Texas St. baseball coach Harrington is winning the fight for his life
SAN MARCOS—It was a lovely afternoon for baseball, except for the cancer. Beneath a blue Texas sky, Ty Harrington settled into a seat at Bobcat Stadium the sweet sound of bat-on-ball, filling the autumn air, the jarring rattle of a pump, pouring chemo into his body.
Gazing across the manicured diamond, Harrington assumed the unusual position of coach and cancer patient. He studied the swings of his Texas State ballplayers and recoiled at the pungency of chemo. He sipped a protein shake, and tried to focus on the details of practice. But every 30 seconds or so, a blast of the computerized-pump pulled him back to reality. At 50, Harrington was fighting Stage 3 rectal cancer.
A tube from a fanny pack carried the medicine to a port, just below his left clavicle. The chemicals entered and spread across his chest cavity, creating a sensation that was warm but not pleasant. A jumble of thoughts filled his head. I’m feeling sick was one. I can’t leave now was another. At times, words and ideas appeared briefly, collided and vanished. He called the recurring symptom, “chemo brain.”
Melaine Harrington, a Texas State student, drove him to the ballpark and sat with him in the bleachers above the dugout. Father and daughter talked baseball and school as the Bobcats fielded grounders and hit fungoes. The conversation provided comfort, the pump irritation. “It was awkward,” Ty says, “but you’re hoping that medicine pumping in is going to save your life.”
This is how Ty began Fall Ball in 2014 -- coaching from a distance, with cancer-killing agents shooting into his body. He underwent surgery. Five days a week, he went for radiation. The treatments caused nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, a loss of 35 pounds. There were mornings Ty could barely get out of bed.
One year later, he’s back in the dugout, overseeing fall practices, planning for spring, the chemo and radiation behind him. Remarkably, Ty has regained all his weight. Five months into the “maintenance and surveillance stage” of his battle, no cancer has turned up in scans or blood work, though, he will be tested again soon. “Each time you go in, your anxiety levels are high,” Ty says. “We all pray a little harder the night before.”
Small flakes of blood were the first clue, a discovery made on the commode. Ty informed his doctor, and the timing was perfect. Ty had just hit the age at which doctors recommend colonoscopies for male patients. Ty’s test revealed a tumor the size of a quarter; a subsequent exam confirmed it was malignant. The diagnosis staggered Ty, triggering shock and fear among family and friends, players and coaches.
The story spills quietly in his office, a small rectangle of books, bats, memorabilia and family portraits. On his desk sits a hardback, “Toughness,” a New York Times bestseller about developing strength for athletic competition and away from it. “I’m still working through the book,” he says. ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas wrote it. Ty seems to be living it.
From the discovery of rectal blood to the anxiety that spikes before exams, the details of Ty’s journey unspool without self-editing. The words come slowly, sometimes tinged with emotion, but they are raw, authentic, honest.
Quit? The thought never occurred to him. “Baseball is what I do,” he says. “It’s all I’ve ever done.” Baseball has been part of Ty since he learned to swing a bat at the age of 4 or 5. A scrappy infielder, Ty lettered twice at the University of Texas and captained the 1987 team that reached the College World Series. He’s coached ever since, with 531 victories in 16 seasons at Texas State.
Devastation? Ty has experienced worse than a Stage 3 diagnosis. In 2006, he took a call in the locker room from a highway patrolman. His parents, Lee and Elaine, had been driving on a farm-to-market road near Waco. A dump truck struck their 2005 Chevy Trailblazer, killing Elaine instantly. Lee, a former football and baseball player at Baylor, passed an hour later. “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Ty says, “was to call my sister and give her the news.”
Toughness? Ty recalls overwhelming nausea and fatigue that left him unable to attend many practices and most games. A former college teammate, Greg Swindell, counters that Ty ranks among the toughest men he knows. Who else, Swindell asks, could bury both his parents and deliver the most uplifting eulogy he’s ever heard?
In 2000, near the end of a Major League pitching career that stretched 17 years, Swindell lost his father to colon cancer. The blow, he recalls, left him numb, speechless. But there was Ty, in front of God and everyone at First Baptist Church in Waco, waxing inspirational about a father who impacted young men as a high school coach and administrator, about a mother who shaped lives as a school teacher and counselor. “It showed me what a powerful man he is,” Swindell says. “I definitely couldn’t have done that.” After the funeral, Swindell approached Ty: When I die, can you deliver the eulogy?
