Cancer scare keeps baseball in perspective

The ballplayer stood in the middle of the dusty diamond. He stood tall, taller than the other ballplayers, because the ballplayer in the middle of the diamond was 54, and the other ballplayers were 12-year-olds.

The old ballplayer was Mike Martin, president of the Las Vegas Baseball Academy. The 12-year-old ballplayers were the LVBA Lightning, one of those traveling kids all-star teams, who were taking batting practice Wednesday morning before heading off to Utah for a tournament.

Mike Martin was throwing batting practice. The 12-year-old kids were pinging his pitches all over Potosi Park. And beyond Potosi Park.

A left-handed swinger named Peyton Cole got hold of one, and it cleared the fence in right field.

The ball bounced once and thudded into the bed of a small Chevy pickup parked on the street. And the 12-year-old ballplayers laughed when they saw a reporter get out of the truck and he wasn’t shaking his fist, because that was quite a poke.

This is the 31st summer that Mike Martin has pitched batting practice to kids 12 and under since he and former Las Vegas Stars teammate Jerry DeSimone founded the Las Vegas Baseball Academy in 1983 “to supplement our luxurious minor league lifestyles.”

He is thankful for each and every one of those summers. He is especially thankful for this one.

Last summer, Mike Martin was wearing a bracelet that said “Pick Somebody Up.” It’s his favorite expression, something he always told his players before he got sick.

When Martin was diagnosed with bladder cancer, one of the kids had bracelets made with that inscription, and all of the kids wore them. Mike Martin still gets emotional when he tells the story.

He got a good report this week: He’s still cancer free after doctors removed the tumor. He goes back for another checkup in a couple of weeks. If it’s still good news, he won’t have to be tested again for six months.

Mike Martin spent six weeks in the big leagues, with the Chicago Cubs as a September call-up in 1986. He batted 13 times. He managed one hit, a double off the Cardinals’ Bob Forsch, in the last major league game Martin ever played.

He thought fleet center fielder Willie McGee might run that ball down in the gap. He’s glad Willie didn’t, because .077 looks a lot better than .000 on the back of one’s baseball card.

Did you know that Mike Martin was the first guy to catch Greg Maddux in the majors? Martin didn’t know that, until a writer from The Sporting News called to chat about it. In addition to Bob Forsch, he faced Nolan Ryan and Dennis Martinez, who among them pitched 10 no-hitters and a perfect game. No wonder Martin hit .077.

When your major league career consists of 13 at-bats, you remember each one in high definition, even if it was 1986. You also remember the way your jersey looked hanging in the cubicle at Olympic Stadium when you were called up. How awesome your name looked on back, the big red No. 41 in the middle, the Cubby bear on the blue sleeve, every crease, every fold.

So what if you went 0-for-2 against El Presidente, which is what they called Dennis Martinez, striking out both times? You were a big leaguer. Nobody could take that away.

And then years later, the doc says you have cancer, and nothing can compare to that, either. Only it’s the other extreme. And you hope like hell that unlike those 13 at-bats in The Show, somebody can take it away.

So when somebody does take it away, you thank him, and you thank God, and you thank your lucky stars. And you don’t sweat your 12-year-olds missing the cutoff man, or when they make devil horns in the team photo.

You just sweat while pitching batting practice under a hot desert sun.

You laugh along with the 12-year-olds when one of ’em rattles a drive off the reporter’s truck. And then you have the kids, all of ’em, pile into the back of your own truck before leaving for the tournament in Utah. You pose for a team photo.

And, yeah, when one of the 12-year-olds makes devil horns, you tell him to cut it out. But you tell him nicely, and then later on you buy him a Slurpee or something. You teach him to hit the cutoff man, and you teach him lessons of life, which are more important than lessons of baseball.

Next month, Mike Martin also will take his 12-year-olds to this big tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

We’re talkin’ serious baseball here. Willie, Mickey and The Duke. Kluszewski, Campanella. The Man and Bobby Feller. But not Craig Biggio, and not anybody else on this year’s ballot, because nobody got in this year.

But the Baseball Hall of Fame? When you’re 12? How awesome is that?

When Mike Martin was a 12-year-old kid growing up in Milwaukie , Ore., you chose up sides (if it didn’t rain) and right field was out and second base was a flattened beer can. But kids have changed, and the way they play ball during summertime has changed, too.

This will be the 14th time the Lightning 12-year-olds have gone to Cooperstown.

For most of the local kids, it will be the trip of a lifetime, “the best baseball experience they’ll ever have,” Mike Martin says, though probably not as cool as hitting a double off Bob Forsch.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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