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DIEGO -- No matter how tough the season has been for the Padres on and off the field, it will be remembered as the one dedicated to the memory of Darrel Akerfelds, their bullpen coach who died on June 24 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.
"Ak," as he is still lovingly recalled, may be gone, but he's certainly not forgotten.
"This year, has been a tribute to him after his passing," Padres manager Bud Black said this week. "Everyone in their own way has sort of done a little something special to remember Ak. They take his jersey out to the bullpen every night. I know I carry his baseball card. Some other guys have some in their locker."
Uniformed Padres personnel are wearing a patch on their sleeves in honor of Akerfelds' No. 48. And the organization made an initial contribution of $48,000 to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network to help find a cure for the disease that wipes out most victims within a year of its diagnosis.
The Padres have also made an additional donation to Akerfelds' No. 48 Legacy Fund after each strikeout tossed this season by one of their pitchers. For all this, the Network is honoring the Padres with the Nancy M. Daly Shining Star Award at its annual "An Evening with Stars" gala on Oct. 20 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
"It was important for us to support that group specifically," said Tom Garfinkel, the Padres president, on Wednesday while sitting in the dugout at Petco Park. "All cancer is devastating, but pancreatic is one of the ugliest and most devastating cancers there is. It attacks fast and hard. We want to do everything we can to try and eradicate the disease."
Aside from Akerfelds, Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, now 52, recently underwent surgery twice to remove malignant growths from the parotid gland in his right cheek. First base coach Dave Roberts is in remission after withstanding six months of chemotherapy and radiation to stave off Hodgkin's lymphoma, which attacks white blood cells and jumps from one lymph node to another. Roberts, now 40, discovered he had the disease after noticing a lump on his neck.
Even Black's sister, Peggy, has been treated for the onset of colon cancer this past summer.
"And many others in the organization have been plagued by cancer as well," Garfinkel said. "Some of our employees -- you wouldn't know their names -- but they are special people as well."
The death of Akerfelds, though, brought the unfortunate nature of pancreatic cancer home. Outside of the organization in baseball at large, the fathers of D-backs president Derrick Hall and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman also have recently succumbed to pancreatic cancer. Hall's father died late last year just around the time the younger Hall underwent surgery for his own prostate cancer. Cashman's dad passed away this week.
Akerfelds made the diagnosis of the disease public during Spring Training of 2011. At that time, he flew back from the team's complex in the Phoenix area to San Diego periodically for treatment and remained working with the club almost until his death. The hope was that the treatment would shrink the tumor enough so he could undergo radical surgery. That never happened and everyone watched him deteriorate before their collective eyes, placing the day-to-day ethos of winning or losing into certain perspective.
"His place of solace was the ballpark," Roberts said. "It was the same thing I was going through and any of us would be going through when you have a bout like that. You come to the ballpark and there's a lot of energy. It's an outlet for you. That's the way we as a staff and players looked at his situation. He was here and he just wanted to be like everyone else. But we realized what he was going through, his struggles."
The disease, of course, stretches far from the ballfield and into the stands, affecting Padres fans as well.
Stuart Rickerson is a season ticket holder and pancreatic cancer survivor, which makes him one in a million. He was diagnosed with the deadly disease more than seven years ago and has lived to give back to the cancer community by raising money and awareness for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
The Padres have long followed Major League Baseball's lead and two years ago generated $318,000 for cancer research, donating that sum to Stand Up 2 Cancer. But it is through Rickerson that the Padres became involved in the Network.
"Over 75 percent of people with this disease die in the first year," he said about pancreatic cancer. "There's no survival rate because there's not enough research money spent on one of the deadliest cancers. There's no five years and out and you're clear like there is with some cancers. You're only one CT scan away from a deadly relapse."
Akerfelds never was afforded that chance. The disease took him like it does so many, well before his time. The former big league pitcher of 125 appearances over five years had turned 50 only 12 days before he died.
This year, as the Padres transitioned into new ownership and rebounded from a miserable 28-50 start, it all paled in comparison. In the end, it was the season to remember Ak.