Guthrie's 'small act' meant much for dying Royals fan

KC pitcher reached out to Purtell, who succumbed to cancer before end of Series

October 30th, 2014
"I knew he was very close to the end of his life. But there was no sign of that," Jeremy Guthrie said of Dan Purtell. (Purtell family)

KANSAS CITY -- The day they buried Dan Purtell, his friends and family gathered in a bar in Binghamton, N.Y. They shared the stories of a life fully but all-too-shortly lived. They cried, they hugged, they laughed and they drank. And then the clock struck 8 p.m. ET, and all eyes turned to the television sets hanging above. And they rooted for the Royals and their hero, Jeremy Guthrie, in Game 7 of the World Series.

It was just two weeks earlier that the Royals had clinched this Series berth. For Dan, a 35-year-old lifelong Royals fan fighting a cruel and unwinnable battle against the cancer that would soon claim him, the moment was bittersweet. Dan turned to his wife, Serena, and had tears in his eyes.

"I've waited my whole life to see the Royals go to the World Series," he told her, "and I'm on my deathbed."

Were the world a little kinder, Dan would have lived to see Game 7.

Were this story a little sweeter, the Royals, behind a Guthrie gem, would have won this World Series.

But we know too well that the world rarely cooperates with our vision for it. And as human beings facing that great unknown, all we can do in the unfair, unrelenting moments that remind us of our own fragility is search for some sort of solace and sense of community. For Serena and all of Dan's family and friends, Guthrie, with just a few minutes of his time on the phone shortly before the start of this Series, had helped provide that. So to them, no matter Wednesday's result, he will always be a star.

Dan knew the end was near this month. He had received his devastating diagnosis -- Stage 4 colorectal cancer -- in June 2013. Time was fleeting, the treatments increasingly desperate and hopeless.

This postseason run by the Royals -- the team he had adored his whole life as a sheer function of the fact that his beloved Uncle Jimmy loved them -- was not a rescue, but it was a welcomed diversion. Loved ones scrambled to come up with ways to somehow connect a dying, devoted fan to his favorite team one last time. A friend had a friend who worked in the community relations department of the Orioles, Guthrie's former team. That friend had Guthrie's number. A request was made, a favor was asked, and on Oct. 19, two days before the World Series began, the phone in Dan's hospital room rang.

"When I spoke to him," Guthrie said, "I knew he was very close to the end of his life. But there was no sign of that. All he could talk about was baseball and how excited he was for the Royals and for the players he roots for. To have a family that's touched by that, that's impactful. That's real life."

Guthrie said this in the immediate aftermath of Game 7, a game in which he took the loss after 3 1/3 innings of work. He was frustrated. Maybe if he could have just one pitch back from the second inning, when the Giants took the game's first lead. Or the fourth, when they took its last. Maybe if Madison Bumgarner had made just one measly mistake to these Royals hitters. Maybe if Alex Gordon had been waved home in the ninth.

The what ifs will linger for as long as any of these Royals let them.

But not even this game -- a Game 7, a signature moment in sport -- compares to the weight and the waves of life itself. Speaking about Dan, in a quiet clubhouse where the Royals somberly began to pack their bags, Guthrie kept things in proper perspective.

"I think each one of us will wake up in a couple days," he said, "and the hurt from the loss will go away, and we'll realize -- whether it's Dan or another person that's been touched by this whole experience -- ballplayers in this spotlight have these opportunities, and a very small act goes a long way."

Guthrie's small act did just that. And five days after he hung up the phone with his new favorite player, Dan watched Guthrie turn in a strong effort in the Royals' Game 3 victory in San Francisco last Friday night.

"He was trying to hang on for the whole game, in and out," Dan's brother, Brian, said. "When they won, there was definitely a smile on his face. He loved that."

It was early the next evening when Dan took his final breath. The Royals lost that night.

"It was actually kind of fitting," said Kara Nanni, the high school friend who had made the Guthrie connection happen. "All of us Royals fans -- and we're Royals fans because of Dan -- were in mourning that night."

They remain in mourning for the man who touched them with his wit, his intelligence, his genuine goodness. Dan was a preschool teacher who worked with children with special needs. He met Serena years ago at a summer camp for people with disabilities, where they both served as counselors. She loved nature, he loved baseball. They supported each other's passions by mapping out road trips to ballparks and national parks.

Dan, in fact, had a goal of visiting every Major League facility. He hung a pegboard map in his house on which each stadium was marked by a pin. Sometimes, his younger brother would accompany him on a trip, and Brian would always find himself walking ahead of Dan.

"I'd say, 'Why are you walking so slow?'" Brian said. "He'd say, 'I'm just taking it all in!'"

Dan made it to 22 of the big league ballparks. His friends are already arranging road trips, beginning next summer, to finish the final eight for him.

Serena delivered Dan's eulogy Wednesday. She told the assembled crowd that one of the last times Dan was truly happy was this past March, when the two of them traveled to Surprise, Ariz., to see the Royals play in the Cactus League. And as an October nobody could have seen coming played out, Dan was watching, rooting for, loving his Royals, even as time ticked out.

"I'd like to think," said Serena, "that maybe his death was a way of securing a seat right in front."

This is a story with a difficult ending. Serena is too young to be mourning a lost husband. Dan's parents, Terry and Joan, should not have had to bury their son. Brian should not have lost his brother, Kara should not have lost her friend. And maybe, if you believe in blessings from above, the Royals and Guthrie should not have lost this game.

As always, though, the end is only what we make of it. And that's the lesson that Dan's widow carried with her on the day of Game 7, on the day she buried the love of her life.

"One thing Dan said to me a lot was that he had so much left to do," Serena said. "So I would like people to do good things for him."