PROGNOSIS IS GOOD | Manager resumes his post
Cancer battle a journey for Bell
By BILL REITER
The Kansas City Star
CHANDLER, Ariz. | The Sonoran desert blew sand sideways across the lawn, the grit fixing itself everywhere. In the distance, a ring of red mountains rose above barren land.
The front door stood open, allowing a cool breeze to find its way into Buddy Bell’s home, over the wood floor and leather chairs and dark wooden tables, to where he sat, a strong smell of coffee in the air, his handsome but worn face looking up without expression. The way a cowboy might look.
The scar was hidden from view. You’d hardly know how weak throat cancer had made him.
“I never really thought I’d be comfortable talking about this,” Bell said in a deep voice, still feeling the effects from his September surgery. “I don’t know. It’s kind of personal.”
Buddy Bell is an old-school ballplayer raised by an even older-school ballplayer. Like his dad, Gus, Buddy played the game right — all hustle and steely confidence. Buddy hit 201 home runs in 18 big-league seasons, won six Gold Gloves and was a five-time All-Star, a guy who once played on a broken leg. Now he manages the Royals, one of the most difficult jobs in baseball — a post he resumes today at baseball’s winter meetings.
“He’s extremely tough. Extremely!” said good friend and Royals bench coach Billy Doran. “And put an exclamation point behind that. But at the same time there’s a real softness behind him. It’s Jekyll and Hyde. There are two different people in that body.”
One is the baseball man with the career painted in toughness, a stoic 55-year-old with a no-nonsense approach to the game. The other is the family man who feels so deeply that he once risked his playing career to see his first child born.
Neither man was completely prepared for what was to come next.
A pain in Bell’s throat — a dull, wrong ache he decided to ignore last spring — almost cost him everything this fall.
Near the end of another season gone south, Bell asked Royals trainer Nick Swartz to come into his office. He closed the door.
“It was typical Buddy,” Swartz said. “It was the end of September and we were in Cleveland. There wasn’t a sense of urgency. It was just, ‘Hey Nickie, I’ve been having a little trouble with my throat.’ ”
This was a proud man talking to Swartz, a guy who’d ignored what was happening to his body for most of the year.
“I wanted to make it through the season, because I felt if it was serious, I could take care of it without anybody knowing,” Bell said.
That was as much his dad talking as it was Buddy. In 1995, after ignoring pains in his chest, Gus Bell died of a heart attack in Ohio. He was 66. The former major-league player hadn’t liked doctors.
“All dad had to do was go to the damn doctor, and he would probably have still been with us,” Buddy said. “But you know what, it’s just like the rest of us — we all feel like we’re invincible.”
And now here Buddy was, talking to the team trainer, unable to ignore what his body was telling him.
Swartz scheduled an appointment for Bell in Kansas City. The test results were delivered on a late Wednesday afternoon, just before Buddy would manage his last game of the season.
It was cancer, a long tumor the size of a dollar bill, growing deep in his throat. Waiting had been a mistake — the same one his dad had made.
“I’m no smarter than he is,” Bell said.
Bell called the Royals together before batting practice to tell them he wouldn’t be finishing the season. It was Sept 20. There were 10 games left.
Swartz remembered: “Buddy said matter-of-factly, ‘I’ve got a little health situation here I need to get home and take care of, and it’s probably best I do it now. I don’t want to make a big deal about it.’ ”
There was no talk of cancer. No talk of the upcoming surgery and the brutal process of recovery. Just a manager telling his guys he was leaving, and that he’d see them next year.
Bell flew to Arizona the next day and headed to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. Thirty-eight hours after Bell addressed his team, doctors opened up his throat and began a six-hour operation.
The man who performed the surgery reassured Buddy before he went under. “Listen,” the doctor said, “I will take care of you. I will get this done.”
There was only one complication: The cancer was bigger than they’d thought.
Buddy woke up weak, his left arm temporarily immobile after a nerve had to be cut during surgery. He was nauseous from the medication. His neck bore the symbol of the day’s action: 100 stitches curving down the left side of his swollen throat.
His throat; oh man, it burned. There was so much wrong, you could almost lose the good news in the pain: It wasn’t easy, but they’d gotten the cancer out, the whole thing.
“It was blood and mucus and open sores,” Buddy said. “It was all raw, open wounds.”
Bell was attached to a feeding tube, all of this screaming, “You are not as strong as you thought you were.”
For those who know Bell, his reaction wasn’t surprising — a short but direct retort. “He just takes stuff on full steam ahead,” Doran said. “He won’t dodge nothing.”
Bell told the doctor he wanted the feeding tube removed. Today. Now. He didn’t want his grandkids to see him that way, didn’t want them to worry. The doctor told Buddy that patients kept feeding tubes in for weeks, sometimes longer.
The next day, a deal was struck. Get food down your throat, his doctor said, and the tube can come out.
“Eating just didn’t work,” Bell said. It was painful beyond description. It was like forcing sandpaper over a wound. “So I had to just force it down.”
For weeks, Bell ate his way back to normalcy, chewing through the pain along with the pudding and grits that became his diet. But he hadn’t willed himself all the way back. He wanted cheeseburgers, too.
