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2568x1445_Nicole_Hazen

D-backs GM Mike Hazen and late wife Nicole a true baseball love story

castrovince-96
@castrovince
October 29, 2023

She would never retreat to the bedroom to sleep. Instead, she’d lay on the living room couch, waiting for her husband to come home from work, waiting to share in his joys or unpack his frustrations.

It might be midnight before he’d walk through the door, and the kids would be getting up at 6 a.m. But Nicole Hazen would always try to stay up for her husband, Mike, the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“She would be …” says Hazen, his eyes welling, “when we won, she was just always so happy for me.”

The story of the grief-stricken baseball exec whose spirits have been lifted by his club’s rousing postseason run -- just 14 months after he lost his beautiful wife to an aggressive form of brain cancer at age 45 -- is a powerful subplot to this World Series between the D-backs and Rangers.

Those images of Mike Hazen, 47, pacing in his suite, engrossed in every pitch, mean a little more when you know what he has been through and what he is going through, raising four teenage sons who miss their mom. The celebrations at each step, soaked in sweat and champagne and wrapped in the arms of the close friends he has worked with for so long, are sweeter when you’ve suffered as much as Mike Hazen has.

But that’s only half the story.

The other half is the story of Nicole, whose passion for this game and this team exceeded the ordinary bounds of the baseball bride. She was wrapped in her husband’s work, breaking down ballgames, engaged in every outcome, even, at times, critiquing his transactions.

“Her love for the D-backs,” says manager Torey Lovullo, “was real, it was fierce, it was all-in.”

Baseball fans watching this World Series should know Nicole’s story and feel her presence. Because the D-backs -- this young, fun, scrappy, surprising squad -- aren’t just trying to win a championship for their heartbroken boss.

They’re trying to win it for their biggest fan.

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The Ferrara family had the best seats in the worst house.

Old Cleveland Municipal Stadium on the Lake Erie shoreline was, to be honest, a dump. It had seen better days and better teams than the ones the Indians were trotting out in the 1980s.

But Rick and Phylis Ferrara and their children -- daughter Nicole and son Ricky -- were tried-and-true fans, with season tickets in the front row of a section between home plate and first base. And Rick, who passed away in 2019, had a rule that the family strictly followed.

“We never left an Indians game until it was over,” Phylis says. “Even if they were losing badly.”

Faithful sports fandom was only one of the values instilled in Nicole Marie Ferrara. She was born on Jan. 4, 1977, grew up on Cleveland’s east side, attended high school at Gilmour Academy, got her bachelor’s degree in English and her teaching certificate at John Carroll University and earned her master’s degree in special education from Notre Dame College of Ohio. Her first job was as a seventh grade English teacher at Kenston Middle School.

She made many friends along the way.

“You wouldn’t be able to pick out who might be her friend because she just liked everybody,” Phylis says. “She kept all her friends from grade school, from high school, from college. She had friends from every walk of life. She was just the kind of person that liked everybody.”

Of course, there’s like, and then there’s like like. And Nicole did not like like the guy she was supposed to go to the Cleveland Orchestra with on the night of Jan. 19, 2002.

Nicole called her mom asking if it would be reasonable and respectful to cancel the date knowing that, ultimately, the relationship was not going anywhere.

“I think it’s OK,” said Phylis, “as long as you talk to him, let him know nicely.’”

So the poor guy with his parents’ season orchestra tickets was cut off by the conductor. Nicole instead orchestrated an evening out with her girlfriend. They went to a bar called the Winking Lizard Tavern in Cleveland Heights.

Roughly a football field’s length away was the apartment of two boys from Boston who, yes, were watching football. And in a major football-viewing faux pas, they had run out of beer.

Hazen, then a young Cleveland Indians scout, was taking in his beloved Patriots’ matchup with the Raiders in the AFC Divisional Playoff battle that would come to be known as the “Tuck Rule Game.” Mike and his roommate, a fellow Boston native, watched in anguish when Tom Brady fumbled the ball on a late drive, then in ecstasy when the call was overturned by referee Walt Coleman because of the relatively new “tuck rule.” The Pats retained possession, tied the game with a last-minute field goal and won it in overtime.

As they sprinted around their apartment screaming, Hazen and his roommate realized they had already imbibed all their booze.

“We’ve got to go out!” one of them yelled.

So out they went. To the Winking Lizard.

Fate was winking at Mike and Nicole that night.

“I thank Walt Coleman every day,” Mike says.

