CINCINNATI -- Think back to Reds spring training: full of the possibilities and the promise of the season ahead.
But for Reds third base coach Mark Berry, that promise turned to preoccupation.
A persistent sore throat and lymph nodes that felt like marbles weighed on him. "Something just didn't seem normal."
It had been several months, and with his wife’s insistence, he told Reds team doctors about it when he showed up for spring training in Scottsdale, AZ in February.
“They did two needle biopsies in my neck. Both came back negative.”
For most, that would be enough. But Berry’s family history isn’t like most. His sister had two needle biopsies a decade and a half ago. They ended up negative. But she ended up with cancer.
So, as sisters do, she kept pushing him. And he pushed the Reds for more tests.
After multiple tests in Arizona, a plane trip back to Cincinnati and more tests here, the diagnosis came back just hours later.
Stage IV cancer of the tonsils and lymph nodes.
“In a way it was a relief. I know what I'm dealing with. Now, what do I need to do?” said Berry.
For him, the protocol was 35 radiation treatments and eight rounds of chemotherapy.
The days he dreaded were when the two treatments would overlap, depleting him of all energy.
The one-two punch left him 40 pounds lighter.
He fought through and finished his treatments in late May, all the while counting the days until he was strong enough to be back with the team he’s been a part of for 27 years.
He rejoined the team in June, watching from the dugout for a few uncomfortable weeks before he felt 100 percent. That was the benchmark he placed upon himself for returning to the third base coach’s box.
“That's what I wanted to be, especially coaching third base. I owed it to the team. And for Chris Speier (who subbed for Berry in his absence) -- I didn't want to come back too early and go back the other way."
Berry was back in the box by July, and getting stronger every day.
“Every week the players would say, ‘Man, every time I see you, you look better and better and better.’ I’d say, ‘Really?” They said they could see it in my eyes and skin color,” Berry said. “Even the opposing teams that hadn’t seen me in months, they’d say, ‘Wow.'”
His return may be most important to the man who shares third base with him.
“It’s really huge to have Mark back," said Reds 3B Todd Frazier. “He's eagle-eyeing everything during batting practice -- he's just a happy, loving guy. We love to have him around."
After a season he’ll remember for more than just a pennant chase, Berry got a clean bill of health just weeks ago.
“September Fourth, in fact. I shouldn't forget that date,” he said. “I'll remember that date for the rest of my life. That night we played the 16 -nning game against the Cardinals here. It was a big series for everybody. But I had the test done that day. I was coaching third base in a 16-inning game, knowing the results are in. I didn’t know the answer.”
The next day, he went to his doctor.
“He goes, 'The test came back really clean.' I took a deep breath and I was like - wow.”
Now he’s back with the team he calls his family. Back in the box. And back with new perspective.
“It IS a game. What I went through -- seeing patients way worse than I was? That's not a game there. I took things for granted ... we all probably do,” Berry said. “I'm 51, so I think I'm gonna really cherish every day now."