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Heart of a survivor

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

Before day games, when the smell of breakfast permeates the clubhouse, Doug Brocail heads for the cinnamon rolls. The gooey frosting and soft center are too tempting, so he pops one in his mouth and chews – and then, to the revulsion of his San Diego Padres teammates, spits out the entire roll into the trash can.

"I fake myself out that way," Brocail said. "It's all I'm allowed."

Since March 2006, when Brocail had the first of two surgeries to insert four stents in his heart and relieve a 99 percent blockage of an artery, the masticate-and-extricate method is the closest Brocail can come to an overload of calories and saturated fat. After the cinnamon roll, he sat down to enjoy his real breakfast: a banana with peanut butter and four egg whites.

"I look at the donuts, the bacon, the ham, the sausage," said Brocail, a right-handed relief pitcher. "I can't eat any of that. You have to watch other people eat it and hope they're getting the good taste. I try to get it through osmosis – touch someone as he's chewing the bacon."

Humor, too, has helped Brocail through the last year. He likes to joke about the 26 pills he inhales daily, the ones for which he carries an entire extra backpack, and about how he knows he's getting old when his greatest concern is whether he can fall asleep before his daily flush, the 10-minute episode when his niacin pill causes his body to feel like it's aflame.

Brocail turns 40 in three weeks, though he's already celebrated one birthday this year: March 11, the day his life changed.

Following a spring-training game in Peoria, Ariz., he had shortness of breath and attributed it to his asthma. Doctors plopped him on a treadmill to test that theory. At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Brocail labored. After the results of an echocardiogram, the doctors apologized. The stress test could have killed him.

"What fooled me was everyone asking whether I had chest pain," Brocail said. "I said no. I tore my (ulnar collateral) ligament twice. That was pain. This was just pressure, like someone was sitting on my chest. They asked if I had any numbness in the chin. Yeah, but I dipped for 30 years. I figured it was the use of tobacco.

"All these signs … "

Both of Brocail's parents had heart disease. Same with all four grandparents. It was an inevitability, really, even if Brocail had sworn off cholesterol and quit chaw years earlier. He lay awake as the doctor performed the angioplasty that day and underwent a second a month later after heartburn brought him back to the hospital.

Return visit after return visit, the questions were always the same. When can I come back? How much longer, doc? Why not yet?

"Nobody in major sports had ever done this," Brocail said. "There's so much adrenaline involved, that's what worried them. I told them, 'Let me be the guinea pig.' If I felt anything, I would've left."

Well, not exactly. Doctors cleared Brocail in early May, and he joined the Padres on May 12 for their series in Chicago. Thrilled to run, Brocail pushed his workout too hard. During the fifth inning, his blood pressure spiking, Brocail left the bench with trainer Kelly Calabrese, went to the clubhouse and stuck a nitroglycerin pill under his tongue. His pressure leveled off, and two months later, he returned to the Padres with a scoreless inning against Atlanta.

There were changes. Road trips wore on Brocail. Plane travel tired him. Day games led to fatigue. Brocail keeps meticulous records of his blood pressure and heart rate and noticed that any change in the schedule throws them out of whack.

It takes discipline to do what Brocail does, to stay healthy in an environment with temptations that are anything but.

"He still has his cravings, but he understands," Padres outfielder Brian Giles said. "All he does is help himself by sticking to the diet, making sure he takes his pills. He's dedicated. He's disciplined. And that's hard during spring training when guys send out for In-N-Out Burger, Chick-Fil-A, and he needs to have a turkey sandwich and some Brussels sprouts."

Vices change, and Brocail indulged himself April 12. On that day, doctors allowed him to stop taking Plavix, a blood thinner. Because he was off blood thinners, Brocail could again start using the anti-inflammatory drugs that help almost every pitcher stave off tendinitis. So in need was Brocail, he popped a Celebrex in his mouth and, rather than swallow it, let it sit there for 10 minutes so it could absorb quicker, raw taste notwithstanding.

"He's not necessarily a normal human being," Padres closer Trevor Hoffman said, "when it comes to mental strength."

Brocail has re-established himself as an integral part of San Diego's bullpen, one of the best in the major leagues. He has appeared in eight games, given up two runs in 10 2/3 innings, held hitters to a .158 batting average and won a game in Chicago on April 17.

The next night, Brocail ended up in the hospital with food poisoning, his affair with MDs seemingly unwilling to end, but it's obvious that all the possible roadblocks have been nothing more than harmless orange cones.

"He still sees himself as a pitcher," Padres manager Bud Black said. "Not a guy who has a heart problem."

Brocail understands soon enough his career as a pitcher will end. His fastball has lost a tick or two. His oldest of five daughters is 17 and about to head off to college, and he wants to be there to send off the rest. He's got plenty of reasons to retire.

And plenty not to. There's the elusive World Series ring, and the chance to get it in San Diego, where he began his career. Even greater is the tug of pride that brought him back to baseball, the one that weighed the risks of returning and deemed them worthwhile.

"I wasn't going to let something like that take me out of the game," Brocail said. "It wasn't going to do that to me."

Chew him up and spit him out? No way.

Leave that to Brocail. He knows a thing or two about it.