WASHINGTON -- Long before Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco's own leukemia diagnosis, before we all saw those photos and videos of him visiting with kids dealing with similar conditions, before his rousing return to the Major League mound last month, before he was selected as the 2019 winner of the Roberto Clemente Award, there were the scissors in the hand of young Camila Carrasco.
Camila is turning 9 soon, but she was just 4 years old that day in 2014 when she held the shears near her flowing locks and began to snip. She asked her dad -- sweetly, innocently, and, most touching of all, instinctively, without any real understanding of what cancer is -- if she could give her hair to the kids she had seen at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital who were losing theirs.
Carrasco had always contributed to the community and understood the opportunity that came with his position as a pro athlete. But that was the day that inspired him to do more.
“Everything,” he said, “started with my daughter.”
It led Carrasco here, to Game 3 of the World Series at Nationals Park, where he was honored on the field pregame Friday night by Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred for his many charitable efforts both stateside and in his native Venezuela. It’s a fitting cap to an emotional 2019 season in which Carrasco was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and put in the difficult work to make a return to the Tribe's pitching staff amid his treatment, all while continuing to give his time, attention and financial assistance to young leukemia patients.
Indians teammates had long affectionately referred to Carrasco as “Cookie” because of his affinity for the sweet treats. But in 2019, they learned how tough that cookie really is.
“He took a situation where, rather than feeling sorry for himself, he used his ability to reach out to people and lift them up,” Tribe manager Terry Francona said. “That’s pretty incredible.”
Carrasco, 32, wasn’t totally comfortable with the attention the Clemente Award -- or any of this situation, which included a stirring Stand Up To Cancer moment at the All-Star Game at Progressive Field -- presented him. In fact, the full extent of his charitable efforts went unreported for years.
But the Clemente honor, named for a man whose efforts as a philanthropist and teacher exceeded the value even of his Hall of Fame output as a player, is not given just to pat somebody on the back. It is given to inspire and remind us -- athletes and otherwise -- that we can all do more, give more, be more.
That’s what happened for Carrasco when his daughter cut her hair, and that’s what he hopes his own Clemente salute does for others.
“Just take my name off of this if I start doing stuff for awards,” he said. “This is [meant to be] a great example of what people can do.”
The Roberto Clemente Award is presented annually to a Major League player who best represents the game through character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, on and off the field. One nominee is selected from each of the 30 clubs, and a panel that includes Manfred, Clemente's widow Vera, representatives from MLB-affiliated networks (MLB Network, FOX Sports, ESPN and TBS), MLB.com and others, along with an online polling of fans, selects the winner. Carrasco is the first Indians player since Jim Thome in 2002 to receive the honor.
“The Roberto Clemente Award is the most important individual player award due to the genuine impact that Major League Players have on those who are most in need,” Manfred said in a release. “Carlos, through his global philanthropic efforts, is an excellent example of someone who selflessly acts on behalf of the less fortunate and embodies the spirit of our game’s most celebrated humanitarian.”
Added Vera Clemente: “Despite facing his own personal challenges, Carlos has remained committed to improving the lives of others.”
The level of commitment to charity that Carrasco and his family have demonstrated is overwhelming.
Every other Sunday in the offseason, Carlos and his wife, Kerry, cook, box and distribute 500 lunches to the homeless from the front porch of their Tampa, Fla., home. They donate two scholarships of $10,000 annually for single moms to attend school. They sent $5,000 to U.S. veterans.
Carrasco regularly reads to students at Cleveland Stepstone Academy’s “Carlos Carrasco Major League Reading Corner.” He has distributed shoes, shirts and backpacks to underprivileged children in Africa and donated more than $70,000 to families in need in African villages. This past May, Carrasco donated $300,000 to Casa Venezuela Cúcuta in Colombia. And in his home country, which has been embroiled in political crisis to the point of international emergency, he has donated tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of food, medicine, medical supplies, diapers, etc. Carrasco donates $400 per day and $200 per month to cover the cost of a refugee camp at the Colombian/Venezuelan border, where his extended family distributes meals daily.
All of the above comes in addition to the pediatric hospital visits that reverberated on social media in the wake of Carrasco’s diagnosis. He went room-to-room at Cleveland Clinic Children’s to spend time with patients, and he signed autographs and handed out bobbleheads. And for Carrasco, those visits -- intended to inspire kids -- had the effect of helping him deal with his own jarring medical challenge.
“There was one kid who told me, ‘If I can do it, you can do it, too. This is nothing for you,’” Carrasco recalled. “I came there to give inspiration. But to hear that from that kid was unbelievable. And you know what? I think [the leukemia diagnosis] happened for a reason. It’s made me closer to those kids who need help.”
And of course, the cancer diagnosis and treatment has given Carrasco a fresh perspective on baseball. But that didn’t mean totally putting the game on the backburner. Leukemia temporarily sapped Carrasco’s fastball and his strength, but it also made him yearn to compete all the more. So as soon as he got the clearance to return to baseball activity, he attacked it sensibly but aggressively. Carrasco left the Indians to get the medical help he needed in early June and was back with them within three months. For each of his strikeouts, he pledged $200 toward childhood cancer research, and the Indians sold “I Stand For Cookie” T-shirts to raise money for the same cause.
Understandably, Carrasco’s baseball return wasn’t always smooth sailing, and he had to pitch out of the bullpen, rather than the rotation, because of all the time he had missed. But he went into the offseason feeling good about his prospects for 2020.
“What he went through was beyond baseball,” Francona said. “But then, once baseball starts, you’ve got to try to draw a line, and it’s very difficult. Not only all the emotional and physical things he was going through, there’s just the fact that he hadn’t pitched in a competitive atmosphere. So he was fighting a lot. I don’t doubt that it was very difficult for him. But I think coming back, in a number of ways, will be really beneficial going into next year.”
Carrasco wants to keep his current treatment plan private, but he also wants it known that he is fine. He continues to run and throw and prepare himself for Spring Training.
In the meantime, Carrasco got his moment on this World Series stage. It was a moment to bask in adulation for a job well done. But more importantly, for him, it was a moment to shine a light on the good a person can do for others.
It’s the message Carrasco’s own daughter, scissors in hand, once delivered to him.