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The two struck up a conversation and quickly confirmed that they were both hungry. There was a place just up the street called Panini’s, where you could get gigantic sandwiches covered in French fries and coleslaw at odd hours. An unhealthy start to a healthy relationship.

They shared a sandwich, and, from that moment on, they shared their lives.

“Mom,” Nicole said on the phone to Phylis the next morning, “you’re not going to believe it, but I met a really nice guy!”

“Mom,” Mike said on the phone that same day to his mother, Lois, a longtime educator, “I met this girl, and you’re really going to like her. She’s a teacher!”

Lois reflects now and laughs at how hard her son fell.

“It was instantaneous,” she says.

Says Mike: “We just connected on so many different levels. We just had so much in common and the values that we shared.”

In Nicole, Mike found a young woman who loved her family above all else, who wanted to be a mom more than anything else and who didn’t just tolerate his consuming relationship with sports but was as fervent a fan as he was. They were engaged within a year and a half, married a year after that and had their first son, Charlie, a year after that.

Life can move fast when you know what you want.

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Mike’s career was moving fast, too.

A rising star in the baseball operations world, Hazen was hired by the Red Sox as director of player development in February 2006. He brought his budding family to his hometown. They packed a lot of life onto that moving truck, but Nicole left her lifelong Indians fandom and all those games at Municipal Stadium in the rearview mirror.

She was Boston-bound.

When the Red Sox faced Cleveland in the 2007 American League Championship Series, there was no conflict of interest for Mike’s Cleveland-born bride. The Sox beat the Indians in seven games, and Nicole relished the win.

“I’m telling you, man,” says Mike, “she was ride or die. Like, the Indians were out!"

That was Nicole’s way. Fiercely devoted to a loved one. And adaptable to the lucky yet, at times, ludicrous lifestyle that comes with a career in the sport with 162 games.

It can be a lonely existence when your spouse works nights, travels often and is emotionally and financially invested in a competitive, cutthroat enterprise. But not for Nicole. She made fast friends in Boston, where the Hazens spent 11 seasons and had three more sons -- John, Teddy and Sam, all born about a year and a half apart.

“She would have had 10 kids,” Phylis says. “In fact, when she was pregnant with Sam, we were having dinner, and she was talking about having the fifth. She hadn’t even had the fourth yet!”

Nicole loved those kids fiercely, organized everything, juggled their schedules and her own. Every meal was a home-cooked meal. The Hazens did not eat out.

“I have other daughters with four kids,” says Lois, “and they always marveled at how she never complained, never said, ‘I’m by myself here, and I’m rounding up these boys and taking them places.’ Not to take away from what Michael did. He’s a great dad, too. But the bulk of it fell on Nicole’s shoulders, and she was just amazing at that job.”

She would have added to that job, if Mike hadn’t talked some sense into her. They were sitting on their living room couch one day. Mike had an appointment for a vasectomy.

Nicole started sobbing.

“I don’t know if I’m ready for this,” she said.

Mike laughs as he tells the story now, because the four little boys were all upstairs, shaking a crib, banging stuff around, making a racket in the family’s old home with thin walls and floors.

“Listen to them up there!” the drained dad pleaded. “We have to do this! We can’t have five kids!”

Great moms don’t surrender easily, but Nicole ultimately admitted that an infield’s worth of Hazen boys was enough.

“But that's who she was,” Mike says. “Like, she loved being a mom more than anything else in the world. And I love that I came from a big family, so I really love that, too. And I don't know … that was just our whole life. It was baseball, and it was our kids. That’s what we did.”

The Hazens put down real roots in New England. But Mike was such a key piece of the Boston ballclub’s successes that the baseball industry took notice. When he was offered the opportunity in the fall of 2016 to become the executive vice president and general manager of the D-backs, he was excited … but slightly sheepish.

“So,” he said to Nicole, “we’re going to move to Arizona?”

Nicole wasn’t sheepish at all.

“Hell, yeah, we’re moving to Arizona!”

They moved to Arizona.

This time, they had four growing boys with them and no family ties on which to lean. It didn’t matter. Nicole built it all back up again, made faithful friends with moms at school and wives at work -- especially Lovullo’s wife, Kristen -- and became an instant favorite among the employees at Chase Field.

“She was critical for us,” team president and CEO Derrick Hall wrote in an e-mail. “She never missed a pitch and was engaged with our manager, our assistant general managers, our players’ families. While Mike would get crabby and intense at times in a season, Nicole would provide the smile and positivity. She wanted to win more than anyone but would keep it all in perspective for her family.”

