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Mets pitcher Carlos Carrasco won’t let cancer define him

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Carlos Carrasco needed an explanation for the chronic fatigue sabotaging his season.

It was June 2019 when the Indians pitcher finally decided to get checked out, after weeks of wondering why his energy and velocity were dissipating early in starts. The right-hander struggled in his previous two appearances, against the Rays and White Sox, and owned an uncharacteristically disappointing 4.98 ERA when he underwent testing.

On June 6, he received a stunning diagnosis: chronic myeloid leukemia, a life-threatening cancer of the blood. Four days later a battery of tests at the Cleveland Clinic confirmed the diagnosis. Carrasco, a native of Barquisimeto, Venezuela, was 31 years old with a wife and five children. He would attack the disease with powerful drugs, but also optimism. His wife, Karelis, wouldn’t allow him to sulk. Carrasco vowed to beat CML.

Traded to the Mets last month as part of the deal highlighted by Francisco Lindor’s arrival, Carrasco has been in remission for more than a year. His story serves as an inspiration for those battling the disease who wonder if normal life is possible again.

“People who have had leukemia, who have had cancer, it’s not that easy,” Carrasco said on his introductory Zoom call with the Mets last month. “But you know what? I always say, ‘My wife, my wife,’ but she was the one to get me through everything.

“Every time I talk to or go to the hospital to talk to some family or teenager or kids, I always say that: Be strong. Never let yourself down.”


Carrasco, who had been placed on the injured list with an unspecified “blood condition” at the time of his diagnosis, didn’t go public with his illness until weeks later.

In a pregame clubhouse meeting, Carrasco revealed to teammates he had leukemia and vowed to return stronger, even as Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti was telling him to focus on his health and forget about baseball for the rest of the year.

Carlos Carrasco with Cleveland in 2017.
Carlos Carrasco with Cleveland in 2017.
Getty Images

“We all are so passionate about what we do in the game, in our work and with each other, to go out and put ourselves in a position to win a baseball game every night,” Indians pitching coach Carl Willis said. “And then all of a sudden you get news like this about a person you care extremely a lot about and a person who is such a good guy who cares so much about his family, his teammates, just makes everything seem so much less important.”

As much as Carrasco wore a brave face, Willis witnessed one of the difficult moments. About a month after the diagnosis, Carrasco threw a bullpen session and broke into tears after bouncing several pitches in front of the catcher. Willis hugged Carrasco and told him not to worry.

“We were getting some numbers in terms of velocity, not putting any importance on it, but just seeing where he was at,” Willis said. “The previous bullpen had been really good and the next one there was just no energy there, the ball just wasn’t coming out of his hand. I stepped in and said, ‘Hey, Carlos, you don’t have to do this today. We don’t have to throw a bullpen today. This is for you and it’s OK.’ But he wanted to continue.

“After a few more pitches I just remember him looking down and I think for the first time, and it can happen to any of us, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ And coming to grips with where he was at. I think we learned more than anything else at that point, it was more about his body having to accept the medications he was taking and the doctors to find the right dosages so he could continue to have some strength and yet still let the medicines in his body fight what he was fighting.”

That Cleveland was hosting the All-Star Game in July led to another significant moment for Carrasco — MLB invited him to appear in the “Stand Up To Cancer” ceremony during the game in which players and fans write the name of a person on a card and display it.

During the ceremony, each of Carrasco’s teammates displayed his nickname “Cookie.” To Carrasco’s friend and agent Sam Levinson, it seemed like the entire sellout crowd had scribbled Carrasco’s name on the card.

The Mets traded for Carlos Carrasco this offseason.
The Mets traded for Carlos Carrasco this offseason.
Mets

“It was one of the most powerful and emotional moments I have ever experienced,” Levinson said. “You could feel the love in the stadium. You could feel it pouring in from places far beyond the stadium walls. The world admired Carlos’ courage. Everyone could feel it from his fellow players that stood on the field to the coaches, the managers, the security guards; no one was immune to how palpable that moment was.

“What made it even more unique was it was in his stadium, ‘his home.’ Carlos is a very competitive force on the mound for sure, but his impact extends outside the lines. He is the guy who will walk up to anyone to introduce himself. He makes everyone feel welcome whether it’s the parking lot attendant, the people who work the concession stands or fans he comes in contact with. Carlos’ impact is felt immediately by those who meet him.

“I think that’s a big reason why his support was so immense and so strong. So many people knew Carlos’ courage on some personal level and it was easy to see they were rooting for him in his battle.”


There was still the question of when Carrasco might return to pitch for the Indians, who were trying to reach a fourth straight postseason. Carrasco had been a rock in the rotation during the previous three seasons, a stretch in which he went 46-24 with 3.33 ERA, joining Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger, among others, to give the Indians a formidable rotation.

Still adjusting to his medication — chemotherapy and radiation weren’t necessary — Carrasco got serious about returning to the mound in August and was activated on Sept. 1, when rosters were allowed to expand. Carrasco entered from the bullpen in the seventh inning that night against the Rays, receiving an ovation from both teams and much of the crowd at Tropicana Field as he returned to the mound.

Carrasco remained in the bullpen for 11 appearances in that final month and pitched to a 6.60 ERA. By the time spring training 2020 arrived, there were signs of the old Carrasco, but also uncertainty.

“Going into the normal spring training prior to COVID, there was some question, is he going to be able to maintain his energy for 100 pitches, to go out and start?” Willis said. “We felt like he had done all the work, he had kind of had a normal offseason, but I think that was somewhat in question. We were all set on that and it looked like he was going to be able to do that and once we got sent home for a couple of months prior to starting in late June, he was able to start again getting off the mound.”

Carrasco returned solid, starting 12 games in the pandemic-shortened season, finishing 3-4 with a 2.91 ERA and 1.21 WHIP for a team that lost to the Yankees in the ALDS.

Now he will join a Mets rotation that features Jacob deGrom and may include Noah Syndergaard before midseason, as the right-hander rehabs from Tommy John surgery.

Carrasco is proud of the manner in which he has battled the disease, according to Levinson, but won’t let leukemia define his life.

“This is not something he thinks about every day, he understands what he needs to do, he understands what he has, he understands everything about the disease,” Levinson said. “He is not in denial about having CML, but he does what he needs to do and does not use it as a crutch. He is obviously in great condition, takes his medication and goes for his testing when it’s required and he moves on with his life and doesn’t worry about it.”

Willis suspects New York will develop the same kind of affection for “Cookie” that Cleveland held for him.

“Carlos is a very giving, soft-hearted, compassionate,” Willis said. “He cares about people and he cares extremely, very much about his family and I think others in the city of Cleveland know that. He has been part of the community there. A guy who hasn’t taken his blessings for granted.”

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