When the leadoff hitter looks out next week at Brian Bassler, whether he’s from Holy Cross or Oxford, he is going to see eyebrows. Yeah, a full pair of eyebrows.
“The eyebrows were the last to go,” Bassler said. “And the first to come back.”
The Torrington High senior pitcher, bald from chemotherapy not so long ago, will bring out a full head of hair to the mound, too, for his first start of 2018. Much more, he will bring along his full health.
“It’s going to be great to be out there,” Bassler said Friday. “It’s going to be really great.”
Bassler had just finished his junior baseball season; it was Memorial Day weekend when he felt a dull ache in his back and his knees. It was one of those things, he said, where you just wanted to lay on the couch for the afternoon with a heat pack.
Within days, the pain was much worse.
“I was having these episodes where it was excruciating for up to two hours, once or twice a day,” Bassler said.
There were blood tests. Lyme disease was seen as a possibility. No, it was not a tick-borne illness. A trip to an infection specialist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center brought no immediate diagnosis. So it was on to endocrinology for the thyroid and then rheumatology for arthritis. No. And no.
“I had a follow-up with the infection specialist,” said Bassler, 18. “They saw the trend in the blood numbers.”
That’s when the word surfaced. Leukemia.
“I had some more blood tests that day, drove back from Hartford,” Bassler said. “They called us at home and said you need to get back here, we need to get you back on IV. We’re worried about your kidneys.”
Earlier in June he had taken his final exams with a 104-degree temperature, gone home and crawled into bed. Now it was the beginning of July. This smiling kid, this high school lefty, had lost 25 pounds. He was 5-foot-8, 123 pounds. Skin and bones. Skin and bones and, it turns out, all the heart in the world.
“I got to the point just taking a shower I had to lean against the wall,” Bassler said. “When I brushed my teeth, I had to sit down and take a break.”
The diagnosis came on July 3: Burkitt leukemia.
The first stay in the hospital lasted two weeks — chemo, constantly replenishing fluids. The treatment plan was for six months. Time in for chemo. Time at home to recuperate. The hope was to be able to hang out with friends and regularly go to school. Side effects ruined those hopes.
Mucositis, the inflammation in his throat, got so bad that it was like swallowing a rock. He’d have to go back into the hospital for a morphine drip and then it was back to chemo.
In addition to the IV chemo, he’d get lumbar punctures — yes, spinal taps. This went on through Thanksgiving. A battery of tests finally showed great news: He would have his chemo port removed in early December.
He had mostly been tutored through the first semester. The ribbons faculty and students wore in support lifted him and he was able to come in more frequently in November, making up work he didn’t have energy to do before.
“I came back full-time a couple of weeks before Christmas,” he said. “Just to be able to make plans, I’ve got to say, that’s so great.”
In late October, a pasta dinner was held to support the Bassler family with medical expenses. The turnout was terrific. There was a silent auction. A choir group sang and friends accompanied on guitar and piano. He gave a brief speech of thanks.
“To see the community come together to support me, it was inspiring,” he said. “You know, on that trip to the hospital, when I first heard leukemia, I didn’t know the numbers (for recovery). They were looking at another type of leukemia and the numbers weren’t as good. It was really scary. And then after we heard 90-95 percent success, it was trying to get through the treatment one day at a time. I wasn’t thinking six months. I was thinking ‘Just let me get through this hour.’ ”
Coach Pat Richardson saw the same thing his friends saw, the friends who told him he did not deserve what was happening to him.
“He never lost his smile,” Richardson said. “He always had something positive to say. I never heard him complain once.”
Bassler got the all-clear in December. The hair returned around New Year’s. His heart? Never left him.
“I gave my back a few more weeks because I wouldn’t be able to throw or lift from all the lumbar punctures,” he said.
Four months later, he’s all the way back, even stronger than last year. He’s up to 150 pounds. Richardson sees no restrictions.
“I feel great,” he said. “The lower back occasionally tightens up, I take a foam roller and roll it out, but 100 percent.”
Two weeks ago, Bassler put the Torrington uniform back on for the first time. The Red Raiders baseball program is a proud one.
“I was talking with (Richardson), saying, ‘You know, of all the outcomes that could have happened, this is the best one.’ It’s crazy to think about where I was even four months ago,” Bassler said.
“The example he set for everybody around him was truly inspiring,” Richardson said. “The team has really rallied around him.”
There are monthly checkups, blood work with pending results that do not worry him.
“I will not live in fear,” Bassler said. “I’ve learned a lot about how important positivity is. To still laugh. It can get lonely, but I had so much support. I really learned about appreciating family. Don’t take your family for granted. Don’t take your friends for granted. Don’t take baseball for granted.”
If Bassler needed someone to look to, he needn’t look far. His dad, Joe, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in 2002. He underwent multi-month chemo, too. He had lots of questions for his dad along the way, comparing experiences.
“It’s horrible to have the family go through it again, yet they also have experience with cancer and I think it prepared them as much as you can,” Bassler said. “My dad has been all-clear for 15 years. It’s not a club you want to join, but being a cancer survivor is a big thing.”
So he will soon decide between Western Connecticut and the University of Tampa to major in business management. Down the line, maybe study constitutional law and get into government. Bassler loves to debate.
He figures to start one of Torrington’s games next week. And when the leadoff hitter looks out, sees those eyebrows and debates whether a fastball or breaking pitch is coming, there will be no debate what Brian Bassler will be thinking.
“I’m going to be thinking about how lucky I am. It’s amazing to play this game.”