As was the case when she was a kid in Cleveland and a Boston transplant, Nicole threw herself into her “hometown” team.

Like any fan, she had her favorites -- specifically Paul Goldschmidt, David Peralta, AJ Pollock, Jeff Mathis from the 2017 team that won the NL Wild Card Game and Merrill Kelly from the current club. And though she supported her husband fully, you’d better believe there were times when the devoted D-backs fan put him on blast and made him feel like he was on a sports talk radio show in his own home.

Never more than when Mike traded Goldschmidt to the Cardinals before the 2019 season.

“What are you doing?” Nicole asked Mike incredulously.

Mike began trying to explain the trade from the front-office perspective.

Then it hit him.

“You don’t care why I did this!” he said with a laugh. “You’re just mad at me that I traded Goldy!”

There’s this gorgeous photo of Nicole from the 2017 postseason. She’s in the stands at Chase Field, among the faithful, waving a Sedona red rally towel and a D-backs T-shirt with a loving cartoon depiction of her husband’s face and his name. She’s radiant, full of life.

It’s a perfect representation of Nicole. Devoted fan. Devoted wife. Beautiful, beaming soul.

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Here’s where the story gets hard to tell and hard to read.

On May 2, 2020, when our lives were all freshly upended and most work was being done remotely, Mike was on the phone in his backyard talking to the D-backs’ director of medical services, Ken Crenshaw. It was the middle of the day, and Mike had no clue why Nicole was suddenly walking toward him, her face oddly contorted. She was making strange noises.

“Did she get bit by a scorpion or something?” was his first thought.

As Nicole drew closer, Mike’s concern grew. He put Crenshaw on FaceTime to show him Nicole’s face.

“Get off the phone and call 911,” Crenshaw said.

An ambulance arrived. Nicole was placed on a stretcher and taken to the emergency room. At first, doctors thought she might have suffered a stroke. But when they did a CT scan, they saw the spots on her brain.

For more than a month, Nicole was subjected to a battery of tests to figure out the extent of her condition and why she was suddenly having seizures. The spots were in an especially sensitive area on the left side of her brain, so her doctors were reluctant to do a biopsy. It was ultimately necessary, though, and it confirmed that Nicole had glioblastoma – a complex, deadly, fast-moving, treatment-resistant brain cancer.

There is no cure for glioblastoma. Treatments include surgery to remove it, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and various clinical trials. According to the National Brain Tumor Society, the average length of survival for glioblastoma patients is only eight months, and the five-year survival rate is only 6.9%.

In Nicole’s case, after a craniotomy to remove as much of the tumor as possible and then a six-week regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, she seemed to be in a good spot. But her condition worsened at several points in 2021, necessitating two more craniotomies and three different drug therapies. By October 2021, the risk posed by another surgery was too extreme, and, over the course of the next 10 months, Nicole’s body betrayed her. She lost function of her hands, then stopped walking, then stopped talking, then stopped swallowing.

She passed away on Aug. 4, 2022, shortly after she and Mike had celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary. It was a devastating loss not just for her family but for the broader D-backs family.

Here in this moment, though, let’s focus not on the cancer that claimed Nicole but on the spirit she showed in her unwinnable fight.

“She was astonishing,” Lois says. “She was the bravest, most positive person I have ever met. She never complained. Never. She taught me how, if I were ever sick, how I would want to conduct myself.”

When Hall’s wife, Amy, delivered food to the Hazen home one day, Nicole, unable to speak, answered the door, hugged Amy tight and sobbed. Then, she wiped her cheeks, stepped back and smiled.

That’s courage.

“She didn’t need to say a thing,” Hall writes.

The community rallied around the Hazen family. So many people said what so many people say in these terrible situations: “If there’s anything I can do to help …”

At one point during the D-backs’ brutal 110-loss season in 2021, a player gave Mike that very message to pass along to Nicole. Mike knew she wouldn’t take the player up on the offer in any way, but, to be nice, he brought it up with her one day while helping her get dressed.

“Hey,” Mike said, “[Anonymous D-back] asked if there’s anything he can do.”

“You know what he can do?” said Nicole. “[Expletive] play better!”

If Nicole had but one complaint during her battle, it was that she couldn’t perform her duties as an eighth grade English teacher at St. Francis Xavier Elementary School at a level that met her satisfaction. Especially with the school still in remote learning sessions at the time of her diagnosis.

