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Sager embraced in return to beloved Wrigley

Courageously battling leukemia, iconic NBA reporter and lifelong Cubs fan invited for 'Conquer Cancer Night'
MLB.com @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- As tall as normal, but maybe a little thinner, Craig Sager strode to the mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch at Wrigley Field. He was dressed to the nines, as usual.

Sager arrived in a white-on-white suit on top of his blue Nikes, and beneath the jacket, he wore a blue shirt and red, white and blue tie. He exchanged the jacket for a Cubs jersey bearing No. 14, but there was no mistaking that this was the iconic sideline reporter, a fixture who may be the most beloved man in the NBA as he continues a determined, highly visible battle with leukemia.

Full Game Coverage

CHICAGO -- As tall as normal, but maybe a little thinner, Craig Sager strode to the mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch at Wrigley Field. He was dressed to the nines, as usual.

Sager arrived in a white-on-white suit on top of his blue Nikes, and beneath the jacket, he wore a blue shirt and red, white and blue tie. He exchanged the jacket for a Cubs jersey bearing No. 14, but there was no mistaking that this was the iconic sideline reporter, a fixture who may be the most beloved man in the NBA as he continues a determined, highly visible battle with leukemia.

Full Game Coverage

The crowd gave Sager a hearty ovation, no doubt like he dreamed they would one day when he was a Cub-struck kid growing up in nearby Batavia, Ill., in the magical decade of the 1960s. He would never have pictured it under these circumstances. Who would? Sager was asked to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on "Conquer Cancer Night.''

Video: LAD@CHC: Sager sings during the 7th-inning stretch

"I realize it's not about me,'' Sager said shortly after he arrived at Wrigley, before the gates opened. "It's about what I represent -- somebody fighting cancer, somebody fighting through it. Everybody can relate to that, through their family, their friends. They know the hardships. They don't want to give up. They want to fight through it. We've made so much progress in fighting cancer the last 20 years. We really have. ... My goal is to fight through it, and let's find a medical breakthrough and people won't have to do what I've had to do.''

Sager had made an uncountable number of visits to Wrigley Field in his 64 years, but this was the granddaddy of them all. He was leading a party of 31 that included family members and old friends, some his brothers from the Delta Tau Delta house at Northwestern.

Video: LAD@CHC: NBA reporter Sager's family on first pitch

When they bumped into each other at lunch on Wednesday, Cubs manager Joe Maddon told Sager to be sure to come to the ballpark early. Sager was greeted by old Cubs Billy Williams (a childhood idol, and Sager showed him a picture he'd had taken with him as a boy) and Bill Madlock, and he spent time with coaches and team officials from the Cubs and Dodgers.

"I've been here a lot of times, but I've never been treated like this,'' said Sager, who was surrounded by his wife, Stacy, and five children.

It's doubtful that any cancer patient has ever kept the schedule that Sager has in recent days, either. He handled his sideline reporting duties for TBS on Monday night's NBA Western Conference Game 7 -- won by Golden State over Oklahoma City, in Oakland, Calif. -- and then took a red-eye flight to Atlanta so he could receive a transfusion of platelets on Tuesday. Once that business was done, Sager flew halfway back across the country to Chicago for the event at Wrigley Field.

So where was Sager before the game? He was out walking alongside Lake Michigan with his family, throwing around a baseball and considering himself one of the luckiest men in the world.

"Just to be alive,'' Sager said. "To live every day. It's a blessing to be alive. I've never been one to want to miss anything, even as a kid. If something's going on, I want to be there. ... It's not because I have this disease. 'How much time do you have left? The future's uncertain.' No, I've lived my whole life like that. I've never had a bad day. Every day is happy. I don't want to be around negative people.''

As a 34-year voice for Turner Sports, Sager has done just about every sport there is to do. He checks them off: World Cup soccer. Wimbledon. The Olympics. The Kentucky Derby. The Indy 500. Sager is best known for his work with the NBA, but baseball was his passion before basketball, and his love for the sport of his childhood is evident whenever he's around a ballpark.

