DENVER — The best thing I’ve seen at Coors Field this season happened Tuesday.
And that says something, since the Rockies were 36-23 entering a series against the Indians, tied for the most wins in the National League, in first place in the West and, if they held a reunion with the previous 24 Rockies teams, would go down in the yearbook as Most Likely To Win A World Series.
But this? This beats it all: as they wrapped up batting practice, Nolan Arenado assaulting one over the center-field wall for good measure, a man with a bald dome strolled down the dugout steps. Chad Bettis, after seven cycles of chemo to treat testicular cancer, rocked with feeling his No. 35 uniform, knee-high black socks and a smile so big and accurate it would bring tears to your eyes.
“Guy hugs!” manager Buddy Black shouted.
It happens once in a while. All the sappy romanticism that purists swear can only be found on a baseball diamond actually comes true. Tuesday was one of those days. For the first time this year, Bettis was back at Coors — for now in player-coach form ("Being here with the guys is so beneficial to me," he said), later in pitching form. There's no firm timeline for his return to the mound.
“Maybe some time in July,” manager Buddy Black said.
It’s still cancer we’re talking about, and cancer before, during or after the fact doesn’t care for timelines.
“It’d be nice to be back by the All-Star break (in mid-July),” said Bettis, who, it’s jarring to remember, is only 28 years old.
OK, I lied. The best thing I’ve seen this season happened in the second inning. After right-handed starting pitcher Antonio Senzatela ripped a double off the wall, scoring three base runners, the first cat to greet the rookie atop the dugout steps was that smile and bald dome, again.
“I told him how bored I’ve been in the dugout since he’s been gone and everything,” Jon Gray said with a laugh.
The immediate plan is for Bettis to attend games and travel with the team. His most recent surgery was less than a week ago, and he’s able to lift weights and work on his conditioning. From general manager Jeff Bridich and the front office to the teammates who pepper him with text messages requesting updates, the Rockies have been there for him, and Bettis said now he’ll be there for the Rockies, “whether it’s with a pat on the ass or a kick in the teeth.”
Since this whole thing started, first with the discovery of cancer in November, next with the revelation that he was cancer-free, next with the announcement that it had returned, next with rounds of chemo that sapped his strength but not his belief, lastly (hopefully, prayers delivered and fingers crossed) with him rejoining the team on Tuesday, I’ve never seen Chad Bettis without a smile. He’s told me his inspiration comes from his Christian faith and his family, wife Kristina and infant daughter, Everleigh Rae.
“When she was born (on March 27), it was all secondary. It was all about her and how great she was to us,” he said. “I think your perspective changes vastly. It doesn’t become about your job anymore. It becomes about your life. I’ve also grown to appreciate baseball even more so. But it’s all secondary. What’s first is my family. I think that’s what got me through this, for sure.”
While he underwent chemo and recovered in Arizona, Bettis was glued to ROOT Sports. His surprise level — both at the wild success of MLB’s youngest pitching staff and the ballclub’s fast start — rests firmly at zero.
“It’s been what we’ve expected. We went into spring training knowing what we were capable of doing,” Bettis said. “Where we’re headed is how we’re playing right now. We’re playing great baseball.”
Sorry, I lied again. The best thing we’ll see this season hasn’t happened yet. It’s coming in September. Somehow the Rockies have hung tight with the Dodgers and their bottomless pockets, and the National League West title and a playoff spot hangs in the balance. Chad Bettis is on the mound.