Cancer survivor has resolve of a Tiger

The chemotherapy treatments left her wanting only to sleep away the dreadful feeling of hell, but her husband and oncologist and teammates demanded she put on a baseball uniform and drive to the ballpark.

Once there, everything changed. Hell became heaven. Once there, if it meant taking breaks to run behind the dugout and vomit before returning to coach first base, well, it was a small price to pay to ensure no one got picked off under her watch.

When the breast cancer long was handled and the skin cancer arrived to take a chunk of her nose, doctors said not to play tackle football. A few days later, she pulled a helmet over all the stitches for her first semipro game and was assigned the position of nose tackle, meaning her coach thought she was the best choice or had a fairly twisted sense of humor.

“I’ve had a love for sports since the time I bounced out of my mom,” Norine Rathbone said. “This is all I ever wanted.”

She will walk onto a spring training field in Lakeland, Fla., on Monday morning, intent on bringing awareness and proving a point. She is scheduled to take part in a tryout for the Detroit Tigers as a breast cancer survivor from Las Vegas who has become a symbol of a project Major League Baseball introduced on Mother’s Day three years ago to support the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation.

She is 51 and a real-life pink bat.

“I’m going to Florida like it’s all business,” Rathbone said. “I know I won’t make the team, but I will show them women are not weak and helpless and can hold their own. I’m 5-8, 190 and built like a fullback. They will be very surprised Monday.

“They’ve never seen anyone like me in the history of baseball.”

Know this about Rathbone: She doesn’t lack for confidence, and a team of young, ambitious public relations interns couldn’t promote her story better than she does.

But it’s also one that can’t be told enough, not when one in every eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and the frightening news is delivered to someone globally every three minutes.

Rathbone remains the lone woman in the Vegas Valley Baseball League, for which she has played for five teams over nine years and the last four with the Las Vegas Sandvipers. She is more of a part-time player now and coaches third base.

Last year, a relative suggested Rathbone wasn’t tough enough to play tackle football, so at age 50 and dealing with skin cancer, she tried out for and made the Las Vegas Showgirlz.

Guard. Nose tackle. Anywhere she can hit someone.

“I’m a pushy woman, but I can do it legally this way,” she said.

Said Gary Arlitz, player-coach of the Sandvipers: “She’s pretty determined and has a lot of drive. She may not have the ability as others, but that determination sets her apart.”

The memories will rush back Monday, of her introduction to baseball at age 3 when her brother’s wild throw hit her in the head; of not really ever taking to softball, even while playing a season in junior college; of holding her father as he was dying and hearing him apologize through tears for not fighting hard enough with those Little League officials in Buffalo, N.Y., to allow his daughter an opportunity to play; of the seven chemotherapy treatments to which she wore her baseball uniform; of the six weeks of daily radiation treatments that followed.

Of the shouting match she had with her body when the breast cancer hit in December 2000, a few months before her first baseball season here in the valley.

“I was so mad,” Rathbone said. “I worked all those years through discrimination from both men and women to get into baseball, and my body was telling me I couldn’t do it. I was like, ‘Forget that. You’re going, I’m staying.’

“And now I get this tryout with Detroit. It’s great major league players swing pink bats once a year, but it should be a breast cancer survivor and a woman. How do I make a 40-man roster for one day? I don’t know.

“But what if I did? What if I hit it back to the pitcher and scared the crap out of him? I could do that.”

What if on Mother’s Day this year, for their home game against Sacramento, the 51s signed Rathbone for a day and figured a way to get her one plate appearance?

She previously threw out the first pitch at a 51s game, but allowing her to swing the pink bat would embody the fighting spirit of millions of women.

Crazy? Not completely.

Such publicity-driven moments forever have defined minor league baseball, and none would represent a better cause.

That is, unless she makes the Tigers.

Then she’d really have a story to tell.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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