Maddon remembers meeting Sager during the 2008 postseason, when he was managing the Rays and Sager was working postseason series as they played the White Sox and Red Sox.

Tweet from @MLB: Big @Cubs fan Craig Sager threw out the first pitch at Wrigley tonight: https://t.co/dE7CN4KRhr pic.twitter.com/xcTHiUfRAj

"He did a fly-by-me, and there's a video of me staring at him,'' Maddon said. "I gave him [a funny look]. He had some purple shoes on. We've always had great conversations.''

Sager learned to love sports through the Cubs. He says he pestered his parents to take him to games for his birthday every year and was thrilled when his family scored tickets to the 1962 All-Star Game, even though the American League would beat a National League team that had Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente in the outfield.

Sager graduated Batavia High in 1969. That, of course, was a seminal summer in Chicago.

It was the last time before this season that the Cubs had this big of a lead this early in the season. Sager was such a huge fan, he said, that he turned down an appointment to West Point to attend Northwestern because that allowed him the chance to take morning courses and hop the "L" train to Wrigley Field for day games.

I asked Sager how he got over the heartbreak of that season, when Gil Hodges' Mets used Tom Seaver and a deeper roster to blow past Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Williams.

"I still haven't gotten over it,'' Sager said. "I mean that. I hate the Mets. I have always hated the Mets. People I work with in New York, a couple guys have Mets tattoos on their legs. I get so [upset]. Somebody says they're from New York and they're a Mets fan, it's like chalk on a board.''

Sager is infamous for hopping out of the stands at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium to run alongside Henry Aaron as he finished circling the bases after his 715th home run, breaking Babe Ruth's career record. He tried to interview him as they ran, and somehow in that era, security allowed it to happen.

"I wanted to be there for Hank Aaron's 715th,'' Sager said. "I was working at a radio station in Sarasota for 95 dollars a week. We were part of the radio broadcast [network]. I said, 'I'm going.' My boss said, 'What do you mean you're going? If you're not back by drive time tomorrow, you're fired.' I said, 'I'll check the flights. There's National and Eastern, and I can get back in time.'

"I was on the third-base side. Everybody else taking pictures was on the first-base side, because he's a right-handed batter. When he hit it, I was just instinctively calling the play by play into my mic for myself, and I just ran out there. I'm in between third and home. You realize the magnitude of the moment, but I didn't realize I was part of it.''

Tweet from @Cubs: Tonight's W Flag was signed by survivors for @iConquerCancer Day. Here's to those still fighting to get their W too. pic.twitter.com/pFoIs7LYPk

Aaron's 715th came in 1974. But Sager says this was actually his second brush with a milestone homer. He was positioned to retrieve Banks' 500th home run four years earlier at Wrigley Field.

"I was such a big Ernie guy and wanted to be there for 500; I was there in the left-field bleachers,'' Sager said, pointing toward the ivy-covered wall. "They put that [protective chain-link basket] up the year before. I'm in a yellow shirt if you ever look at a replay. The ball comes and it hits, and I'm ready to pounce because I think it's going to get into that [basket]. I was ready to go, but it just [ricocheted back] over the fence, and Rico Carty of the Braves got it.''

Sager received his initial diagnosis of leukemia in April 2014. He sat out the 2014-15 season but returned to his sideline work last year after receiving a bone-marrow transplant from his son, Craig Jr. Sager told HBO in March that his cancer had returned and he had been given "three to six months'' to live. He will travel to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston next week to resume chemotherapy.

Just as Sager hopes to inspire his fellow patients and dreams of a cure to the disease, he would love to celebrate the Cubs winning the World Series.

"Most important thing right now is to win the World Series,'' Sager said. "It didn't happen in my father's lifetime. He was really pulling for them. He was a Cubs fan. It hasn't happened in my lifetime, hasn't happened in my kids' [lifetime]. We talk about LeBron [James] trying to win for Cleveland. Come on, we need the World Series.''

Sager is certainly showing how to put up a fight.

"My God, the guy is teaching us all a lesson,'' Maddon said. "What he's doing, how he's doing it, it's just hard to imagine it. We're with him, man.''

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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