Bonine gains strength from his mom
Mother of Tigers right-hander dealing with cancer
DETROIT -- Eddie Bonine had every reason to be excited to make the Tigers out of Spring Training. He played six Minor League seasons without being invited to a big league camp, five-plus years before getting a midseason call or even being on the 40-man roster.
If anyone deserved to be happy, it was Bonine. But as soon as he got the message from manager Jim Leland, Bonine was thinking of his mom, whose battle with cancer has been a tougher struggle than anything he has gone through.
And when he made the early morning call to her in Arizona, they looked down the Tigers' schedule.
"She was very excited, very excited," Bonine recalled. "I think it was one of those things where she realized there was a better chance I'd be out in the West a few more times. So I think that was good. It was a sigh of relief on my part, too, as well as her, that with a shorter day's worth of travel, she was possibly going to see me play again."
Not long ago, that used to be a no-brainer. When the Tigers purchased Bonine's contract last summer and put him in their rotation, Danelle Eckman traveled to see her son's starts. She's a baseball fanatic who roots for her son.
She's also a breast cancer survivor. But for the last six months or so, the fight has been a lot more difficult.
"It kind of resurfaced," Bonine said. "It's gotten a lot worse. She did a lot of the treatments, and [doctors] were pretty happy with it. And then about six, seven months ago, it came back. It's progressed pretty quick since then."
They knew it was a possibility. Though she was doing well since her diagnosis in 2006, the cancer was advanced when they discovered it. A regular mammogram didn't show it, Bonine said, but she still complained of pain.
Doctors tried to find the cause until a followup ultrasound and MRI exam revealed their worst fears. The tumor was there, and it already was significant.
"It was pretty late," Bonine said, "and it was a pretty aggressive cancer. There's a chance it could've been detected, possibly earlier if it would've been more of a mandatory thing with ultrasound or MRIs."
An aggressive series of treatments seemingly had it in remission. Last fall, however, it came back. Worse, it had spread. The tumor they found was in her shoulder, near the skin surface.
It should've been a pretty good time in their lives. Bonine survived an injury scare, and Detroit kept him on the 40-man roster over the offseason until the very end. Even so, they outrighted him with the guarantee that he'd be in Major League camp.
At any other time, she might have made the trip from their Arizona home to Lakeland, Fla. But with her latest round of treatment, she just couldn't do it.
"That was actually during some of the tougher times for her," Bonine said. "Some of it now is more pain management kind of stuff, and they've got a good grasp on that. But during Spring Training, she was going through a lot. She was getting zapped. She didn't have the energy. She didn't have the tolerance to really be able to travel out to Florida for any of Spring Training."
So while Bonine tried to keep his focus in Florida and his goal on Detroit, an unlikely chance for a roster spot that grew stronger with each game, his mind was in Arizona. While she made it through her treatment, he made it through roster cuts.
She left him, however, with a message.
"Prior to leaving him in Lakeland, I just told him to fight for what he wanted," Eckman said in an email. "No matter what happened in baseball, I was so proud of the man he had become. Baseball was really a great bonus in his life."
Once he got the nod, once he called his mom with the news, their minds were on a West Coast trip in mid-April. With Joel Zumaya, Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis all rehabbing their way back from injuries toward possible returns, nothing guaranteed Bonine still would be on the team then.
Still, he was in the bullpen when the Tigers flew out to Seattle in mid-April. His mom, stepfather and their family flew from Arizona to join them for the series.
She didn't get to see him pitch in any of the three games, but it didn't really matter.
"When I left Eddie at the airport in February, I really wasn't sure if I would ever see him on this earth again," Eckman said. "That is a huge, gut-wrenching possibility for a loving family. ... Unfortunately, Eddie didn't get to pitch during the Seattle series. However, this was never the real reason we went there in the first place. Time together was the reason."
Bonine made one more appearance against the Angels before he was optioned to Triple-A Toledo. Still, when he pitches, his thoughts of his mom aren't far. He has a pink ribbon embroidered onto the back of his glove, courtesy of Nike.
He's back with the Mud Hens, fighting for another call to the big leagues. But as tough as that can be, it's all relative for him.
"You pull a lot of strength from it," Bonine said. "It puts life in perspective. This is definitely serious business, and we're out there trying to win ballgames and be professional on the field, but there are bigger things in life. If you feel like you have a bad day in the field, obviously, it doesn't compare at all."
Eckman is going through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Bonine said, but the pain is being managed well. Traveling out east to see her son pitch still would be tough, but the chance for a return to the Majors gives hope.
"I have been one of the luckiest people on earth," Eckman said, "especially over the past three years. I have been physically, emotionally and spiritually supported by my husband of nearly 20 years, my kids and their spouses/significant others, my siblings and their extended families, my father, my wonderful friends of over 18 years and so many others that continue to help me battle this disease. With their love and support, I will continue to fight for one more phone call, one more baseball game, one more family outing."
Understandably, Bonine is far from any high-profile position to be a spokesperson, but he and his family try to get the message out to friends, teammates and their families. Early diagnosis is critical, and sometimes a mammogram is just the start. Fortunately, Bonine said, MRI exams and ultrasounds have become important parts of the process.
That's his message.
"Don't take anything lightly," Bonine said. "She had to really push to get to the point where she could get an ultrasound or an MRI, just being adamant about it."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.