Johns Hopkins' Tim Rappazzo hits during practice. (Baltimore Sun photo by Lloyd…)
He leaned in at shortstop, flagging down grounders and line drives in what seemed like just another workout for tournament-bound Johns Hopkins earlier this week.
But when a passing shower drove others to the dugout, Tim Rappazzo, 21, paused a moment, looked up and let the first drops of rain pelt his face.
"That's the stuff you miss when you're sick," he said. "Being outside and feeling the sun on your skin ... getting dirty as you slide into second base ... or even having a ground ball go through your legs. It's all stuff you miss."
Believe him. One year ago, Rappazzo lay in a hospital bed, lashed to machines and fighting for life against acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Though down in the count at times, he kept fouling them off and stayed in the game.
Over four months, the Glen Arm resident withstood three withering waves of chemotherapy, six treatments of full-body radiation and, finally, a life-saving bone marrow transplant from his 10-year-old sister. The cancer is now in remission.
It's a triumph that neither Rappazzo nor his teammates will forget. Moreover, they said, his gritty comeback this season helped spur Hopkins to new heights. The Blue Jays (43-5) set a school record for victories en route to a berth in the NCAA Division III World Series in Appleton, Wis. Hopkins, the No. 1 team in the country, plays Heidelberg (40-6) at 5:30 p.m. today in the first round of the eight-team, double-elimination tournament.
Rappazzo, a Gilman graduate, isn't expected to start. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound junior has played in 25 games, mostly as a defensive replacement, and is batting .340.
"But I'll be as physically ready as I can, just in case," he said. "I'll root these guys on and do anything I can to make that dogpile at the end happen."
Rappazzo's return, after missing all of 2009, raised team morale and has prompted others to push themselves during workouts, said Chris Huisman, the Jays' first baseman.
"Remembering what Timbo has gone through to get to this point makes everyone work that much harder," Huisman said. "Guys think, 'If he's down here in the weight room lifting, then how can I stop? I'll do one more set.' We've pushed him, and he has pushed us."
His relentless work ethic brought Rappazzo back into the fold, Hopkins coach Bob Babb said.
"At the start of practice [in February], he was weak, his bat speed was slow and he could barely throw to first base," Babb said. "I didn't think he'd make our travel squad. But he stayed positive and just got better and better."
Rappazzo started nine games "and would have played more, if our other shortstop [James Teta] hadn't played way beyond what we thought he would," Babb said. "Tim has been an inspiration to our team. Through it all, I never saw him feel sorry for himself. A lot of people would have said, 'Why me?'
It was January 9, 2009, when Rappazzo noticed the bump on the tip of his chin.
"It felt like a swollen gland," he said. A week later, Rappazzo learned that he had an aggressive form of leukemia, and his world came crashing down.
"It blindsided me," he said. "The [Thursday] that they told me, I'd planned to have dinner with my roommates and watch 'The Office.'"
Instead, he was hurried into a bed at Johns Hopkins Hospital to start chemotherapy.
For the next month, he was in denial, Rappazzo said.
"Sure, I felt sick from the treatment," he said. "My body deteriorated instantly. In weeks, I lost 30 pounds. I felt like my body was falling apart. But I couldn't grasp the fact that I had cancer. It's just not supposed to strike a 20-year-old who's in good shape."
Worse, complications arose. He developed a blood clot in his left leg and underwent five surgeries to treat it.
His teammates rallied around Rappazzo. They visited him in the hospital, wore leukemia awareness wristbands and kept Rappazzo's name above his baseball locker, on which they taped get-well notes. One player prepared a PowerPoint presentation to show why he should be "Tim's Best Friend In The World."
"From the beginning, we thought, 'How could this happen to Tim, to someone of his character?' It doesn't seem fair," said Huisman (Archbishop Spalding). "But on the flip side, you knew that if there was one person who could beat cancer and come out stronger, it would also be Tim. I swear to God, he never complained."
From his room, Rappazzo followed all of Hopkins' games online, play by play.
"There were days when I was jealous that I couldn't be out there on the field," he said. "I literally felt like everyone in the world but me could do what they wanted. But then I thought, 'If I didn't have cancer, somebody else would.' And I dealt with it."
In April, he received a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Grace.
"Don't worry, Tim," she told him, "my bone marrow is going to kick butt."