For the first time since he arrived in 2000, Texas State suffered a losing season last spring. Weakened by chemo and drained by radiation, Ty spent much of the season on leave and rarely traveled. In his absence, the Bobcats sank. In May, he returned to the dugout and coached the last 13 games, winning six. Since Texas State never hired an interim, Ty remains the coach of record for team that finished 24-32-1. “The best way to describe last year is it was a burden,” he says. “It was tough for everybody -- players, coaches, you name it.”
Losing wore on a man used to winning. Ty played on three College World Series teams at Texas. He coached Northeast Texas to the junior college national championship in 1996. He’s guided Texas State to three NCAA Regional Tournament appearances and three Southland Conference championships. He’s coached 41 Major League draft picks, among them Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, a three-time All-Star, and Seattle reliever Carson Smith. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that Texas State routinely beats nationally-ranked teams. In 2007, for example, the Bobcats upset No. 1 Rice, 3-2, at home. In 2002, Texas State shutout eventual national champion Texas, 2-0, in Austin.
“He was super competitive,” recalls Goldschmidt, a Gold Glove winner. “He wanted to win every game and win championships. We worked hard. He was one of the best teachers about the basics of playing the infield. He made me a better player. I’d be honored to have my son play under a coach like him.”
No one cheers harder for the Bobcats than Melaine, whose name is derived from Ty’s mother, Elaine, and grandmother, Mildred. A sophomore, Melaine enjoys the timeless quality of baseball, the rhythm and pace of the game. She loves the ballpark, the atmosphere, the winning. She pulls for the team that forever pulls her father from home. “I grew up in a baseball family,” says Melaine, the oldest of Ty’s three daughters, “but I never had a close relationship with my dad.”
A tumor changed everything. Melaine began driving Ty to radiation treatments. She left class and met him for chemotherapy. She brought him lunch, drove him to the ballpark, accompanied him on recruiting trips. “I didn’t want him to be alone,” Melaine says. Seated in the stands at Bobcat Stadium, father and daughter began to cover a range of topics -- from the technical, like bat swings, to the personal, like guys. At home, wife Leila and daughters Emma, 7, and Alle, 5, provided emotional and physical support. Before long, the Harringtons grew tighter than the Waltons.
Meanwhile, Ty’s phone lit up with hundreds of calls and texts. Praying for you, Ty. I know you can beat this, Ty. I’m here if you need anything, Ty. Friends from First Baptist Church in San Marcos brought over so many meals, the Harringtons ran out of kitchen space for the food. One day last fall, Swindell came over. He walked into a near empty house, lights off, curtains drawn, and called for his friend. He found Ty in a bedroom, lying down, watching a ballgame on television.
“Do you want me to open the shades,” Swindell asked. Ty did not. The sunlight hurt his eyes and gave him a headache. Without another word, Swindell climbed into the bed and lay beside his old teammate. “We watched TV for an hour in the dark,” Swindell says. “There wasn’t much of a conversation. I just wanted to be in the same room with him so he wouldn’t be alone.”
Loneliness can be cruel. The chemo pump rattled constant reminders. Ty didn’t see anyone else with a port and a tube. He didn’t notice anyone battling nausea, fighting headaches, trying to recapture a grind the cancer-free take for granted. “Your life changes,” he says. “You fight for whatever ‘normalcy’ was. You want that back.”
Fall gave way to winter. Winter melted into spring. Chemo hit hard, radiation hit harder. But Ty fought on, drawing strength from family, his faith, from all the people that brought meals and offered prayers and called and texted and visited. Baseball kept him grounded, anchoring him to a familiar routine, until those dreaded tests showed no trace of cancer.
He is reclining in his office chair, eyes turning red and wet, a smile creasing an unshaven face. The journey is far from over, but he wants to share light. Stage 3 has given Ty a platform and a message. “Get tested,” he tells friends and former teammates, and many have gone for colonoscopies. “So far,” he says, “every one of them has come through with flying colors.” If this were all the good that came from the disease, Ty would be pleased.
Melaine will tell you there is so much more. Stage 3 has forged an improbable bond between father and daughter. At home, they talk about school, her change of majors (from nursing to physical therapy), her future. At the ballpark, they can spend a lovely afternoon discussing so much more than baseball. “I never imagined,” Melaine says, “I would be this close to my dad.”