(Dr. Muntz is a team internist for the Houston Texans and serves on the board of the NFL Physicians Society)
Alonzo Powell cannot wait to be a Giant.
He grew up in the foggy Ingleside neighborhood of San Francisco. He played ball at Lincoln High, and stood in the patchy grass one day when Barry Bonds came to bat. He’d pass through the turnstiles at Candlestick Park, dreaming of a time when he could use the players’ entrance. After the Giants signed him as an amateur free agent in 1983, that dream turned into a solid ambition — one that might have been realized if not for a trade to Montreal.
Now the debut will finally come for the 53-year-old coach. The Giants hired Powell to give their hitters a fresh plan of attack, to teach them how to step into the batter’s box with a focused approach, to help the league’s least productive lineup go on the offensive again.
But before his dream job begins, Powell will be forced to practice what he’d planned to preach.
Powell was diagnosed with prostate cancer on Jan. 2. He will undergo surgery on Tuesday. And when Giants pitchers and catchers report to Scottsdale Stadium on Feb. 13, he is determined to report, too — leaning against the batting cage, dispensing advice, and holding fast to one thought:
In this battle, he does not stand alone in the batter’s box.
“In situations like these,” Powell said in an interview with The Athletic, “you really find out the people you have in your corner.”
Powell’s corner, as he has discovered in these sideswept past few weeks, is a crowded place.
He is overwhelmed at the support he has received from the Giants, who proactively took over his medical care and treated him like family even though he hasn’t yet spent a day in uniform.
He has been flooded by enduring support from his friends in the Astros organization, who already experienced one serious health crisis when first base coach Rich Dauer practically collapsed in Powell’s arms during the World Series parade and nearly died from a ruptured blood vessel in his brain.
Most of all, his corner includes his wife, Jana, a registered nurse who, oddly enough, already had planned to begin taking classes in pursuit of an oncology certification.
This is not the ideal way to learn.
But as any hitting coach knows, changeups and curves are a part of life.
It was a six-hour drive straight into the rising sun. It might have been a bit quieter in the car than usual.
Alonzo and Jana were headed from Southern California back home to Arizona, and Alonzo was frustrated. He and Jana had attended the Rose Bowl and witnessed one of the most entertaining, back-and-forth games in the Granddaddy’s history. Unfortunately for Alonzo, a diehard Oklahoma fan, his Sooners trudged off the field 54-48 losers to Georgia in the second overtime of the College Football Playoff semifinal. He spent most of the drive stewing.
“You’ve gotta win those games,” he said.
They had to start out early on the morning of Jan. 2. Powell had an appointment later that day with a urologist to review results of a biopsy he had undergone before Christmas — a test that Astros physician Dr. James Muntz had encouraged after monitoring Powell’s elevated prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels throughout the season.
There are few things as stressful as waiting on biopsy results. But Powell had no unsettling thoughts.
His initial test in his spring training physical last year showed a PSA level of 9.5, which is extremely high, but can be explained by a number of benign factors. One of them is inflammation caused by long bike rides. Had he taken up cycling recently? Yes, in fact, he told the Astros doctors, he and Jana had recently bought bicycles and were taking 20-mile rides frequently.
Muntz made sure to check Powell’s PSA count again in July, and his levels dropped to 3.6 – on the high side of normal. Still, just to be safe, the doctor ordered another test in October. That one came back at 4.1.
The Astros were just beginning their frenetic playoff run, one that would wend through the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers on their way to the franchise’s first World Series championship.
The playoffs were a hectic time for everyone. They were even busier for Powell, who had caught a flight from LAX to San Francisco between Games 2 and 3 of the World Series to interview for the hitting coach position with Giants officials. Before the series had ended in a Game 7 victory at Dodger Stadium, Powell knew he had the job.
Amid all the playoff-run chaos, when Dr. Muntz crossed paths with Jana in the parking garage at Minute Maid Park, he had not forgotten about those PSA levels. He advised that Alonzo see a urologist in Arizona, just to be on the safe side, and if he didn’t, then he would be sure to schedule an appointment for him in Houston.
The biopsy was supposed to be a precaution, and nothing more.
“Driving back from the Rose Bowl, it’s the last thing on my mind,” Powell said. “Then within three minutes in the room with the doctor, he lets me know I’ve got prostate cancer.
“I looked at Jana and the doctor and I said, `You know, 2017 was the best year of my life. We won the World Series and I get the opportunity to be a Giant. Now my Sooners lost and I’ve got prostate cancer. We’re two days into 2018, and I’m 0 for 2.’
