Back On The Bench!

Season Opener results: SJSU-6 and Cal Poly-6 The game was declared a tie when darkness forced the conclusion after seven innings of play. <P> Next: San Jose State vs. Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo at Blethen Field, Sunday @ 1 p.m.

Thank you to the Mercury News for today's story on Coach Sam Piraro's "return to the dug out".

There is, as Tom Hanks once so memorably put it, no crying in baseball.

And San Jose State Coach Sam Piraro stayed true to that old-school sentiment Friday afternoon.

But just before the first pitch on a chilly opening day, Piraro did concede -- with just a brief catch in his voice -- that, yes, this was special.

``I'm not taking it for granted,'' Piraro said. ``I know God has blessed me.''

After missing virtually all of last baseball season as he battled bone marrow cancer, Piraro was back in the Blethen Field dugout against Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo in a game that ended in an official 6-6 tie when it was called after seven innings on account of darkness.

Even if the game had a strange outcome, it didn't change the fact of how important Friday was for Piraro.

``I had two goals the whole way through this process,'' said Piraro, 52. ``I spoke to God and asked him to let me be around for my family. Secondly, I asked to get back on the job.''

But while Piraro conceded he was anxious about his first game back, it didn't take long for him to settle into his usual form. In the first inning, when Spartan Kevin Frandsen was called out on a bang-bang play at first base, Piraro quickly trotted onto the field to register his disagreement with the umpire's call.

``That was so great seeing him as feisty as ever,'' Frandsen said. ``He brings so much fire to the game. It's really hard to put this into words, but it means the world for us to see him back in the dugout.''

It was never a certainty that this day would come.

A San Jose native, Piraro has become an institution at SJSU as baseball coach, posting a 536-384-4 record in 16 previous seasons. His 2000 club advanced to the College World Series, and he followed that up with another postseason berth in 2002.

But it also was in 2002 that Piraro heard a popping sound in his rib cage while swinging a fungo bat at a January practice. He thought it was just a pulled muscle. But as the year went by, his health problems worsened. He began suffering from back pains and even had trouble getting out of bed. That November, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

As he went through four months of chemotherapy, he relinquished his game-day coaching duties to assistant Doug Thurman even as he continued to run SJSU practices. But in April, he had to step away from the diamond completely as he started a pair of transplant procedures at Stanford Medical Center.

Piraro was treated with stem cells harvested from his own body, and he also underwent a bone marrow transplant from his brother, Stuart. Other than trips to the hospital, Piraro was virtually quarantined because his immune system was so weak and any illness could have been potentially deadly. That's why Piraro estimates he watched 300 major league baseball games last summer.

The end result is that Piraro is cancer-free. Friday he looked healthy and even younger -- now that he has shaved off a mustache he wore for 30-plus years. He also remains cautious about his health. For instance, he's thankful to be finally getting over a flu bug because, with his body's resistance to infection still low, it easily could escalate into pneumonia.

But it was clear to see that he was back in his element.

``Opening day is always special, but this is extra special because he's here,'' said his wife, JoAnn, sitting in the stands next to their daughter, Jenna, and Sam's parents. ``This is big day for him. This really means a lot. He missed this and he missed the kids.''

And the players missed him as the Spartans slipped to 25-32 last season.

``He's such a stabilizing force,'' Frandsen said. ``He really is the wise man. It made a big difference not having him around last year.''

Rebounding from that disappointing season won't be easy. The Western Athletic Conference once again is loaded -- starting with defending national champion Rice. A coaches poll predicted SJSU would finish fifth in the WAC, and Piraro said it could be a month before he has a good handle on this team.

Friday was a mixed start.

The team's clear standout is right-hander Matt Durkin, a preseason third-team All-American who won 18 games in his first two seasons. When Durkin, a Willow Glen High School product, took the mound, there were 30 scouts in attendance to watch him pitch, Piraro estimated.

But Durkin got roughed up for four runs in the first. By the time his day was done after 5 1/3 innings, he had given up six earned runs on seven hits and three walks to go along with four strikeouts.

On the plus side, the Spartans' offense -- which was anemic last season -- pounded out 15 hits. Leading the way was designated hitter Brad Kilby, who drove in four runs with a homer, double and single before darkness fell.

In that gathering gloom, Piraro sat in the dugout talking about how it didn't feel as if he had ever been away from the game.

``I had a good pulse on what was going on,'' he said. ``Competition is always exciting and fun. It's just unfortunate it had to end in a tie.''

But there's another game this afternoon, and then one Sunday. A long season awaits.

``I'm pleased to have this opportunity,'' Piraro said. ``I just want to enjoy it.''

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