After her second craniotomy, Nicole developed severe apraxia of speech. She would stutter and struggle to find her words. And sometimes, at the end of a learning session with her students, she would shut off her computer screen and start sobbing.

Mike would try to intervene.

“Listen, I have no idea what you’re going through, how much this sucks,” he told her one day. “But you’re teaching these eighth grade kids empathy. I know you’re trying to teach them English literature and it isn’t going the way you want it to, but think about what they’re watching you try to do for them. They’re eighth graders, so they probably have no appreciation for it whatsoever. But maybe someday they will.”

They will.

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And as agonizing and frightening as it is for her own kids to be without their mom, they, too, will always appreciate everything she did for them.

“I love my children more than the entire world,” Mike says. “She loved my children even more.”

A particularly difficult moment from those two years of Nicole’s fight with glioblastoma came when she and Mike were on a walk in their neighborhood. The topic of grandkids -- the grandkids Nicole will never meet -- came up. She stopped on the street and sobbed hard as Mike cradled her in his arms.

It’s a painful memory, but one Mike is always sure to share with his sons.

“That’s how much she loved you,” he tells them. “She wanted to be with you guys until it was time to not be there anymore. She wanted to be on the ride.”

Nicole’s ride ended long before its destination. She fought so hard. She tried so hard to stay until the last out of the game. But it’s an excruciating fact of life that sometimes the brightest bulbs burn out prematurely.

“She was an incredible human being,” Mike says. “She was an angel. Like, I know people say that about their loved ones. But that’s who she was. There was nobody that didn't like her. I had never met anyone in my entire life, for 20 years, that she and I know that didn't like her. She was such a connector of people.”

It is a testament to Nicole’s impact that, when the Hazens, with the help of the D-backs, launched the Nicole Hazen Fund for Hope -- a charity that offers more patients with aggressive brain tumors access to rapid, state-of-the-art treatment and compassionate support -- the donations came pouring in. Mike says the fund has raised more than $2 million for the cause, to date.

“That was one of the things we talked about through our couple-year journey with this,” Mike says. “We want to try to help find solutions for doctors to give to patients, so they’re not getting a terminal diagnosis.”

In the visitors' dugout at Arlington’s Globe Life Field, Mike tells his wife’s story. It’s mere hours before Game 1 of the World Series, before the turf is immersed with ballplayers taking batting practice and media members conducting interviews. Before the stands fill with hopeful fans bringing the noise to baseball’s grandest stage.

At the pinnacle of his career, what he’s worked his whole life for, Mike is putting himself out there to a reporter.

“One thing that she said is she never wanted to be forgotten,” Mike says. “And I know why she didn’t want to be forgotten. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to publicly not be forgotten. She didn’t want to miss the ride we were on.”

Mike agreed to cut open the vein and tell his wife’s story so thoroughly because he knows that she should be here at this World Series. And as he bares his soul in the dugout, there is no doubt that she is.

She’s in the stands, too. She’s with Charlie and John and Teddy and Sam. She’s with Phylis and Lois and the other family members who are in attendance for every game of this World Series run.

“She orchestrated this for Mike,” says Phylis, “and for all the people that helped her, because that whole community took care of her. All these people that this means so much to, I think she’s behind it.”

It’s loud in the stands at these games. The roars can be overwhelming. But even in some of the most intense moments, Phylis swears she has heard her daughter in her ear, telling her to sit down and relax. She can hear her laughing.

Maybe Phylis is right. Maybe Nicole’s got this.

In Game 1 at Globe Life, the D-backs suffered one of the worst late-inning gut-punches in World Series history, surrendering a game-tying homer to Corey Seager in the bottom of the ninth and an Adolis García walk-off blast in the bottom of the 11th. But the next night, they bounced right back, riding seven magnificent innings from Merrill Kelly.

Nicole’s favorite player.

Toward the end of his wife’s life, Mike came home from work one day to find Nicole laying on the couch, as had been the case so many times in their marriage. The cancer was close to claiming her. She could barely move, and she could not talk.

“Did you watch the game today?” Mike asked, already knowing the answer.

Of course she had watched the game. It was a game in which Kelly had dominated his opponent, a day in which the D-backs were victorious.

Nicole nodded.

“How about your boy Kelly?” Mike said excitedly.

And Nicole smiled.

credits: Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004.