“But I’m not going to laugh it off, believe me,” he continued. “It’s serious. It’s an unbelievable situation, really. But I never once let it bug me. Jana always says I never let anything bug me. I just said in the back of my mind, ‘It’s not going to be there.’ I’ve been relatively lucky my whole life and, you know, it’s just not going to be there. It’s the positive power of thinking.”
That positive power was tested shortly after the diagnosis, when Powell underwent a series of scans that appeared to show the cancer had metastasized to his bones. Surgery wouldn’t be possible. He and Jana prepared for a hard year of chemotherapy and radiation, with an uncertain prognosis.
Then the Giants took over his care, and Dr. Robert Murray, the organization’s chief internist, had his doubts. He ordered another bone scan that he and Dr. Anthony Saglimbeni could review.
It came back clean.
Brightened by that news, Powell will undergo surgery to have his prostate removed on Tuesday. Dr. Gilberto Brito, who assists on the Arizona Diamondbacks medical staff, will use the minimally invasive da Vinci robotic technique, which involves incisions of no more than 2 centimeters. Powell could be back at his home in Arizona after a day or two – and back at Scottsdale Stadium in time for Day 1 with the organization that first signed him almost 35 years ago.
Nothing will be normal for a while. He will have to drive from Scottsdale Stadium to receive daily radiation treatments for several weeks. But he plans to be flipping soft-toss before long, and with any luck, throwing batting practice by the season opener.
“For two weeks, we thought the cancer had metastasized,” Jana said. “But either way, we knew we were going to fight it. It was going to be chemo and radiation or the prostate surgery and radiation.
“Either way, it was going to be a fight he was going to win.”
The drama did not end for the Astros with their victory in Game 7 of the World Series. It certainly did not end for manager A.J. Hinch’s coaching staff.
During the victory parade in Houston, Jana noticed that Dauer, the Astros first base coach, did not seem like himself. He was holding up his phone as if to take videos but his phone wasn’t on. A bit later, after the parade reached City Hall and the players were being introduced to the crowd, Dauer stood behind the stage and told Powell that he wasn’t feeling well. He began to stagger and became less responsive.
As EMTs tried to find a way through the crowds to get Dauer to the hospital, Powell and most of the Astros coaches and players assumed that he was either exhausted or dehydrated. They would soon learn that his condition was much more serious. He had sustained a subdural hematoma, likely the result of a fall in the shower combined with his use of a prescription blood thinner to treat a heart condition.
His condition and the race to save his life, a story so well told by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, had the happiest possible ending. Dauer not only survived but emerged with no apparent brain damage. His recovery was nothing short of miraculous.
It also taught an important lesson: if you are on blood thinners and take a spill, be alert for symptoms and make sure to get yourself checked out.
Powell took it as a lesson in gratitude, too. Now he takes it as an inspiration.
“Please throw this in there,” Powell said to me. “I didn’t want Richie to have all the attention.”
It is hard to describe the bonds that form when you are part of a World Series-winning coaching staff. But Powell knew the Astros had something special long before that.
He spent two seasons as the Astros’ hitting assistant, and he formed an instant rapport with a young roster bursting with talent. This past spring, after players like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Carlos Beltran and Luke Gregerson returned from the World Baseball Classic, he noted a change in everyone’s demeanor.
“It was, ‘Hey, let’s show everybody what we’re capable of doing,’” Powell said. “That’s what they did. Everyone checked their egos at the door. It was business from the last week of spring training. And they did everything as a family. When they’d go out to dinner as a group, the coaches were invited, too.”
In that context, it is no surprise that Dr. Muntz stayed on top of Powell’s care. And it’s no surprise that Powell feels such a surge of support from the team that he left after two seasons.
“It’s been unbelievable from top to bottom,” he said. “Everybody’s reached out, called, let me know, ‘Hey, anything we need, we’re there for you.’”
“Anytime someone close to you has to face something like this, it hits you hard,” Hinch said. “One of the best parts of baseball is how it creates a whole new family for us, so we will help Zo as much as he needs. One day we were talking about the college bowl season and the next day we were talking about fighting cancer. And the next day we talked about baseball.
“Zo is just a special man to me, and a lot of people.”
As deep as Powell became attached to the Astros, he did not need to wrestle over the decision to accept the Giants’ offer.
Sure, it was a promotion from hitting assistant to hitting coach, a role he held briefly with the Seattle Mariners in 2010 before moving on to assist the San Diego Padres from 2012-15. But it was much more than that.
“It’s everything for me,” he said. “Growing up in San Francisco, originally signing with the Giants and now having this opportunity, it’s my professional career coming full circle.”
