O's Werner thankful for support during cancer battle
Catching coordinator inspired by calls from Joseph and Co. while going through treatment
BALTIMORE -- When the Orioles made a trip down to Arlington this summer, rookie catcher Caleb Joseph was more excited about who would be coming to Rangers Ballpark than playing in the stadium for the first time.
He had it all planned out. He'd leave the tickets for friend and mentor Don Werner and finally be able to catch up with the highly respected Minor League catching instructor, who had been taking to Joseph on nearly a nightly basis since he was promoted May 7 in the wake of Matt Wieters' season-ending injury. But it never happened that way. Werner, diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in Spring Training, was worse off than Joseph and most of the organization realized, confined to his home because his white blood count was so low he was an infection risk.
It was a lonely, isolating existence that included numerous surgeries, 16 chemotherapy treatments and 35 radiation treatments, the last of which came Friday to officially clear Werner as cancer-free. And while he didn't step foot on a baseball field for nine months, the Orioles -- who advanced to the American League Championship Series -- were with Werner nightly.
"I think of how special it was to get a call from [manager] Buck [Showalter] or somebody on the big league staff; they were so busy and so involved," said Werner, who had the Orioles and all of their Minor League affiliates games set up on his computer courtesy of the front office, so he could watch from home or the hospital. "All these people would always be checking on me. The whole organization was just so great. Caleb Joseph would always talk to me after all the games he played. It was really good for having a bad deal. A lot of people helped me through.
"The way I look at it is, 'This is so crazy that I'm supposed to maybe help somebody through this whole deal.' That's what I would really like to do with it now."
At first, Werner didn't want anyone to know he was sick let anyone share his story. The lump in question he had had for years and assumed it was a cyst on his chest from throwing batting practice all these seasons. Then this spring -- on a whim -- he told the doctor to check it out during baseball's yearly physicals and see what he thought. The news, initially, triggered sheer disbelief.
"I felt good. I thought, 'This can't be right,'" said Werner, who was far from alone in his errant thinking that men couldn't get breast cancer. "I was thinking they were looking at a diagnosis from someone else in there, you know? I was like, is there a Donna Werner in [this hospital] somewhere?"
Unfortunately, Werner's late diagnosis -- Stage 3 means the cancer has spread significantly beyond the original cancerous area -- is very common. According to the American Cancer society, about 2,360 new cases of invasive breast cancer are diagnosed in men per year. While the lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000 -- significantly lower than in women -- men are typically diagnosed at a later stage because they are less likely to report symptoms.
"He's without a doubt in my opinion the most in-shape coach we have," Joseph said of Werner, who was frequently one of the first guys at the ballpark, doing sprints around the warning track. "He has more than 40 years of pro ball experience. My heart just sank when I found out he had been diagnosed with cancer. It didn't make sense. He's the most healthy guy, he's out there working his butt off everyday. And I knew it was going to be a tough time for him."
Werner left camp abruptly when diagnosed and privately told players like Joseph several weeks later what was going on. He had three surgeries by the end of March and a pact with Wieters -- who had Tommy John surgery June 17 -- to both come back stronger next spring. There were no great life affirmations from being so sick so quickly. Werner -- who would still call and offer instruction remotely to the Minor League catchers -- just wanted to watch baseball away from the screen.
"You go in that room [to get chemo] and you see so many people so worse off than you are," said Werner, who opted to get treatments by his Arlington home and kindly declined the Angelos family's generous offer to get him into Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins or any other cutting-edge facility. "I just wanted to get back to doing what I was doing. I just love doing it. It wasn't so much that [cancer made me realize] I want to do this more or that more. I just wanted to get back to what I was doing."
On Sept. 10, Werner was cleared to return to the field. While the Orioles were making a push toward what would eventually be their first AL East title since 1997, Werner was coaching instructional league in Sarasota, Fla., and the two-time World Series winner -- with the Reds in 1975 and '76 -- couldn't have been happier.
"He's just been a great friend, a great mentor, obviously a great coach," Joseph said. "He's that guy you want to be around and want to spend a lot of time with. He doesn't want any credit, he doesn't want to be in the spotlight. He just wants to be a part of the process. And players pick up on that and appreciate it."
And Werner has a lot to appreciate this holiday season, including a 5-month-old grandchild -- his second -- who helped keep his spirits up.
"There's times you go, 'I just don't want to do this anymore,' but you get inspired by people that call you and visit you, and they kind of keep you going," Werner said.
"I never even thought of cancer or anything like that, but once you have, it seems like everywhere you go there's a story on it. Everyone has a connection to it."