Dream Foundation fulfills wish for lifelong Pirates fan

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It might be Jon Gracey's final trip to the ballpark.

He knows that. He's lived the last five years with a ticking clock, knowing every day could be his last.

On Friday, the Pirates recognized Gracey as the 'Fan of the Game,' inviting him down to field level for batting practice and warmups. He shook Pirates manager Clint Hurdle's hand on the top step of the dugout and spent 10 minutes speaking with Pirates president Frank Coonelly.

Dressed head-to-toe in Pirates regalia, Gracey looked like a kid again. Hurdle asked him to come to his office before Saturday's game. He'll join the radio broadcast, too.

Gracey, 49, is in Pittsburgh with his kids -- twin daughters Erin and Haley and son Nathan -- to attend two Pirates games in a luxury suite during a four-day vacation gifted by Dream Foundation, a California-based organization that funds a wish for individuals with a life expectancy of a year or less remaining.

Gracey, a longtime IBM salesman, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma -- an incurable cancer of the plasma cells -- in 2007. It's not a cancer you can beat, he said, but that doesn't mean you can't fight it.

"I won't just sit here and let it take me," Gracey said.

When asked his wish, Gracey said he hoped to spend a weekend in Pittsburgh, taking his kids to PNC Park for the first time.

Born and raised a Pirate

Jon Gracey lay on a wooden bench in his grandfather's home, listening to the crackle of the Pirates broadcast on the radio.

His grandfather sat in the corner of the kitchen as he did every day, tuned into Bob Prince and Jim Woods on KDKA. The old man had a thick pipe in his hand and an Iron City beer at his side. He took a deep draw and let the match slip out of his fingers and onto the floor, searing a hole in the linoleum.

It was 1966. Gracey was four years old. He closed his eyes as Prince rattled off the Pirates lineup, names like Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente.

Those were good days, the kind of memories Gracey won't forget.

Though his family lived in Shippensburg -- squarely in the middle between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia -- and he later moved to Phillies territory in Mechanicsburg, Pa., Gracey is clear about his rooting habits.

"I have two favorite teams: the Pirates and anybody playing the Phillies," Gracey said.

The mortal Superman

To his daughter, Haley, Jon Gracey is Superman. It started with his Clark Kent-style glasses and Superman T-shirt. The name stuck.

But in 2006, Gracey met his kryptonite.

During a Father's Day golf outing with his father, Don, Gracey drove the ball off the tee and felt something "explode" in his back. In October, while going through a divorce, he was carrying rolls of carpeting into the living room of his new home in Mechanicsburg when he collapsed.

An X-ray in January determined that Gracey had broken his back in seven places. His physician had even worse news -- "I don't like what I think this is," he told Gracey.

He then met with oncologist A. Thomas Andrews, who confirmed the worst: Gracey had end-stage multiple myeloma. The cancer had hollowed him out.

"Tell me what you're thinking," Andrews asked.

"I'm scared," Gracey admitted.

"Good, I don't have to explain to you how serious this is."

Life expectancy was tabbed at 15 months. The probability of a man his age getting multiple myeloma was less than one percent.

"I was in the wrong line that day," Gracey said. "Why can't my lotto chances hit like that? It was the worst day ever in my life. It's a death note, and they tell that to you."

He didn't want to tell his kids. And how could he? How could he tell them Superman was crumbling? Eventually, he did.

Haley relayed the date without hesitation: Feb. 2, 2007.

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

Gracey told them the bare minimum, but he didn't tell them of his expiration date.

"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."

Nathan went to the computer to search for a cure. Haley didn't talk for three hours.

Pulling for both sides

Selecting the Pirates-Tigers series was strategic. He'll admit that they're his favorite American and National League teams.

Gracey is a supporter of Tigers manager Jim Leyland for his 11 seasons at the helm in Pittsburgh. But on Friday, Gracey's eye was on a different coach -- Tigers first-base coach Tom Brookens.

The relationship goes back to the early 1980s when Gracey was an undergraduate computer science major at Shippensburg. Brookens was then a greenhorn infielder for the Tigers.

A native of Chambersburg, a neighboring town in central Pennsylvania, Brookens joined the Shippensburg baseball team for off-season workouts.

Gracey remembers one weekend when he and a couple pals traveled to Baltimore to watch Brookens and the Tigers in action. A storm rolled in off the bay and washed out the game. They went around to the players' entrance to see Brookens.

"You goin' home?" Brookens asked.

Gracey nodded. Brookens grinned and stepped back inside. He emerged moments later with pitcher Jack Morris.

The two-door coupe could barely hold everyone in, but sacrifices were easy to make.

The memory made Gracey laugh. He lowered his voice to get out of the earshot of the kids as he told the story.

"The neat thing was we get in the car and the first question out of Morris' mouth is 'Do you guys drink beer?' " Gracey said, grinning. "We're like, 'Yeah!' So he said to pull over."

Morris clambered out of the back seat and into the store. Gracey was starstruck.

Recently, when Brookens was the head coach of the Erie SeaWolves -- the Tigers' Double-A affiliate -- Gracey brought his kids over to meet his old friend. ("Tom's a twin, has twins, so I took my twins over to meet him," Gracey said.)

"Your dad never shuts up," Brookens told them, "but he didn't say a word the whole way home with Morris in the car."

Five-year fight

Gracey claims he failed as a father.

He wanted to give his kids so much more. He wanted a cabin and a beach house. He wanted normalcy. But instead they were relegated to a single-parent home with an expiration date edging ever closer.

"That hurts more than the physical damage the disease has done," Gracey wrote in his application to the Dream Foundation. "My kids didn't do anything to deserve this."

Nathan read the quote, handed back the slip of paper and swallowed before answering.

"I don't think he's failed us -- that disappoints me," he said. "I know he had a lot he wanted to do, but I think he's been a great father. He's always been strong in there for me."

Since 2007, Gracey has been an advocate for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and was the '08 Honored Patient.

He's outlived several friends with cancer who couldn't hold on as long as him. And he's comforted patients in the worst days of their lives.

"The newly diagnosed, you can see it in their eyes," Gracey said. "That scared look that they have on their faces. You just try to lend support to them.

Gracey caught himself as tears welled up in his eyes.

"I'm not going to lie to them and tell them it's going to be OK," Gracey continued, "because we don't know that, but damnit don't quit fighting."

When Gracey was diagnosed, the twins were 15 and Nathan was 12. The girls begged him to hold on until their high school graduation. Haley never believed he'd be there.

He was there.

"You'd better believe I was bawling as soon as I walked up those stairs and walked across that stage," Haley said.

Nathan wanted his dad to see him get his license at 16.

He was there.

Nathan is a year away from graduation.

Gracey can't promise he'll be there, but he promised to try.

"There's so much more he still has to tell me and teach me as I grow up," Nathan said.

Erin and Haley are juniors in college -- at Misericordia and Lock Haven, respectively. Nathan is a senior at Trinity High School. He was supposed to be gone four years ago, but their father hasn't missed a thing.

It might be Jon Gracey's last trip to the ballpark, but he doesn't believe it. pirates

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2193 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt. First Published June 23, 2012 4:30 AM


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