A college baseball coach and player who inspired each other and their team while battling cancer together, a pitcher who donated nearly half his liver in an attempt to save his dying mother, and a catcher and pitcher who beat cancer to return to the diamond headline the 2017 honorees of CollegeBaseballInsider.com’s sixth Tom Walter/Pete Frates College Baseball Inspiration Award.
Florida Atlantic coach John McCormack (pictured above) and catcher Kevin Abraham went through treatments in 2016, with McCormack returning to the dugout and Abraham missing the season before returning in 2017. And San Francisco’s Joey Carney and Western Michigan’s Beau Filkins each overcame obstacles in 2016 to return to help their teams this year. Joining them as honorees are: Connecticut pitcher Ryan Radue; Mississippi State catcher Josh Lovelady; Maryland pitcher Taylor Stiles; Omaha World-Herald legend Steve Pivovar; UCLA infielder Nick Kern; and Micah Ahern, TCU’s boy mascot.
The award, started by CollegeBaseballInsider.com (CBI) in 2011, is named for Tom Walter, the head coach at Wake Forest who donated a kidney to freshman outfielder Kevin Jordan before the 2011 season, and Frates, whose courageous battle with ALS has captured the nation’s attention with the Ice Bucket Challenge – the effort has raised more than $250 million for ALS research and is credited with helping discover a new gene associated with ALS – and college baseball’s attention with “Band Together to Strike Out ALS.”
“We are honored to highlight a wonderful lineup of individuals who have shown a tremendous amount of courage and determination to influence their teams, campuses and communities,” said Sean Ryan, co-founder of CollegeBaseballInsider.com, which has covered Division I college baseball since 2002. “They have inspired many with their journeys on and off the diamond, and we congratulate them for the impact they have made on college baseball.”
CollegeBaseballInsider.com also recognizes Todd Oakes, his family and the University of Minnesota community, and the family of Michael Todd Esser and his Louisville Cardinals baseball friends. Oakes, the only two-time recipient (2013 and 2015) of this award for his ongoing battle with leukemia, passed away in May 2016. The Golden Gophers’ longtime pitching coach originally was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in June 2012 and received news that the cancer had returned in November 2014. It retuned again in September 2015. Minnesota dedicated its regular season Big Ten title to Oakes, and the team advanced to Regionals several days after he passed away. Esser, known as Todd, didn’t let cerebral palsy slow him down and was one of Louisville’s biggest fans. A fixture at practices and games – Esser joined the Cardinals this year in Omaha – Esser’s kindness, passion and love for the Cardinals players and coaches was inspirational. A 2014 honoree of this award, Esser passed away last week a month shy of his 46th birthday.
2017 Tom Walter/Pete Frates College Baseball Inspiration Award Winners
Shortly after guiding Florida Atlantic to the 2015 Regionals, Owls coach John McCormack’s father passed away. Weeks later, McCormack found out a lump in his mouth was neuroendocrine cancer in his jaw. Some four months later, Owls catcher Kevin Abraham was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma that would start in his humerus and spread all over his body, causing him to miss the entire 2016 season. McCormack and Abraham each became rocks for each other, as documented by Shandel Richardson of the Sun-Sentinel. McCormack was able to return to the dugout after missing some road trips in 2016, and he was ruled cancer-free in July. Abraham’s cancer was in remission as the Owls started their 2016 season in February and finished radiation in June. By the fall, he was able to return to the field in limited capacity, but he wasn’t able to throw. Both player and coach were back together in 2017, with Abraham, a catcher, appearing in 39 games and making 32 starts, hitting .241 with 17 RBI.
Joey Carney showed up on San Francisco’s campus in the fall of 2015 with only an opportunity to attend an open tryout. Carney not only became the first player to make the Dons in such a fashion in nearly 20 years, but he also became the Dons’ closer late in the 2016 season, converting five of five save opportunities. Right after the season, he went for a bigger save: He donated nearly half of his liver in an effort to save his mother’s life. Carney had found out he was a match for a transplant in early May and had the full blessing of his coach Nino Giarratano, who donated a kidney to his father and is a past Tom Walter/Pete Frates College Baseball Inspiration Award winner. Twelve days after his last save, he went into surgery on June 2. Sadly, Paula Carney never fully recovered from surgery and passed away in late June. His story was captured in a brilliant story by Mike Hiserman of the Los Angeles Times. Carney made his return in 2017, and nine months after surgery, earned a win on Feb. 18 against Northern Colorado. His father Dale told the L.A. Times’ Hiserman afterward: “I can’t describe the words. I see him on the mound, and in my mind I’m seeing a little white dove with him. Sorry, I’m just very emotional.” Carney finished his senior season 3-2 with four saves and a 2.94 ERA.
In the fall of 2015, Western Michigan catcher Beau Filkins experienced discomfort in his chest during practice. Not feeling well, he asked to skip a workout in September; the same night, his roommate Hunter Prince rushed him to the emergency room with chest pains. Doctors found a mass the size of a dollar bill attached to his lung and diagnosed him with Stage 4 germ cancer. Filkins went through five rounds of five-straight-days of chemotherapy in Kalamazoo. WMU coach Billy Gernon said, “I vividly remember hugging Beau in the hospital fighting back tears because I was scared for him. It was a long hug I will remember for the rest of my life, but mostly because I remember him whispering: ‘It will be OK Coach.’” Filkins, 40 pounds lighter, had surgery to remove the malignant mass in his chest in January 2016 and was declared cancer-free that February. As he recovered, Gernon said he was a symbol of strength and hope, attending games and practices with a smile on his face. He inspired WMU to host a cancer awareness game, and Gernon believes his battle with cancer inspired his teammates to win their first MAC title in school history. Filkins, profiled in the Chicago Tribune by columnist Pat Disabato, returned to the diamond in 2017, appearing in 30 games with 11 starts and hitting .218 with a homer and five RBI.
