Englander returns to Case after brain surgery

CLEVELAND — There was no long lecture, no revisiting of a specific situation or second-guessing of physical mistakes. The shadows were ranging down, the crowd of 45 or so had mostly departed and the baseball players at Case Western Reserve University would soon be doing field maintenance themselves.

In small-college baseball, you dig it out during the game and after.  

Before the rakes came out, though, their coach had a quick message. It involved the importance of focus, of seizing the moment, of not letting up with a 6-1 lead. The Spartans had just held on to beat Baldwin-Wallace College 6-5 on April 18.

They shouldn’t have had to sweat, head coach Matt Englander told them, but they also shouldn’t take winning for granted. The team would gather again in the morning for a short bus ride to its annual game at Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians.

That’s a big deal for an NCAA Division III athlete — and for a coach in the same position. But all the games this season, not only the ones in major-league stadiums, have meant a little more to the 31-year-old Englander.

Last fall, Englander underwent surgery for a brain tumor. It was successful, and before he had even been wheeled into the recovery room he was asking about his baseball team. He was back at work as soon as his energy level and the doctors allowed, and he has been back in the dugout and in the third-base coach’s box for every game this season.

“I think I do appreciate every out, every game a little more,” Englander said. “Every kind of new first, you see it through a different lens.”

Englander is in his sixth year as head coach at Case Western, a top research university just east of downtown Cleveland whose athletic teams compete in the University Athletic Association. Last summer, he was coaching at a baseball scouting showcase on Long Island when he felt numbness in his arm, got dizzy and felt a ringing in his ear.

He sat down on the field and gathered himself. He chalked the incident up to dehydration, eventually jogged from right field into his team’s dugout and golfed nine holes that night.  

Last Sept. 4 — he’ll never forget the date — he had a similar episode on campus. In this one, the sensations were stronger. He called for help. By the time he got to a nearby hospital, he was wondering where the day had gone.

Doctors were baffled, too, and started searching for answers. The first two CT scans revealed “basically nothing,” Englander said.

“They thought I either had a stroke or I had multiple sclerosis,” he said.

For a healthy person in his early 30s, either diagnosis would have been scary enough.

After more tests, he eventually saw his MRI results “plain as day.” There was a tumor on his brain. Though pathologists still couldn’t give an exact diagnosis, they told him it was probably glioma, a rare brain cancer. If there was good news, it was the pathologists thought Englander had a slow-growing, less-aggressive form.

“You get a full education in a few weeks,” he said. “I learned a lot of terms and learned about how they actually do the surgery. Basically, I had something the size of a lemon growing on my brain and they had to cut it out.”

Before that, though, he had to deal with swirling emotions. He had a team full of 18- to 22-year-olds with whom he needed to share the news. He and his wife, Heather, “thought things had been falling into place pretty well” and had planned to start a family soon. Englander’s team at Case had won a school-record 33 games the year before, bringing a new excitement to fall practice.

All of a sudden, everything was kind of on hold.

“I didn’t really let myself be worried,” Heather Englander said. “We just kind of talked about, ‘OK, what do we do about it?’ Sure, it was tough — and scary. But he really tackled it from the start with a mindset that he was going to be fine, eventually, and I convinced myself the same.

“I think he’s better now. I think his priorities really realigned. At Case, his job is still to win games, but to teach these players to be grown men. These guys are going to be engineers and doctors in a few years, and them playing college baseball is a bridge to all that. It’s a chance for them to learn while growing up, to have fun just playing a game. The wins are important. But I think Matt battling cancer and then coming back to baseball has reinforced the thought that, ‘Hey, a bad day on the diamond isn’t so bad.’ “

Matt Englander is grateful for the support he has had from the start from his wife, his family, his friends and his team. He said the players showed “zero selfishness” when he stunned them with the news in an impromptu team meeting, and his friends and co-workers offered to do anything they could. It was that attitude, he said, that convinced him that any time spent feeling sorry for himself or worried that the cancer might take his life was simply time wasted.

“It eventually turned to defiance, an instinct to fight,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t ready to give up my life.”

By the time the surgery came, Englander knew there was a chance it would affect his motor skills, specifically on his left side. His request was to play golf, as much as he could. A few days before the surgery, a group of friends took a golf trip that included playing 75 holes in one day.

“I had 31 good years with my left arm,” he said. “If I couldn’t use it anymore, I’d be fine without it.”

Heather Englander said her husband came out of the surgery “making fun of the nurses. He was high as a kite on pain medication, but he was acting like himself.”

Matt Englander remembers getting a glance at the recovery room clock and thinking he should be at fall baseball practice, wondering how it was going.

“That doesn’t surprise me or any of my teammates one bit,” said Pete Zak, Case Western senior catcher. “He eats, drinks, breathes baseball. And that’s motivating for us. When I was a freshman, we were bad. We were 12-33. And then last year, we made it to the NCAA tournament. It’s been a great experience.

“Baseball gives him a chance to put things back in order. You hear cancer, and everything stops. And I think everything was so uncertain for so long, I think he appreciates the game much more. It’s allowed me, I think, to appreciate it more, too. There’s a lot more to life than baseball, but while it’s going, while we’re in practice or in a game, it’s all that matters.”

Heather Englander said the toughest months were January and February, when the weather in Cleveland was nasty and Matt was itching to return to baseball, sunshine and normalcy. He thinks now he has achieved it, or at least close to it. Putting a baseball glove on his left hand can still be tricky. He sometimes struggles to grab his keys in his pocket with his left hand, and typing is a challenge.

Baseball, at least most of the time, is not.

“Every week, I think I feel a little more like myself,” he said. “I wonder what maybe I missed or didn’t go over with these guys, but I tell them all the time we’re focused on moving forward so I have to be, too.”

Said Heather Englander: “It’s attitude. That’s what he wants to show his players and anyone else that knows or appreciates what he’s been through. Life gives you crappy stuff sometimes. It’s about how you respond. You can’t control having cancer, but you can control what you can do while you fight it.

“He’s lost some weight. He’s gained an appreciation.”

Matt and Heather Englander met when both were students at the College of Wooster in Ohio, when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore. They were friends first. When Matt first broached the subject of dating, she told him she didn’t like him like that.

“You will,” was his response.

Englander has always been big on persistence.

The couple’s first child is due next month, shortly after the season ends. He will be a baseball player. His dad will continue to be a baseball coach, too, one with a unique appreciation of the game he’s always loved.

“At Case, baseball is never going to be the one and only thing,” he said. “It’s really important, and we always want to win. I’m really proud of our program. But the guys come to school here to challenge themselves first, to set themselves up for bright futures.

“If the lessons I try to teach come across a little differently now, that’s fine. I’m thankful to be here. I’m excited for whatever life has next.”