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Amid tough year, Selig finds perspective

Cancer scare shows commissioner what matters in life
Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig was diagnosed with skin cancer earlier this year.Jeff Roberson / AP file

On Election Day, baseball commissioner Bud Selig went to his doctor for his regular checkup. And, as usual, his physician Ian Gilson told him he was in "great shape," according to Selig. They chatted about Gilson's work for baseball in trying to establish new standards for steroid testing in the sport.

"I've got to keep you going great for another five years," joked Gilson. With that, the doctor sent the 70-year-old Selig, who has five years left on his contract, on his way.

But then Gilson stopped him.

"As I'm outside the door of the office walking away, my doctor called and said, 'Come back here. What's that on your face?' " Selig said.

Every morning when Selig looked in the mirror, he saw a blotch on the skin above his right eye. But like countless others, he ignored it.

"I had never been sick in my life," Selig said. "I had only been in the hospital once -- ever. Serious illness was something that happened to other people."

Selig went to a dermatologist the next day. Within three days, test results revealed the biggest shock of his life. "It was 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 5," said Selig. "The doctor said, 'I hate to give you bad news on a Friday.' "

The blotch was cancerous. Worse, it was Clark Level IV melanoma, which can mean that the disease has already spread through the lymphatic system and may be incurable and fatal.

"When I heard 'level four melanoma,' I was stunned," Selig said this week in his first interview about his two-month ordeal.

"I looked it up [in medical texts]. My kids did, too. It's not good."

"I was just, 'Ohhhhhhh,' " said Selig, like the breath had been sucked out of him.

Every day he worried. "One day I took three of my granddaughters shopping," Selig said. "I was so distraught that I sat in my car and cried."

Meantime, baseball seemed to throw a new crisis at him every day. Three days before he was scheduled for surgery, the BALCO scandal broke wide open while he was in Washington to welcome the nation's capital back into baseball after 33 years. The next day, Barry Bonds's grand jury testimony about using the "clear" and the "cream" led the national news.

Meantime, doctors had given Selig his odds. There was perhaps a 90 percent chance that the cancer had been caught before it spread. But that was just an educated guess. And the other 10 percent chance would be bad news.

On Dec. 6, Selig had three hours of surgery that included the removal of two lymph nodes. He also had plastic surgery and skin transplants. He was hospitalized at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York for three days.

"I thought I would be out of the hospital the next day," Selig said.

"My only thought was just to get it over. . . . Actually, I couldn't really believe I was there," Selig said.

"Wherever I went in the hospital, they wanted to talk baseball with me. My plastic surgeon is a Red Sox fan. So he said, 'Now I have to do a good job on you since we finally won.' "

However, the toughest time for Selig may have been the seven days between his surgery and the final clinical results.

"After they took out the two [central] lymph nodes, they said the margins around the nodes looked clear [of cancer]," Selig said. "But they had to do microanalysis. You know me. I'm a worrier anyway. Well, [for a week] I worried, I can tell you. I came to [the doctor's] office and waited for 20 minutes. I pace up and down when it's just the ninth inning of a ballgame. It felt like it took 20 hours for him to come out. He said some small talk thing and I blurted out, 'Well?' "

On Dec. 13, almost six weeks after his nightmare started, he finally got the definitive word he longed to hear.

"You're clear and clean as hell," said his surgeon, Ashok R. Shahan, according to Selig.

Selig was lucky and knows it. The whole experience left him shaken and Selig is sobered and eager that others understand the importance of regular checkups with attention to possible skin cancer. "Melanoma is everywhere," he said this week. "As soon as I got it, it seemed like everybody I met knew someone or had someone in their family who had also had it."

Now that he's had time to reflect, Selig says, "We need reminders of what is important. Take some vacation. Calm down." So, he's gone on holiday where he'll try not to worry about the latest convoluted twist in baseball in Washington or the Randy Johnson trade.

Still, Selig grasps the irony that, even when things seem to be going best, you can't let your guard down. Just six days before he heard the words, "Come back here. What's that on your face?" the commissioner was presenting the championship trophy to the Red Sox after one of the greatest seasons in baseball history.

All-time attendance records had just been broken and TV ratings were up. After a dismal period a decade ago when he took much of the blame for the Strike of '94, Selig had, in recent years, drawn praise for pushing major innovations, including interleague play, as well as a crucial labor settlement in '02 that finally brought a period of peace to the sport.

In fact, three of the past four champions, including the Red Sox, were wild-card teams -- a controversial change that Selig championed and, because of the current power of the commissioner's office, essentially brought into being.

Yet, just as everything seemed ideal, a serious cancer struck that was certain to spread if undetected.

"Everybody needs to be checked for skin cancer regularly. Why, I'm a guy who never even sat in the sun," said Selig, the boss of a summer sport who seldom even has a tan.

Now he's out in Arizona with family and says he expects to enjoy the holiday season even more than usual.

"But I guess I won't be wearing a baseball hat out there. I'll get one with a wide brim," Selig said. The commissioner gets quiet, thinking back to the split-second when his doctor had a hunch and called him back.

"I was two steps out the door," he says.