SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Reds third base coach Mark Berry moves through Cincinnati’s clubhouse with a water bottle in hand pretty much all the time. Since undergoing two grueling months of chemotherapy and radiation this spring for throat cancer, the salivary glands no longer function in the left side of his mouth and he needs constant hydration.
Berry is back in the coaching box at last, after assuring manager Dusty Baker he had regained enough strength to return to the job he has held for 10 years. Monday night’s 11-0 victory at San Francisco marked Berry’s 2013 season debut coaching third, and he hoped to work both games of a traditional doubleheader Tuesday against the reigning World Series champion Giants, after promising Baker he would check in between games to report how he was feeling.
Berry can’t quite believe he’s back. As lousy and low in energy as he felt just two months ago, he didn’t believe this day would come so soon. His last treatment was May 25.
“It means a lot just being back with the team in familiar territory for me,” he said Tuesday. “It makes you feel like you’re part of the game again. It’s been four months since I coached third base. You forget how quick the game really is until you’re coaching third base. Watching from home or TV or watching from the dugout, the game seems really slow and easy. But once you get out to third base, the first couple innings I was like, `Wow, this is moving pretty quick.'”
On Sunday, with the Reds ready to leave on an 11-game West Coast trip, Berry told Baker he was finally ready. The coach had always targeted the All-Star break on his calendar for when he might be back, but wanted a couple of extra days going through pregame work with the team to make sure he had his timing and felt sharp.
Berry received radiation five days a week for seven weeks, along with weekly chemo sessions. He has gained back 16 pounds of the 41 he lost during treatment, despite his taste buds being gone. He lost some hair on the back of his head, but it’s hardly noticeable below his red cap, and whiskers on the left side of his face are beginning to re-emerge.
He knows he will still feel better some days than others.
“I think the time was about right,” Berry said. “I didn’t want to come back too soon, it wouldn’t be fair to the team, it wouldn’t fair to the players, myself, nobody. It’s been about two months. Looking at that part of it, to how I felt back then, wow, it came quick. The way I was feeling two months ago I would have never dreamt that I would be here right now doing this.”
The 50-year-old Berry has been with the organization as a player, minor league manager and coach for 30 years. He was diagnosed during spring training with cancer of his tonsils and neck lymph nodes.
Bench coach Chris Speier filled in coaching third during Berry’s absence, while Miguel Cairo served as interim bench coach for Baker.
Baker, who has had his own medical scares as recently as late last season with a mini-stroke and irregular heartbeat, didn’t ask Berry each day how he felt. Baker observed for himself.
“Even when he did tell me he was ready I still gave him a week,” Baker said. “It’s the same way with players. But he was over there paying attention the whole time, he was looking at my signs. … It’s great (to have him back).”
Berry said he used “very little” chewing tobacco during a minor league playing career and never was a heavy drinker.
“What caused it, there’s no telling,” he said.
Berry thanks his younger sister, Michele, for pushing him to seek additional medical evaluation after two blood biopsies done during spring training in Arizona came back negative. His sister went through this same thing 15 years ago and is now cancer-free. Berry returned to Cincinnati for a more extensive biopsy of the tumor on his left tonsil, and that revealed the Stage II cancer.
While he still will undergo a Pet Scan on Sept. 4 to determine whether the cancer is completely gone and he is in remission, Berry is optimistic the roughest part of this ordeal is behind him.
“I think I’ve knocked it out,” he said. “In my heart I feel that way. I’ve been blessed to have the career I’ve had.”