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Tigers' Belliard advocates for prostate awareness

First-base coach discusses how early diagnosis and surgery saved his life

DETROIT -- Rafael Belliard is the first person who gets to congratulate Miguel Cabrera after a home run. As job perks go for Major League coaches, that isn't half bad.

Even before Belliard took over as the Tigers' first-base coach this year, it's difficult to remember a day he was around the ballpark and wasn't smiling. He turned surehanded fielding in the middle infield into 1,155 games over 17 seasons as a Major League player, including eight division titles and a World Series ring with the 1995 Atlanta Braves. Belliard has since turned his experience into a coaching career under his old manager, Jim Leyland.

At age 51, Belliard has spent more than 30 years around a ballfield and still loves it. He travels the world in the offseason with his wife, and walked on the Great Wall of China this past winter. For a 5-foot-6-inch shortstop out of the Dominican Republic, he has hit the jackpot.

Belliard is the picture of a life well lived in baseball. He's also a walking, living, breathing example that prostate cancer can happen to anyone, but doesn't have to be a death sentence.

"It's important to get checked," Belliard said Wednesday morning. "Some people don't like to go to the doctor."

As Major League Baseball spreads the message of prostate cancer awareness over Father's Day weekend, Belliard is an example of the importance of early diagnosis. If not for his job with the Tigers, he might never have had the exam last fall that showed something a little suspicious. The fact that the team has players and coaches alike undergo physicals at the end of the season, not just the start, might have saved his life.

Belliard didn't feel run down when the Tigers' season was over. He didn't feel pain or discomfort when he left for China. He didn't know until he got the phone call on his way back.

Nobody, for that matter, would've suspected Belliard had prostate cancer. The fact is, until Belliard wasn't doing as much as usual in the early days this Spring Training, very few Tigers players even knew.

"I saw him not working, not doing anything," infielder Ramon Santiago said. "And later on, I said, 'What's going on?' It was scary. Anytime you go to the doctor and you hear cancer, you first thought is you're going to die. But he discovered it early."

While Tigers players recovered from the long 2012 season, Belliard's fight was just beginning. The Tigers' end-of-season physicals include blood tests, and Belliard's results showed elevated PSA levels. Doctors took a second look around the new year, and they suggested Belliard undergo a biopsy if he wanted some peace of mind.

Belliard had his trip coming up, and even though he had no symptoms, he decided it was worth the trouble to do it then rather than wait until things calmed down next offseason.

In hindsight, it was one of a couple decisions that probably saved him.

"If I had waited until after [this] season [to have the surgery], it would have spread all over my body," Belliard said earlier this year.

While the Belliards toured China in January, doctors explored a dozen samples from his biopsy. Two came back positive. Doctors flooded his voicemail with messages to get back in touch.

That's the news that greeted Belliard when he got back to the States. He makes no pretense about a brave front.

"I was scared," he said.

Belliard had a good friend diagnosed with cancer too late to stop the spread, and that friend passed away.

"I don't think anybody has gone through life without knowing somebody who has gone through prostate or breast cancer," said Tigers catcher Alex Avila, who has dealt with prostate cancer in his family. "It happens every day. The reality of our world today is cancer has affected a lot people's lives. …

"The thing is, Raffy wasn't going to let something like that affect him."

Belliard didn't want to wait until next offseason, but he didn't want to miss Spring Training, so he opted to let doctors go in as soon as they could in late January. He went north to Michigan for TigerFest and the team's Winter Caravan, and he kept his cancer diagnosis largely under wraps.

"I just wanted to get the surgery right away," Belliard said, "because with my schedule, we were starting to go back to work."

Dr. Vipul Patel conducted the procedure near Belliard's Florida home on Jan. 31, just 13 days after the diagnosis. He told Belliard it was the quickest he had ever seen a patient go from a cancer diagnosis to surgery.

Once the tumors were removed, doctors found Belliard's cancer was an aggressive form. Thanks to his quick decision, his chances of survival were 95 percent.

When the Tigers opened camp in Lakeland, Fla., in mid-February, Belliard was there. He couldn't move around much for fear of opening up the stitches where doctors went in, but he was coaching first base by the start of March.

That's when Belliard started telling players and friends what happened.

"It was scary," Jhonny Peralta said after he found out in the spring.

Belliard has a checkup in the next couple weeks, but his tests have all come back clean. When he was cleared to coach, he welcomed Dr. Patel for a game in Lakeland. When the Tigers visit St. Petersburg to face the Rays in two weeks, Patel is considering paying a visit.

"A lot of people have told me 'Thank you for sharing,'" Belliard said. "Most people are asking, 'Are you OK?' and 'Are you taking any medicine?' I haven't had to take any medicine."

His message, meanwhile, is the same to everyone who asks him about it: Get checked.

"You don't want to wait," Belliard said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.