GOLDEN — The fear? It was real.
It was a 27-year-old man afraid for his life. When doctors told Chad Bettis that the Rockies starting pitcher had testicular cancer - again, he's 27 - the fear debilitated his senses.
"'Um, what?' That's the initial reaction," Bettis said Monday. "You don't view it as, 'This is me.' You take it like, 'You messed up on the results.'"
The shock? Real, too. This kind of thing doesn't happen to guys who haven't hit 30 — or so we think — and especially one who is fresh off the best season of his young pro career. It doesn't happen to guys who are otherwise a model of health, a right-hander who led the Rockies in wins (14), innings pitched (186) and operates, along with veteran Tyler Chatwood, as the vocal and spiritual leader of the deepest rotation in club history.
"At that point in time, baseball goes to the back burner," he said. "Your livelihood is at stake."
The tears? They arrived again Monday. And they had nothing to do with baseball. During a Rockies caravan stop when I asked about his wife, Kristina, Bettis cried. When I asked about their first child, a girl who is expected to arrive March 29, he cried again. And when it came time to talk about his parents, Cody and Nadine, well, their son just flat-out lost it.
"Man, the more I think about it the tougher it is," he said.
Chad Bettis is cancer free. Doctors removed a testicle in late November and he learned in December he's good to go for a Rockies season that opens when pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13. On Friday, Bettis threw a 25-pitch bullpen session he described as "great."
I'm thinking it was probably the best-feeling 25-pitch bullpen that's ever been thrown.
"Everything's going to be fine and healthy," he said. "So it's a great day."
Bettis hadn't talked at length about the cancer scare until Monday. What I learned was that his fear didn't concern his own health, but what his own health meant to his family. Chad is a powerful Christian, and it seemed a solid chunk of the Rockies organization spent November and December praying for his health. He read a single Bible verse over and over and believes "Romans 8:18" was written with his predicament in mind: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
"I don't know why, but it stuck with me for a very long time, before this even happened," he said. "I feel like it's true. It's something I could lean back on. I was like, man, this verse was meant for me."
Bettis also believes the timing of the cancer, which he discovered through a self-examination — months before the birth of their daughter — was not a coincidence.
"It's been a miracle in the sense of everything that's happened," he said. "Having a little girl on the way and knowing my wife and I had to get through this, I think it would have been much harder if we would have already had her."
You could see Bettis at Safeway and not recognize him as a major league pitcher. He's 6-foot-1, maybe 200 pounds, and probably wearing cowboy boots. There's little to suggest he owns a slider that seems custom made for groundball outs at Coors Field, or that he tossed a memorable two-hit, complete-game shutout of the San Francisco Giants on Labor Day, or that the Rockies are counting on Bettis' steady demeanor to tie the rotation together.
"Chad's a good guy to count on," general manager Jeff Bridich said Monday.
But I would be more surprised to see Bettis in Safeway and hear he had cancer. That doesn't happen, until it does. He's down a testicle, but the joy in his voice and the tears in his eyes when he talks about becoming a father are enough to make you hug yours.
"Broken. I was broken. It was tough," Bettis said. "It was really hard for me to tell my parents. They want what's best for their kids. That was tough. We got through it."
Next up are scans and blood work every six weeks. The Rockies may choose to ease Bettis into his normal workload, and new manager Buddy Black is keen to his status.
"I feel like we didn't beat around the bush in building a relationship," Bettis said with a laugh. "It was, 'Hey, we're stuck together for a couple years here.'"
But the surprise, fear and unknown? Real.
"I feel like it still hasn't set in that it's gone," he said.
The comeback is going to be real, too.