulous.
"So I said, 'Really, are you serious?' And the first thing is denial," he recalled. "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.'"
Baker had the choice between the 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," he 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 said he hadn't feared for his life. But after the surgery, his mother gave him another bit of sobering information that frightened him: his father wasn't the only one in the family who was plagued by prostate cancer.
"The only time I really got scared was when I came out of the hospital," Baker said. "My mom and auntie told me that both of my grandfathers and a couple of my uncles died in their mid-40s of prostate cancer -- all of them. I didn't know this, I mean, nobody ever told me."
Since their dual scares, Torre and Baker have both attempted to ward off a recurrence by adhering to a low-fat diet, a regular exercise program and eating high-fiber foods -- grains and plenty of vegetables. Torre religiously drinks green tea, which includes cancer-thwarting antioxidants, and has been sipping it regularly over the past decade -- in the dugout before games, and when talking with reporters.
Both try to stay away from eating an excessive amount of red meat.
"There are different tests done by a number of different doctors, and there's a thought out there that fat makes the tumor grow," Torre said.
"I started eating a lot of vegetables," Baker added. "I'm tired of eating broccoli, I was eating it like every day. You start to get your proper rest and you change your life, you change your lifestyle."
But both know that nothing is promised. According to the Prostate Cancer Foundation, about two million men in the U.S. currently have prostate cancer and 28,000 of them are projected to die this year. That's one death every 19 minutes.
Baker is even in a more defined risk group. Black men are 56 percent more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than white men, and are nearly 2.5 times as likely to die from the disease, the Prostate Cancer Foundation reported on its Web site.
Those are chilling numbers.
Worse still, 70,000 men require additional treatment due to a recurrence of the disease.
But the good news is treatment is so successful that those with the disease detected early have a survival rate of nearly 100 percent after five years.
"When we found out that I had cancer, I mean, it changes 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'm always pushing screening, and early detection is the key."
"I think that the longer you have to deal with it the better it gets," Torre said. "No question about it. Anytime a friend of yours passes away, or someone comes up with something, it's an obstacle. That's the way you look at it. You don't try to pretend that it's not there, you just deal with it."