During the fall of his senior season in 2015, Connecticut pitcher Ryan Radue experienced soreness in his left knee. The pain turned out to be lymphoma, and the cancer also was found in his neck. Radue, according to Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant, began months-long chemotherapy and radiation treatments – graduating a semester early in the process – with the hopes of returning in April of 2016. Radue’s recovery took longer than he hoped, but he still wanted to return to the Huskies and began graduate school that fall. Thanks to an intense training program to help him regain his strength, Radue was able to make his return on Opening Day 2017, nearly 650 days from his last appearance. Radue finished the season 2-3 with a 4.24 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 34 innings as the Huskies put together yet another strong season.
In junior college, Josh Lovelady was hit by a pitch in the face. After missing a couple weeks, he played the rest of the season with his jaw wired shut despite having to eat through a straw. In 2015, he served as a backup catcher at Mississippi State and was poised for a big year as the starter in 2016. But after just four games in 2016, the catcher tore his ACL while running down the first-base line to back up a play on the first pitch of the game. He returned this year to help lead the Bulldogs back to the NCAA Tournament and started every game of the Regionals – including four games in two days – and hit a three-run homer (his first of the year) in a four-RBI game against Southern Miss to force a deciding game that MSU won to earn a trip to LSU for the Super Regionals. Lovelady, profiled by The Clarion-Ledger’s Will Sammon, hit .215 and drove in 21 in 51 starts, made just one error and allowed only six passed balls behind the plate all season, becoming one of the Bulldogs most valuable players.
Maryland pitcher Taylor Stiles was in the midst of a big sophomore year, going from the rotation to the bullpen and back to the rotation. On his second pitch in 2015 against Cal State Fullerton, Stiles was hit by a line drive in the face and broke his orbital bones, cheekbone and required two massive surgeries and countless hours of PT to return to the Terps in 2016 – 316 days after he was hit in the face, as chronicled by Jake Eisenberg of the Maryland Baseball Network. Alas, another injury sidelined Stiles in late April of 2016. The senior lefty rebounded again, bolstering the NCAA-bound Terps in 2017 by going 2-1 with a 4.05 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 33.1 innings.
Nick Kern started his UCLA career as a pitcher, making 33 appearances and collecting three saves as a redshirt freshman in 2014. A shoulder injury turned him into an infielder in 2015 before Kern suffered a much bigger blow. He was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, causing him to miss the entire 2016 season. Kern lost nearly 40 pounds, endured five surgeries and spent two months in the hospital before starting a long comeback to the Bruins, as chronicled by Kyle Cardoza of The Daily Bruin. After missing the first month of the season, Kern doubled in his first at-bat against San Jose State and hit his first home run in three years in the ninth inning to force extra innings against top-ranked Oregon State. The senior was honored in June with the 2017 Muscle Milk Male Athlete of the Year, given to a collegiate, Olympic, professional or tactical (military, police or fire) athlete by the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) for representing the best in sports nutrition.
- Steve Pivovar spent 45 years at the Omaha World-Herald, covering anything and everything over a legendary career at the newspaper. But he was best known for his coverage of Creighton University and the College World Series. Pivovar, who passed away in August of 2016 after a battle with kidney cancer, was the go-to guy in the Rosenblatt Stadium or TD Ameritrade Park press boxes for an interesting stat or story, endearing himself to media members – and college baseball teams – from all over the country. The NCAA honored “Piv” during the 2016 College World Series on what would have been his 500th straight CWS game, playing a tribute during the game and painting “PIV” in foul territory and behind home plate. His absence at the Series inspired his family to encourage fans to “Play Catch for Piv” to show support and raise awareness of cancer. In all, Piv covered about 1,700 games (college and pro) at Rosenblatt Stadium and wrote the book “Rosenblatt Stadium, Omaha’s Diamond on the Hill.”
- Micah Ahern became TCU’s boy mascot in 2013 and provided inspiration to the team as he battled cancer. The Frogs wore a logo for Micah and displayed “M’s” on their jerseys and hats during their run to the College World Series in 2016. Ahern lost his battle that July, as Mark David Smith wrote for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Coach Jim Schlossnagle tweeted, “We lost a teammate today,” and player Evan Skoug said “He’s the toughest 7-year-old I’ve ever seen. They say that God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers. And we’ve seen that’s true with Micah.” In October, Schlossnagle unveiled a tribute to Micah in the Frogs’ locker room. Micah’s inspiration, however, lives on. TCU graduate Joe Gagnon’s tweet that he would donate $10 for every home run TCU hit in 2017 to start a scholarship in Micah’s name went viral: the #mashformicah pledges stood at $49,607, according to Gagnon’s Twitter feed (@ace_gagnon), as the Frogs entered this year’s College World Series. At the end of July, it was $75,000.