NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- D-backs manager Torey Lovullo had been in front of plenty and cameras and microphones during his team’s rousing run to the World Series this year. He’s no stranger to the spotlight, and his honesty and humor play up in press proceedings.
But for a few moments Monday at a press conference at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, Lovullo was legitimately having trouble getting his words out. Tears welled in his eyes, and the prepared words in front of him looked like a blur.
“Cancer,” he said, his voice shaking, “is a vicious disease. Although we’re making progress at slowing it down, it’s basically running roughshod over everybody’s lives.”
Cancer touched Lovullo personally recently when his longtime friend Billy Bean, MLB’s senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. And Lovullo was on the dais on this day to spread the word about the annual Winter Meetings Charity Auction, which this year will support Stand Up to Cancer.
The auction, which is live now at MLB.com/wintermeetingsauction, offers special opportunities, including meet-and-greets with Mike Trout and other stars, All-Star Week tickets, being a groundskeeper for the Nationals, lessons from big league coaches and players, joining the Rays broadcast team for a day, and other autograph and ballpark experience opportunities. Since its inception in 2012, the Winter Meetings Charity Auction has raised nearly $2 million for a variety of causes.
“The power in our sport is we do stuff big,” said April Brown, MLB’s vice president of social responsibility. “So let’s do something big.”
Stand Up to Cancer was chosen as this year’s beneficiary because two beloved members of the MLB leadership team –- Bean and Catalina Villegas, MLB’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion –- were both diagnosed with cancer this year.
Villegas, who was diagnosed Stage 2 breast cancer at age 36, said her experience battling the disease has been proof of the ideals the diversity, equity and inclusion department espouses -- that we are all breathing the same air and have to support each other.
“Cancer doesn't discriminate,” Villegas said. “Every time I would go get my chemo, it was kind of like a clubhouse with six different chairs. And when you walk in there, there are different sexes, different races, different ethnicities, different sexual orientations. None of that matters. We’re all fighting for our lives.”
Bean, who is immunocompromised and therefore unable to travel to the Winter Meetings, said over the phone that he is touched by MLB’s support of the cause.
“You just never know the opportunity that baseball provides,” Bean said. “Someone’s going to pay attention that maybe wouldn’t have otherwise. Hopefully what we’re doing saved a life today.”
Since MLB first partnered with Stand Up to Cancer in 2009, the league and its 30 clubs have donated more than $50 million to the groundbreaking initiative, which accelerates innovative cancer research that gets new therapies to patients quicker.
“Stand Up to Cancer does so much amazing work,” Villegas said. “But I think the most important thing is their commitment to equity, making sure those in underserved communities have access to treatment and screenings. Preventative care is so important. You have to make sure you make time to see your doctor, get your screenings and your checkups. It took me three months to get my mammogram. I was too busy with my life and career and didn’t think it was important until my wife encouraged me to get it done. That saved my life.”
Dr. Justin Balko, a researcher at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, explained that, while the National Institutes of Health and various pharmaceutical companies fund huge clinical trials, academic researchers who are experimenting with “high-risk, high-reward” concepts that can potentially reduce the amount of chemotherapy required or diagnose patients earlier greatly rely on grassroots funding such as what Stand Up to Cancer provides.
“You have no idea how much impact events like this auction has and what it means to us as researchers to help us do a better job at flipping cancer the bird,” Dr. Balko said. “We’re going to change the way patients are treated, we’re going to do something with those treatments, and we’re going to do something that’s good for everybody.”
Cancer makes a big world smaller, as it touches such a large segment of the population. In turns, it brings people in the baseball world together in the fight. Every single day, for instance, Villegas gets a text from Hall of Fame catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez with words of affirmation and positivity to encourage her.
And Bean’s diagnosis has brought him and Lovullo even closer. The two have a special friendship that goes back to playing summer ball together in California in 1984. They were teammates on the Tigers. And when Lovullo managed his first big-league game, Bean was there in the stands, right by the dugout.
On Monday, it was Lovullo’s turn to be there for Bean and to spread the word about what can be done to help those facing similar adversity.
“I know that it’s very hard for you right now, Billy,” Lovullo publicly said to his friend, “and it's our turn to take care of you. You’ve been the ultimate giver since the first day that I knew you. It’s time for you to sit down and let us love you up and take care of you.”