Popular Brewers Minor League coach thrilled to be back at the ballpark
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- With crutches on both arms and braces on legs that are numb from the knee down, a side effect of the cancer in his hip, Brewers Minor League coach Al LeBoeuf ambled to the batting cage early Tuesday morning and created a stir.
"The world pretty much stopped for five minutes," said first baseman Sean Halton. "It's great to see him here. It's great to see him smiling."
LeBoeuf, 53, is smiling again because he is out of the wheelchair and walking again, albeit with the aid of those crutches and braces. He has April 1 circled on his calendar -- the day Brewers Minor Leaguers break camp and the day LeBoeuf aims to drop one of the crutches and walk into his 33rd season of professional baseball.
An entire organization is behind him.
"On April 1, I'll need only one of these," he said, lifting a crutch into the air and giving it a shake. "That's my goal. God willing, I'm going to get it done."
Halton doesn't doubt it.
"He said he would be blowing out Usain Bolt by the end of Spring Training," Halton said.
Last year was supposed to be a big year for LeBoeuf, a former Phillies Minor League infielder who found his true calling in coaching. He was promoted from the batting coach post at Double-A Huntsville to Triple-A Nashville for 2012, good news for players like Halton, who fed off LeBeouf's sense of humor and positive philosophy.
Instead, it turned into the year LeBoeuf battled cancer. On May 16, an off-day for the team, he and Sounds manager Mike Guerrero drove from Nashville to Huntsville to play golf with Double-A manager Darnell Coles. It was LeBouef's first day on the course since Spring Training, so he thought nothing of it when his calves began to cramp on the 16th hole.
The team traveled to Tucson the next day, and LeBoeuf's big toes went numb after he threw batting practice. Still, he thought little of it. From there the team went to Las Vegas and LeBoeuf again threw BP.
"After 15 minutes of throwing, I could barely get off the field. "My feet and my toes were numb, and then it worked its way up my legs."
"In September, it was pretty bad, I'm not going to lie to you. There were days when I sat there and I didn't think I'd ever see these [players] again. The good Lord willing, here I am."
-- Al LeBoeuf
Doctors suspected a nerve injury in his back, but instead found a cancerous spot on his left hip. It was an area that had long given LeBoeuf trouble, the result of a painful plunking at Triple-A Portland in 1985, when LeBoeuf was a promising prospect. He suffered a terrible bone bruise and was never the same player again.
Over the years, LeBoeuf developed a blood cancer at that spot, which in turn produced a rare neurological disorder called POEMS syndrome.
"There's only 200 known cases in the world -- 201 with me," he said. "What it does, it 'unwraps' the nerves that are usually wrapped tight, and everything goes numb."
If untreated, POEMS syndrome can be fatal because it spreads through the body to vital organs. LeBoeuf's was contained just below his knees, and also affects his left thumb.
He remained with the Sounds as long as he could, but eventually had to leave the team and was confined to a wheelchair. Everyday tasks became difficult or impossible, and LeBoeuf relied on wife Laura for the most basic of human necessities. His son, Mac, a freshman-to-be at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., about an hour away, considered staying home to help. Dad convinced him to go.
In Nashville, concerned players waited for word.
"We didn't know exactly what was going on, we just knew it wasn't good," Halton said.
It was a low moment in LeBoeuf's life.
"In September, it was pretty bad, I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "There were days when I sat there and I didn't think I'd ever see these [players] again. The good Lord willing, here I am."
His comeback began in early September, when a physical therapist lifted LeBoeuf to his feet. After 30 seconds, he collapsed back into his wheelchair.
But with regular treatment at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa, LeBoeuf soon found himself standing. He graduated from the wheelchair to a walker, then to the forearm crutches he showed off Tuesday.
He is on his fifth cycle of oral chemotherapy -- 21 days on, seven days off. It's working. Doctors say LeBoeuf should make a full recovery.
"I don't know how long that [course of treatment] is going to last. Personally, I really don't case as long as it does what it's supposed to do," LeBoeuf said.
At this point, his story is interrupted. Brewers pitcher Mike Fiers has stopped by to say hello. Then another Brewers pitcher, Chris Narveson, followed by a slew of current and former Huntsville Stars and Nashville Sounds. Catchers Dayton Buller and Anderson De La Rosa. First baseman Hunter Morris. Outfielders Caleb Gindl and Logan Schafer. Pitcher Donovan Hand.
"Anyone who's ever played for him has a ton of respect for him," Morris said. "It's a special thing to see as far as he's come, to be here and moving around a little bit."
LeBoeuf's role for the coming season will be clarified soon. Since he lives in South Florida, LeBoeuf is hoping to hook on with the Brewers' Class A Brevard County affiliate and perhaps do some scouting in the Florida State League.
For now, assistant GM Gord Ash has asked LeBoeuf to mentor Chuckie Caufield, a former Brewers farmhand who is transitioning to a coaching role.
Just being back at the ballpark has been a boost.
"When I walked into that coaches' room for the first time," LeBoeuf said, pausing a moment for a deep breath. "A great sense of joy."
Another joyful moment awaits LeBoeuf on the golf course. He is already practicing his putting at home, and is eager to break in a brand new set of Ping irons acquired last spring with help from Hall of Famer Robin Yount.
LeBoeuf has only swung those clubs once -- on that May day in Huntsville when his calves started cramping.
"The good thing about golf clubs is they never go bad," LeBoeuf said. "They're in my closet, waiting for me."