Powell became one of four players from Lincoln High (with Fred Breining, Bob DiPietro, and later, Micah Franklin) to play in the major leagues, but his debut did not come as a Giant. He was dealt to Montreal with another prospect for pitcher Bill Laskey, and appeared in 14 games with the Expos in 1987. Four seasons later, he appeared in 57 games for the Mariners. Then came seven seasons in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons and Hanshin Tigers.
Most of his life, he has played and coached baseball a long way from home. So the thrill of buttoning up a Giants uniform is almost too much to contain.
“And it’s a great organization,” he said. “You know they’ll put a winner on the field. It’s going from one first-class organization to another. And you know, these guys have a few more rings than I do. Hopefully I can be a part of something special.”
Former Giants hitting coach and current bench coach Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens helped to pick his successor. Now Meulens, manager Bruce Bochy and new hitting assistant Rick Schu have pledged to support Powell any way they can.
He appreciates the support. He hopes he won’t require much of it.
“Zo, he doesn’t want the attention to be on him,” Jana said. “He wants the attention to be on the team. But from the coaching staff to Brian Sabean to Bobby Evans to Dr. Murray and Dr. Saglimbeni and all the trainers, it’s been such a load already off our shoulders because of how great they’ve been with Zo — all before he’s even been with these guys.”
“Being straight up, the hardest thing is that when you’re going to a new team, you don’t want any distractions,” Powell said. “But Bam Bam, Schu, they told me, ‘You get healthy and then you can do the things you normally do.’
“You want to come in and show your work ethic is great and … well, now I’m going to deal with what we deal with. I’m not even sure if all the players know. I’ve talked to a few of the guys on the phone. That part of it I’ll deal with, and when we get going, I should be ready to do at least the small things: standing around the cage, creating conversations, and hopefully by the end of spring training get into more activity.”
Major league coaches are infamous for grousing about throwing batting practice. Don’t expect anyone on the Giants staff to complain about having to ice their arms a bit longer this spring.
“Oh, they’ll be OK,” Powell said with a chuckle. “And you know, I think I’ve thrown enough in my life to take two weeks off!”
There are two things you learn quickly about Jana (Pearson) Powell. She loves baseball, and she doesn’t back down from a challenge.
So on that September night in 2004, on a trip home to Battle Creek, Michigan, to visit family, she didn’t turn down tickets behind the visiting dugout at the minor league game against the Dayton Dragons. And when her family and friends dared her to get the manager’s attention, she didn’t let up.
For four innings.
“I’m way too competitive,” she said.
“Well, I was focused on managing the game,” he said.
“They kept egging me on,” she said.
“I honestly didn’t hear her,” he said. “Then the fourth or fifth inning, I hear this stern voice say, ‘Are you ignoring me?’”
“Finally, he had to say something to me,” she said, “so the players would shut up in the dugout and concentrate on the game.”
“So to make a long story short, we ended up going out for dinner after the game,” he said, “and we’ve been together ever since.”
Or, as much as a baseball couple can be. The itinerant life of a minor league coach is burdensome. But they moved to Arizona so at least they could be together for two months of spring training and instructional league.
Jana worked as a brain injury rehab nurse before taking a job as a school nurse, which allowed her a more flexible schedule to join Alonzo during the season. Last summer, even that wasn’t enough.
“When the Astros went to the playoffs, I knew we were going to win the World Series,” she said. “I knew in the spring. The staff at the school, the students, they got sick of hearing it from me.
“When the playoffs began, I wasn’t going to miss it. So I quit my job. I hated leaving the kids, but, man, I just knew we had to experience this together.”
They are about to share another kind of experience, and for Jana, this cancer diagnosis is more than a fight that she and Alonzo will take on together. It’s a calling of sorts — one she recognized long ago.
When she was in college, she took care of her mother in the end stages of a battle with breast cancer.
“The last words my mom said to me were, ‘You would be a great nurse,’” Jana said.
So Jana became a nurse. After resigning her position at the grade school last summer, she already had made up her mind: she would begin taking classes to become certified in oncology.
“Then this happened,” Alonzo said.
A moment of silence passed before laugh lines began to form.
“I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate to be married to a registered nurse,” he said. “We’ll find out the next few weeks.”
Being positive helps. Being naturally competitive certainly doesn’t hurt. Having a support network can make all the difference.
And now, coming home is more meaningful than ever.
“Is this news you want to hear? No,” Powell said. “But I have never once let my head get down. It’s in God’s hands, and I look at it as another test in my life that hopefully I’ll overcome.
“That we’ll overcome.”
By Andrew Baggarly for the Athletic
January 28, 2018