Pirates fan defies odds, wins dream trip


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MECHANICSBURG, Pa.

Jon Gracey is living with an expiration date.

Diagnosed with third-stage multiple myeloma -- an incurable cancer of the plasma cells -- in early 2007, Gracey was given 15 months to live.

The disease has slowed him, but the expiration date hasn't run out yet. Gracey passed the five-year mark in January.

Gracey, 49, is a Pirates lifer. A Pirates magnet is centered on the back of his black Dodge Durango. He knows the team like the back of his hand.

So, approached by the California-based Dream Foundation, an organization that grants a wish to individuals battling a life-threatening illness with a life expectancy of a year or less remaining, Gracey kept his dream simple. He asked for a trip to Pittsburgh to take his kids -- twin daughters Haley and Erin and son Nathan -- to PNC Park to watch his beloved Pirates play the Detroit Tigers.

Tuesday, Dream Foundation granted that wish in style -- and just in time for Father's Day.

The Gracey family will travel via Hummer stretch limousine to Pittsburgh June 21 and spend the following three days in the city. They will be in luxury suites at PNC Park for the first two games of the Tigers-Pirates series June 22-23.

"I've tried to downplay it with the kids," Gracey said. "I'm very excited. How many people get presented this opportunity? Not too many."

A former IBM salesman, Gracey's condition began to spiral rapidly in '06.

At a Father's Day golf outing, he felt something "explode" in his back. While carrying a roll of carpeting for his new home in October 2006, his back gave out. He learned later he had broken his back in seven places.

His body was falling apart.

In February 2007, Gracey, recently divorced and with custody of his children, sat them down in the living room after school and explained that he had terminal cancer.

"It's the worst thing you should ever have to tell your children," Gracey said. "The looks on their faces, just the blank, hollow stares, you could see their whole worlds imploding within them.

"That's a feeling no parent should ever have to experience."

The twins were inconsolable. Nathan searched the Internet for a cure.

"It's a day I'll never forget," Haley said.

Gracey enrolled in clinical trials at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to raise awareness and was named the '08 Honored Patient.

He set benchmarks with the kids. They begged him to hold on for their graduations. The girls were 17. Nathan was 12.

The probability of living five years after diagnosis is 3 percent. But he made it. And he's a year away from Nathan's graduation from Trinity High School.

Gracey receives chemotherapy 21 days each month and steroids seven days a month.

"It's poison," Gracey said. "You eat poison 21 days a month."

He has seen friends pass away from the same cancer, but he never has stopped fighting. Neither has his family.

"I didn't go through the 'Why my dad, why not someone else?'" Haley said. "I would never wish this on another human being. What my dad goes through on a regular basis is ridiculous. It's sad. It's scary."

Gracey doesn't know how long he has left. The expiration date should have crept up long ago. Right now, he is focused on his Pirates who have climbed into a share of first place in the NL Central Division.

They could learn something from Gracey.

"I think they need me to come out there," Gracey said. "My message to them is: Don't give up. They told me I was supposed to be dead after 15 months. That's five years ago.

"Tell the boys I'm coming." pirates

Stephen Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2193 and Twitter: @stephenjnesbitt.


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