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Bucs' Leyva remembers dad fondly

Baseball helps third-base coach's healing process after father's recent passing

PITTSBURGH -- Bert Leyva was fiercely proud of his son. What parent couldn't be proud of a slightly built onetime infielder who converted a brief stint as Minor League player into a long career as a coach and manager, including of the Philadelphia Phillies?

But Nick Leyva, the Pirates' third-base coach, was even prouder of his father, who was 16 when he was born. Bert did it right; he and Josephine married and went from being students to becoming parents.

"He was a hard-working man who eventually became educated," Nick said. "He went back for his degree. As young as he was, we had a relationship almost like brothers at times. He raised me at a young age, and I always appreciated that. We were pretty tight. He was a very street-smart man. And never sick a day in his life."

Then came a day in late April, when a persistent itch wouldn't go away, and Lorraine, Nick's younger sister, suggested maybe their dad should see a doctor. Bert underwent some blood work, and the doctor said, "Looks like you've got something centered around the liver, so we'll do an MRI."

"And they find a five-plus-centimeter tumor, and when they look at it it's completely full of cancer," said Nick, eyes misting. "From there, the cancer went to the bile ducts, then to the pancreas and shut down his kidneys. In three weeks, he was dead."

In early May, Leyva left the Pirates to see his dad in Southern California, to once again hang out for three more days at the longtime home of the former supervisor of roads maintenance for all of San Bernardino County and his wife, retired from 30-plus years with General Electric Co.

"When I was out there, he told me, 'I know I'm sick. I want you to promise me you'll take care of mom.' It was tough to see him," Leyva said. "I cornered the doctor and told him that I needed to know."

"And the doctor said, 'He's not in any pain now, but eventually he's going to be in pain. We can give him medication to relieve the pain, but we can't give him anything to make him better.'"

Leyva recalled that the doctor said one other thing: "If he lives three months, it's going to be an awful long time, and he is going to be miserable by the third month."

"The Good Lord took him before he was in any pain," Leyva said. "He was a tough old guy."

Bert Leyva passed away at 75 on May 16 -- one day after he and Josephine observed their 60th anniversary.

As his mom copes with the loss of her life partner and 24/7 companion, Nick feels blessed that Lorraine and younger brother Albert, a successful baseball coach for a prominent prep program in Southern California, are nearby to help. He took another leave of absence from the Pirates for the funeral, but then had to get back in uniform.

"God bless my sister," Leyva said. "She's a school teacher, so she just got out of school and for 2 1/2 months she'll be able to be with Mom. She's taken ownership of being my dad. Mom's going through some tough times. They've both been retired for a long time, so they've been constantly together. She's lost; she's heartbroken.

"But she's a trooper. She'll rebound."

Baseball is helping Leyva's own rebound. At times of national crises, the game is always credited with helping distract people from the ugly realities around them. It also works for personal pain.

"I still catch myself really having to focus on what I'm trying to do out there," Leyva said. "Thoughts go through my mind and I tend to stray away sometimes, but for the most part I've been able to handle it pretty well, I've been able to separate it.

"It really hits me during the national anthem," added Leyva, citing that one minute of on-field solitude. "I close my eyes and think about him."

It has also hit him constantly the past few days.

"You walk around town," he said, "and every sign you see is about Father's Day sales. But, you know...that's part of dealing with it."

The Leyvas made a habit of joining Nick for one road series every year, in a different city. The pick for this summer was Cincinnati, comfortable because the team hotel is within walking distance of Great American Ball Park.

And when the Pirates arrive in the Queen City on Monday for the start of a series against the Reds, Bert indeed will be there. Not the way son and father had planned, but in a way Nick will always have Bert with him whenever he steps into his coaching box.

"From now on, every time I take the field, for the rest of my life," Leyva said, "I put his initials on the ground right by the third-base bag. Just because I know he's with me."

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.