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WASHINGTON — The 10 seconds he experienced, those 10 seconds over which Carlos Carrasco did not know if he would live or die, if the cancer that had come for him would also take him from his children, from his wife, from the world he’d been so busy making more beautiful, those 10 seconds passed. They don’t always.
So he’d said, shouted, screamed, willed, “I may have cancer but cancer doesn’t have me,” because the children in the beds and hallways of the very same Cleveland hospital needed to believe like he did, but also because Carlos Carrasco, pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, had bigger fights than a single man’s leukemia. Not every kid gets to ring the bell, the one that celebrates a healthy body and a fresh start and the months and years and pain and fear and loneliness spent getting there.
Just as not everyone is able to rise above their own circumstances, what it is that life has put upon them. So they may not have money, but poverty does not have them. They may be hungry, but hunger does not have them. They may have learning difficulties, physical challenges, anxiety, a whole world that seems to have risen up angry before them, and this is Carlos Carrasco’s fight too, their fight, if they’d have him.
“Maybe they can see,” Carrasco said Friday morning here, “it’s possible. If I can do it, then you can do it too.”
It is why he feeds hundreds of homeless from his front door in Tampa, why he reads to children in a small library named for him in Cleveland, why he brings shoes and clothing to African villages, why he sends medicine to Venezuela, why he funds college scholarships for single mothers everywhere, why he buys ham sandwiches for men on corners.
The world may have problems, but it also has men such as Carlos Carrasco, women such as his wife, Karelis, and their commitment to the people who spend too much of their lives inside those 10 hopeless seconds. For that, not four months after his own cancer diagnosis, Carrasco is this year’s Roberto Clemente Award honoree, given to the player who best exemplifies the game and its aspirations.
Carlos was raised in Venezuela by his mother, Maria, who earned a few dollars a week as a housekeeper, and his father, Luis, a truck driver who was on the road for months at a time. On their own, Maria and Carlos would ration their food for a single daily meal. At 7 years old, Carlos went to work at his uncle Justo’s market. When Justo asked Carlos what he thought to be a fair salary, Carlos pointed to the shelves. He was paid in rice, black beans, spaghetti and, occasionally, meat for their table.
In the yard, on the street, at the park, Maria was Carlos’ first baseball coach, his first catcher. She brought home his first baseball glove and after that his first pair of baseball shoes, having saved for months. He left for the United States at 16, a Philadelphia Phillie, and two days later asked to go home. Sal Artiaga, the team’s director of Latin American operations, considered the skinny kid with the loose arm and told him, OK, he could go home, but he would have to leave the money, leave the baseball, forget this life and what future it might hold.
Carlos nodded. Thought some more. Considered his mother and what awaited in the old neighborhood.
“I’ll stay here,” he said.
Artiaga became one of his best friends and a father figure. Years later, Artiaga would tell Carlos how proud he was of him, for the baseball, and for his selflessness. “You could be Clemente,” Artiaga had told him, the first time Carlos had heard the name.
Carlos Carrasco, 32, sat Friday morning in the second-floor lounge at a downtown hotel, one leg tucked under the other. He is leaner than he was, down 17 pounds from before the diagnosis, and said he feels strong and healthy. He takes four pills in the morning and four pills at night and has his blood tested weekly. The cancer is still in him, he said, but weakening. The bell awaits. He throws regularly, catching up on the four months he’d missed, and recently returned from a vacation in Paris, where he took pictures of people and structures with a camera Karelis insisted he buy.
He also carries hard and soft memories of the past months, of the children in that hospital, the courageous souls whose fight he honors and shares. He donated his money to the Cleveland Clinic and its pediatric cancer research. More, he has given his time. Soon, his empathy. His hugs. His tears.
“The guy is larger than life,” said Joe Smith, a former teammate of Carrasco’s. “He’s going through the same thing the kids are, and he’s walking in there with this huge smile. They just light up. I would hope it brought him as much joy, watching them light up like that, as he brought them.”
Asdrubal Cabrera, also a former teammate, tapped his chest at the mention of his friend, Carlos.
“Such a good heart,” he said.
Michael Brantley said, “Every time he walks into a room, he lights up that room. I love him like a brother.”
Every single morning, Karelis opens her eyes and tells Carlos, “You can do this.” And every single morning he believes her. He will be healthy again. He will be strong. He will help raise their children to care, to remember the little boy who does not have enough to eat, the little girl who one afternoon had to be carried from her bed to the bathroom, the same little girl who on another afternoon was lifted to ring that bell.
He smiled and told a story he has told before, about his daughter visiting the Cleveland Clinic one day, how she’d met a girl and colored pictures with her, how they’d laughed together. And how when his daughter returned home, she’d gone into the bathroom with a pair of scissors and returned with her own hair in her hand. She asked if she could give her hair to that girl, her friend, still living in those 10 seconds.
“There are a lot of people out there who need help,” he said. He paused and added, “We’re trying.”
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