06/19/09 10:00 AM ET
Berry has fresh perspective as a father
Astros hitting coach positive after recent bout with cancer
By Brian McTaggart / MLB.com
The hardest part of Sean Berry's job really has nothing to do with the Astros or his title as hitting coach. The most difficult thing concerns his title as father and husband, two jobs he takes great pride in, which makes being away from home eight months a year extremely challenging.
And even though he's used to spending Father's Day away from his 15-year-old son, Tanner, his 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and wife, Linda, Berry admitted this Father's Day will have a special meaning for him considering the life-changing events of the last six weeks.
Berry, 43, underwent surgery May 8 to remove a cancerous right kidney. Doctors said the disease was detected early enough for him to make a full recovery, but Berry's diagnosis still served as a reminder of the fragility of life and family.
"The worst part of what I went through is how it's hard on the family," Berry said. "To me, I could deal with it. It's the stuff you have to put your family through in a situation like this. I guess this Father's Day will have a little more meaning in that respect. Anything to do with family right now has extra special meaning because of the torture I went through."
Berry is in his fourth season as Houston's hitting coach following an 11-year Major League career that included three seasons with the Astros (1996-98). He hit .272 with 81 home runs and 369 RBIs in 860 career Major League games with Kansas City, Montreal, Houston, Milwaukee and Boston.
He's talking about his illness in a steamy dugout at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington while keeping an eye on the Astros' ongoing batting practice. His brick red jersey hides a small scar on his abdomen, and he shows no outward signs of his illness.
Considering Berry has been in professional baseball since 1986, he's certainly accustomed to this kind of lifestyle and being away from his family in Paso Robles, Calif. But settling for saying goodnight on a telephone instead of getting goodnight kisses on the cheek never gets easy.
"It's the worst part of our job," he said. "It's terrible. You're gone for eight months and my kids are getting older and my son's in high school and my daughter's going to be in eighth grade. They're starting to have lives of their own, but my wife does an unbelievable job of taking care of things."
Berry's battle with cancer actually began May 2, when Astros third-base coach Dave Clark suggested the coaches taking some batting practice swings on the field before a game in Atlanta.
Berry felt discomfort in his mid-section following the workout and two days later discovered blood in his urine. He was examined by Dr. Richard Goldfarb at The Methodist Hospital in Houston and was told he had a cancerous tumor on his kidney.
The doctors told Berry his violent swings in the batting cage likely triggered the bleeding, helping diagnose the cancer at an early stage and helping to save his life. He underwent surgery six days later and returned to work to June 1, appearing healthy, relaxed and eager.
"Right now, there's no reason to worry," he said. "I deal with my checkups and if anything comes, I'll tell [the family]. The doctor says I'm in cure mode, so I'll look forward to winning some baseball games."
Upon being diagnosed with cancer, the first call Berry made was to his sister Shannon, who is a doctor, with hopes of being able to get as much information as possible before telling his family. He soon telephoned his wife Linda, who delivered the news to the kids.
"As you can imagine in our business, things go a little quick," he said. "I wanted to make sure I had my story straight that I should be OK. I told my wife because I was working that night and she had to tell the kids. That's one of the reasons I didn't do any media. I didn't want them to have to see me on the television doing a press conference to find out their dad had cancer."
And how did Tanner and Madeline take the news?
"My son was pretty quiet about it, and my daughter was pretty upset," he said.
Berry credited the Astros organization for their support. The team flew his family to Houston from California to be with him during the surgery and recovery, but the Berry family also relied heavily a strong network of family and friends.
The kids' grandparents and several aunts and uncles live near the family in California, and when they were in Houston they drew support from friends John and Tracy Hudek -- John Hudek is the former All-Star relief pitcher for the Astros -- and Craig and Patty Biggio, whose sons, Conor and Cavan, are close to Tanner.
If there was a silver lining it was that Berry got to spend a few extra weeks at home and was able to watch Tanner, a budding first baseman and pitcher in high school, play in some games he wouldn't normally have seen. And he saw Madeline's seventh-grade school presentation before the Paso Robles City Council on child abuse.
"She nailed it," Berry said. "You came out of there going, 'Wow, that is impressive.'"
Berry expects his son to be able to join him on a trip later this year like he has in years past. He was with the Astros for Biggio's 3,000th hit two years ago in Houston, but he tries to speak with his kids and wife on the phone every night.
"We talk about the team and what's happening," he said of his conversations with Tanner. "He's been around our team a lot, so he asks how Pudge [Rodriguez] is doing with the whole thing [breaking the all-time games caught record] and wishes he was here."
Berry finishes talking with a reporter and scurries from the dugout and towards the batting cage. There is still work to be done. The Astros lost, 5-4, to the Rangers that night, and Berry picks up his phone when he gets back to the hotel to talk to his family about his day -- a day that is more precious than ever.
"You always think you will have time later, but maybe you don't know," he said. "I don't have that kind of look at it. I'm going to be fine and be around forever and not even worry about that."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.