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Joe Torre's cancer diagnosis changed his life, but not his career

08/27/2014 9:52 AM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Joe Torre stands with George Steinbrenner after the Yankees' sweep of Atlanta in the 1999 World Series.(AP)
Fifteen years ago, Joe Torre was coming off his second World Series title as manager of the Yankees, but a diagnosis that spring left him wondering if he'd be physically able to guide them to a third.

"In 1999, in the spring, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was a routine check-up, and my doctor caught it through my PSA test," Torre said of the news that could've drastically changed his life and career. "I told Joe Girardi and Paul O'Neill and told them they had to tell the club."

As current Yankees manager Girardi said on the day Torre was enshrined in Monument Park, Torre always had a way of making people believe everything was going to be okay no matter what, and the skipper remembers that even that day, Torre was the same.

"He just said it was going to be okay and he'd be back," Girardi said.

And back he came, as Torre had surgery and finished treatment in time to return to the Yankees shortly after the season began, albeit with a new attitude.

"It gave me a new viewpoint on life. When I was diagnosed, I knew nothing about cancer and thought it was a death sentence," he said. "But you get educated, and you realize that not necessarily the type of cancer I had, even though it was an aggressive form, it wasn't. You try to be proactive and change your diet and exercise, and then you become a little more sensitive than you think you already are, because you realize there's more to this game than the game."

Torre had to remember that a few months later, actually just hours before he did lead the Yankees to their third World Series title

"I characterize baseball as a game of life for a reason; a lot of things that happen in life happen in this game," he said. "For instance, Paul O'Neill; you go back to Game 4 in 1999, his dad passed away that morning and he was out there in right field. This game has a way of mirroring life, and you can't take time out; you have to keep living."

Torre knew then that he meant that statement, as for him, there was one moment in the 1999 season where the symbiosis of life and baseball clicked once again.

"I remember we were in Toronto, and I was still telling myself it's only a game - and then we're behind in the game and Bernie Williams comes up with the bases loaded, and you're making a deal with the devil to sell your soul for a base hit," Torre laughed. "He hit a grand slam and I was off to the races again, because it was baseball again for me."

He remembered it again on Saturday, as he watched a video message from long-time pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who was unable to attend the Joe Torre Day festivities because of his own ongoing battle with cancer.

Stottlemyre was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable (but treatable) blood cancer, in 2000 and is still battling the disease, astounding even his own physicians by continuing to fight a cancer that has a five-year survival rate of less than 50 percent.

"It's been 15 years; I was supposed to last only three-to-five," Stottlemyre told Bob Klapisch of the Bergen Record in an interview earlier this month. "I'm a confusing patient to the doctors because they haven't seen a lot of patients who've lasted as long as I have. There's no explanation why I'm still kicking around."

Stottlemyre's health has declined in 2014, and he was unable to attend Old-Timers' Day in June, Torre's Hall of Fame induction last month, or the celebration last weekend. But, that didn't stop him from sending a video message, one which showed Torre not only some well-deserved love, but also a reminder that his own "everything will be okay" attitude is contagious.

"Mel, as tough a time as he's had, will never allow you to hear that when you talk to him," Torre said. "I think staying busy is the most important thing; the more you think about aches and pains, the worse they feel, you know?"

That's why, at 73 and as active in Major League Baseball as ever, Torre is still diligent about making sure his health allows him to stay that way.

"I still get checked up many times a year. We want to stay around longer because with research, every year there's more and more things that keep you going, so that's what I look at."

And seven years later, what Torre told Caring4Cancer Magazine in 2007 still rings true.

"I guess the greatest accomplishment I've had is that I've managed to maintain my lifestyle and do what I needed to do in spite of cancer."

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