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May 30, 2014

Skin cancer is an often overlooked hazard in baseball

Mark Baca first discovered he had skin cancer about 10 years ago. Baca, then a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks, was in Charleston, W.Va., for a minor league game. Before the game, he took a shower at the hotel and was drying his face when he saw something abnormal. He had never noticed the nickel-sized growth on his cheek before, but how could he not now?

"My towel was just full of blood," said Baca, 49, today a Washington Nationals national scouting supervisor. "I knew something was wrong. It ended up being a huge tumor on my face."

Each profession has its accompanying hazards, and playing professional baseball has its share. One that affects all people in the game and is often overlooked is skin cancer.

Spring training means seven weeks in sunny Arizona or Florida. The heart of the season is during the summer. Baca, who has battled basal and squamous cell carcinoma, isn't alone in the Nationals organization or across the sport with sun-related skin issues.

Nationals hitting coach Rick Schu, in his 33rd year in professional baseball, has had spots of cancer cells burned from his face and ears every spring for the past few years. Third base coach Bobby Henley ignored a mark on his left cheek for a year until discovering last spring it was cancer, and a big section of skin was removed. Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer, in 2012. This March, Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt revealed he recently dealt with Stage 3 melanoma and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

"It has become a trend in baseball," Baca said. Added Henley: "It's a serious thing. It really is."

Under Commissioner Bud Selig, a melanoma survivor, baseball has long recognized the need for skin cancer prevention and awareness. For the past 15 years, MLB and the players' union have partnered with the American Academy of Dermatology on a public awareness campaign called Play Sun Smart. Each of the 30 teams is given a screening day each year when players, coaches and team personnel are screened by local dermatologists.

"At the minor and major league level, the issue is very prominent," MLB medical director Gary Green said.

Even though the majority of major league games are at night, players often take early batting practice or fielding work at 2 or 3 p.m. By the time batting practice starts around 4:45 p.m., the sun is still blazing. "Midsummer in D.C., standing out during batting practice, you just get cooked," Nationals pitcher Drew Storen said.

Among Nationals players, skin cancer awareness is widespread but prevention against it is uneven. Outfielder Nate McLouth said he applies sunscreen multiple times a day. Catcher Wilson Ramos said he doesn't use any, relying instead on his skin's natural protection, and hadn't given much thought to future skin damage until he was asked about it. Storen is trying to be more diligent about his sunscreen use, while Craig Stammen hasn't yet. The danger areas for players and coaches are the face, ears, neck and arms.

 "I should be better at using sunscreen," Stammen said. "I use it when I remember it. It's one of those things, young and dumb and worry about it later kind of thing. I've kinda paid more attention to it. I do pay more attention to it when we're in spring training in Florida from what I do during the season."

Before his skin issues began about three years ago, Schu never used sunscreen - as a player or coach. Prior to becoming the Nationals' hitting coach midway through last season, Schu, 52, was the franchise's minor league hitting coordinator for three and a half years.

"I was really naive to it until the last few years," he said. "When we were young, we'd never sunblock up. Really, I've just started to the last few years. . . . I didn't know. When I played, the trainers didn't do anything back in the day. Our nutrition was a cup of soup and a Gatorade. That's what we ate for lunch. They didn't have sunblock out."

Henley, 41, said he always wore sunscreen but still developed skin cancer. He believes he was simply more naturally prone to it. An abnormal flake developed on his face for a year and he neglected it until last spring when he finally visited a dermatologist.

"It can happen to anybody," he said. "I was fortunate the skin was just cut out and being done with it."

Henley now cakes his face, often twice a day with a zinc-heavy sunscreen that is visible from far away. Some around the club call him a zombie for the look, but Henley doesn't mind the nickname.

"You have to try to protect yourself and be smart and wear sunglasses and hats," Henley said. "That's why I wear the sunscreen so thick."Baca is still dealing with his cancer. Skin has been cut out of his forehead and cheek, from his eye to his ear. In all, he said, he has had about six small tumors removed. "My body is all scarred up," he said. Baca had been clean until recently when cancerous skin cells were found on his nose. He hopes to take time off soon to undergo a special procedure called Mohs surgery and expects a full recovery.To combat the hazards of his job, Baca has developed techniques to avoid the sun. He is diligent about sunscreen. He finds a way to sit in the shade or with his back to the sun while sitting behind home plate with his radar gun along with the other scouts. He wears a hat that covers nearly his entire face and neck. "It's uncomfortable, but I'll wear it," he said.

He hasn't yet resorted to long sleeve shirts but that may come soon. He has seen other scouts wrap towels around their necks and wear wide-brimmed hats, too, during games. "I think the scouts, some of them, have gotten a lot smarter," he said.

But in baseball, it is hard to escape the sun.



 

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