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Riccardo Ingram has always been a man of strong faith. He talks openly about the many blessings that have been bestowed upon him in his life -- including a long career in the sport that he loves and a supportive and wonderful family.
But as Ingram's family planned to gather for Thanksgiving this year, they did so with a few more things to be thankful for than in years past.
It's been a little more than 16 months since Ingram, a hitting instructor in the Twins' Minor League system, was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. At the time, the prognosis was pretty dire. But at his latest checkup in October, the doctors told Ingram that they believe the majority of what's left of the tumor is just scar tissue.
"It's been a blessing," Ingram said. "The little things and the small moments, they are something to be truly thankful for. We have a little different life this Thanksgiving. We are a little more thankful and a little more selfless. It gave everybody in my household a different perspective."
* * *
It began with a headache.
Ingram, 44, had never suffered from headaches. He'd never been bothered by any allergies, sinus problems or migraines of any sort. But as he went through workouts with the Minor League players during Spring Training in 2009 in Fort Myers, Fla., Ingram started to get some slight headaches near the front of his head.
'Nothing to worry about,' Ingram thought initially of the headaches which persisted at times through the spring. Entering his second season as the hitting coach for Triple-A Rochester and his 12th as a coach in the Twins' Minor League organization, Ingram headed north with his team for the start of the season without much concern.
But the headaches didn't go away.
Twins Minor League director Jim Rantz remembers speaking with Red Wings manager Stan Cliburn in the early months of the season about his concern over Ingram's health. The hitting coach with the normally tireless work ethic was arriving late to the ballpark more frequently and he was sleeping often to try to get rid of the headaches.
"Stan said, 'I haven't seen Ricco come in late as many times as he had,'" Rantz said. "A lot of times he would be late or miss things because he had horrific headaches at the time. I think he slept through reporting times. It was because of the fact that he was dealing with so much pain."
By the early part of June, the headaches were becoming unbearably painful for Ingram and none of the medication they'd tried to treat them with was working. One morning, Ingram made a phone call to Rochester's athletic trainer, Tony Leo, before a day game and said he would be late to the ballpark. He felt a quick nap might help get rid of the piercing pain and he told Leo he'd be there by game time.
Instead, Ingram was awakened hours later by the team's clubhouse manager who was checking to see if he was all right.
"That was a game changer for me," Ingram said. "It had gone as far as it could go and we needed to find out what was wrong."
* * *
A brain scan revealed a large mass that had developed in between the two frontal lobes of Ingram's brain.
The hope when Ingram had met with the team doctor in Rochester to schedule an imaging test was that they could rule out a few things with the scan. Instead, their worst fears were realized.
"One minute, I was like it's probably something small going on and the next, I learned that I had a brain tumor," Ingram said. "I could see the look on the doctor's face and it was like, 'Oh man, this is some tragic news."
Ingram called his wife, Allison, and she met him in Rochester for a biopsy of the tumor. It revealed a Grade 4 glioblastoma -- the most aggressive form. Doctors were up front with Ingram and told him that most people don't make it past a year with this type of tumor.
But Ingram, who is known for his infectious smile and upbeat personality, didn't let the news shake his optimism that he would get through this.
"I said, 'You know Doc, I never do anything miniature. I do it all the way,'" Ingram said with a laugh of his first response. "He was a little surprised at my reaction, but I told him there is a purpose for everything. I don't know what this is right now, but there is a purpose for this too."
Ingram's tumor was similar to the one that senator Ted Kennedy battled before passing away at the age of 77. He told the Twins that Kennedy had received treatment at Duke University and the organization told Ingram that it's where he too should go.
Ingram took an immediate leave of absence from the Red Wings in early July and began what initially was a 12-month treatment. He went back and forth between Duke and Piedmont Hospital near his home in Atlanta for a series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments in order to try and shrink the tumor. Despite the intensive treatments, Ingram said he was blessed to have little to no side effects from them.
"I've received the best care," Ingram said. "I told my wife that I owe that all to the Twins and the organization. Once it happened, the outpouring from the organization was just phenomenal. You don't find that nowadays.
"People always said to me, 'I'm praying for you' and I believed them. Thank you for the prayers -- that was my battle cry. I was really and truly blessed through the situation."
* * *
Baseball has always played a significant role in Ingram's life. He was drafted by the Tigers in the fourth round in 1987 out of Georgia Tech University. He spent nine seasons playing in the Minor Leagues for the Tigers and Twins, while making short stints in the Majors with both clubs over that time. After his playing career ended before the 1998 season, he became a coach in the Twins' organization.
Ingram loves his job as a coach. And in the months he was away from the game to get treatment for his cancer, he missed the daily interactions with his players and the role he got to play in helping them improve.
Less than four weeks after beginning treatments, Ingram surprised his team by making a visit to Gwinnett, Ga., about a 15-minute drive from his home, where the Red Wings were playing the Braves' Triple-A affiliate. The players hadn't seen Ingram since he had been diagnosed with the tumor and seeing him gave the club an instant lift.
"You think about things that we go though as baseball players and people in general, and sometimes we get upset about something so minute," said infielder Trevor Plouffe, who was on the '09 Red Wings squad. "This kind of puts things in perspective for all of us. This guy had to deal with such an unbelievable situation and he stayed positive throughout it all."
While Ingram's treatment was scheduled to go through the start of the 2010 season, the Twins wanted to give him an opportunity to stay around the game. They made Ingram a roving hitting instructor between Rochester and Double-A New Britain, which allowed him to travel between teams and continue his treatment.
And there Ingram was this past spring back in Fort Myers, Fla., smiling wide and laughing with the players as he took part in many of the drills despite the fact that he was still undergoing treatment.
"My love for the game has helped me and I think it had some part in the healing process," Ingram said. "I'm thankful for the game. I've been around the game a long time. To have the Twins do something like that for me meant a lot."
* * *
Ingram has lauded the Twins' efforts in helping him heal, but the organization certainly has gained a lot from watching his courageous battle as well.
"He's always upbeat," said Rantz. "And the players, I think they feel his inspiration here and what he's gone through. I know that when players look at him and what he's gone through, they are taken back by his approach not only on how he handles his job, but how he goes about everyday life that he appreciates so much."
Ingram isn't the only inspirational tale within the Twins' organization. At almost the same time that Ingram learned of his diagnosis, Class A Beloit athletic trainer Alan Rail began his own battle with cancer. Things have been going well for Rail in his recovery and he was back at work for the 2010 season as well.
There is certainly much for Ingram to be thankful for this holiday season. He is scheduled to undergo chemo once a month for the next 10 months before going back for another MRI and scan. But at his recent check-up at the end of October, doctors told him that they haven't seen any new growth in the tumor since he started treatment and they feel that what remains is mostly scar tissue.
As a man of faith, it's hard for Ingram to describe what he's gone through as anything less than a miracle. Thanks to the support of his wife and two daughters, Kacey who is in 11th grade and Kristen who is in 9th grade, as well as many other family and friends, Ingram has been able to get through this difficult time.
"My wife even says now that she's thankful we went through it," Ingram said. "Not wishing it happened, but I think we view life a little bit differently and lean a little bit more on the Lord and not ourselves. Sometimes we all get caught up in our things and think we're invincible, that we have all the time in the world. But now we've gained a little more perspective."