“He got a cheeseburger, and it hurt to eat,” said Bell’s wife, Gloria, shaking her head. “I said, ‘Then don’t eat it.’ ”
She paused, still incredulous, and looked over at Buddy as they sat in leather chairs in their den on a crisp weekday morning.
“He said, ‘No, I want man food.’ ”
A knowing smile crossed Bell’s face.
“I thought the quicker I could eat a cheeseburger,” he said, permitting himself to laugh now, “the sooner I’d be better.”
The reality, though, was Bell still felt tired and disoriented. He could barely walk. He wanted to move, to feel alive, but weakness slowed him down, made him angry. He coughed up blood and bile. His body didn’t work the way it should, including unpredictable bowel movements. A feeling of ineffectiveness settled like fog on Buddy Bell.
“I can’t remember anything except being pissed off because I couldn’t function,” he said.
Bell threw things around the house. He swore. His blood boiled as his body failed him. So he kept going, taking walks around the neighborhood, even when he paid for it with fits of coughing. He’d do anything to avoid staying in bed all day.
“He’s a man,” Gloria said. “He wanted to go out and do things.”
What happens to a proud man when his strength is stripped away? For Bell, it was akin to a pruning process, all that suffering leading to something stronger. They had cut something out of him, and somehow he had come back whole.
He had watched others in his family pass through life’s dramas. He had helped them fight, cope and grieve.
In 1997, two years after Gus died, Gloria was diagnosed with throat cancer. She beat it after seven weeks of radiation treatment. In 2005, Bell’s nephew, Timothy, was killed in Iraq while serving with the Marines. Buddy had himself dealt with epilepsy for years and had raised a daughter with Down syndrome.
But finally, this was his moment of clarity.
He started sitting on his front porch more, following the endless sky. He stopped watching television and started playing golf again, the club heavier in his hands than it should have been. He probably hadn’t had this much free time since he left home at 17 to pursue his baseball dream.
He drew his family around him in a tighter embrace. The love had always been there, but maybe the hugs meant more now.
“It’s weird, because nothing puts it in perspective like this,” Buddy said. “It’s like, ‘God, I want to see my grandkids, see my kids, see my wife, be a manager, see the players, see the coaches.’ There’s so many things that are important to me, that I knew were important, that are now so much more.”
The cancer had threatened Bell’s two worlds, but it had also crystallized and fused them. Buddy the irascible baseball guy had been living next to Buddy the emotional family guy for years. Now, just maybe, they could share a space.
“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to let things roll off my back just because I went through this,” Bell said, dismissing the notion of his illness making him more touchy-feely. “That’s just not the way it’s going to be.”
And yet, Buddy fought back tears when talking about the people who saved him — his doctors and nurses — and the people who still face cancer. His blue eyes were big and cloudy as he leaned forward to discuss a subject he probably wouldn’t have touched six months ago.
“Hopefully, people will read this, and they’ll know, the people who are going through this, that it can be OK,” he said. “I want to show other people that it can be OK.
“There’s so many good people out there, who are smart, who care so much.” He paused and collected himself. “It’s just beautiful. These guys, how much they care.”
Bell was almost back to full strength when he walked into Firebirds restaurant in Chandler last week. Tall and lean, he held the hand of his 21-year-old daughter, Traci, gently leading her toward a booth for dinner.
Firebirds is the kind of place Buddy likes. They serve red meat with sides of red meat here. It’s an upscale family restaurant with lots of dark wood and dim lighting — a perfect setting for someone who has just drifted in from the parched Arizona landscape.
Soon, Buddy will be back to work. He can’t wait. He watched the Royals while recuperating, and no, it didn’t make him feel better. At least that was the message he sent to his boss, general manager Dayton Moore.
“It was horrible,” Buddy said. “I remember texting Dayton, and I remember thinking, ‘God, how do you watch this every night?’ Because it’s so much slower when you’re watching it on TV or you’re in the stands. It’s just, ‘Awww, man. I can’t take this (stuff).’ ”
The main thing was, Bell doesn’t ever want to be relegated to the sidelines again. And the prognosis is good. Every checkup so far has underlined his doctor’s promise: Buddy is going to be OK.
“I don’t take it for granted anymore, that I get to do this,” Bell said. “I mean, the winter meetings have never been something I look forward to. But I have a different appreciation for them now.
“You know, Kansas City has become a lot more important to me.”
As Buddy talked about the life lessons he has learned, Traci leaned against her father’s shoulder. She was born with Down syndrome and the two have always had a special relationship. Traci put down her fork, next to the plate of Buffalo meatloaf she and dad were sharing, and listened intently as Buddy discussed how he’s changed.
“I think I’m different now,” he said. “I see things clearer. I don’t know, it just confirms how lucky I’ve been.”
Yet, there was one more thing still hanging in the night air, something you could see in Buddy’s eyes as he looked at his daughter, something he wishes his dad had realized before it was too late:
Life is a gift, and sometimes, no matter how strong you are, you need a little help to hold onto it.