In his first appearance of the season against the Laconia Muskrats on June 14, North Adams SteepleCats relief pitcher Tanner Bird surrendered a home run to the first batter he faced after entering the game in the seventh inning.
That wasn't the way the Adams native wanted to start his season, but after the game SteepleCats manager Chris Cates said Bird remained upbeat and smiling. For Bird, allowing a home run is a small bump in the road after navigating the challenges he's dealt with over the last year.
He was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma in June 2013 and this January, before he found out he was cancer-free, his mother, Sally, passed away suddenly.
The Hoosac Valley graduate and baseball/hockey standout has been cancer-free for about six months. While receiving treatment, Bird used baseball as a sanctuary, an escape from the physical and mental difficulties of fighting the disease. Now fully healthy, he has a new perspective on baseball and life.
"I definitely enjoy the game now," he said. "One thing about being sick is it made me appreciate the game. Before, you don't think you're ever going to stop playing the game. It's just a game and you're going to have fun with it.
"Once I got sick, I didn't know how much time I'd have with baseball. ... I wasn't taking anything for granted anymore. I was having fun and going with the flow."
Bird's new outlook on life and the way he's handled adversity gives inspiration to his teammates.
"You don't meet many kids that go through that at this age," Cates said. "He's a kid who's very unselfish and doesn't want the attention on him. He just wants to play baseball and have fun. It's nice to see him out here smiling."
Bird said his mom was his biggest supporter and best friend. He said the best advice she gave him when fighting cancer was to "never give up and to work really hard." He's applied her advice to beating cancer and in the classroom.
Bird's currently a sophomore at Franklin Pierce University, where he's a pitcher.
Bob Rumbolt, Bird's former American Legion coach, knows first-hand of the perseverence Bird has shown during his cancer battle.
Bird played under Rumbolt for Post 125 last summer while undergoing treatment. Bird said Rumbolt offered support to him after he lost his mother; when Rumbolt lost his daughter, Tori, in April, Bird said he returned the support as best as he could.
"There's no word to really describe it," Bird said. "When you lose someone that's close to you, there's not much you can say to really help them. Until you go through it you can't really understand. It's pretty tough."
Rumbolt said Bird's perseverence is a testament to his inner drive and sets a positive example for anyone dealing with hardship.
"He has the ability to carry on and be a leader, and to show that baseball is a part of life," he said. "You have ups and downs and failures, but it's your responsibility to pick yourself up and carry on."
As Bird continues to work back into playing shape, Cates said his arm strength is starting to return to 100 percent. In his second outing against Sanford on June 24, Bird retired all three batters he faced. Since then, Bird's pitched 123 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out one. His has a 1.93 earned-run average.
"He's got the whole summer to worry about [arm strength]," Cates said. "We're going to give him opportunities when we can. He's just a good kid who wants to be on the baseball field. He never complains, he does what we ask him to and his personality and his attitude are great."
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