Patient #1 plays sun smart

Major League Baseball has, for the last 15 years, sponsored an initiative called Play Sun Smart.   Alongside the American Academy of Dermatology, the program promotes skin cancer awareness, encourages baseball fans to get their skin examined for potential cancerous spots, and encourages sun safe behavior.  The initiative launched this past Sunday, June 2nd, at several ballparks, and will continue throughout the summer.  (The Phillies will participate in the Play Sun Smart program at some point, but no one in the organization seems to know when)

The goals of the program are pretty clear – MLB is pushing baseball fans everywhere to protect themselves and their children, and regularly perform self-exams in addition to annual dermatological check-ups.   Baseball is an outdoor sport with a large number of participants and spectators exposed to the sun, especially at the grass-roots level where games often occur mid-day.   Skin cancer reports and stories (and probably my blog) too often focus on high-risk individuals – sun tanners and tanning bed users – because they offer an easy visual to a story or sound bite.  ANY prolonged sun exposure is potentially harmful, including to ballplayers and those watching them.  This goes for football, basketball, volleyball, tennis, golf, and pretty much any other outdoor activity.  Hockey players, you’re safe, at least in the rink.

Johnny Bench is the 2013 spokesperson for Play Sun Smart.  Bench was recently treated for Basal Cell Carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer.  Previous spokesmen have included Dallas Braden, Troy Tulowitzki, Dustin Pedrioa, and Johan Santana, all whom have a loved one or close friend affected by skin cancer.  They are a big part of getting people on board – a legend like Bench or some of the current All-Stars showing kids (and adults) that sun protection is an important part of their everyday lives.

After hearing my melanoma story and hosting the Sharpe family prior to the Marlins-Phillies game last month, the Miami Marlins asked me to participate in their Play Sun Smart day.   The phone call (from my friend Trevor, who was in touch with the organization) went something like this:

Trevor:  “T.J., the Marlins just called, they want you to throw out the first pitch as part of their skin cancer awareness day.”
“(silence)…………………… WHAT??”
“They really liked your story and have been following the blog.  Are you free Sunday?”
T.J.: “(thinking for 0.2 seconds)… Whatever is on my calendar just got cancelled.  I’ll meet you in the park by our house in 10 minutes.  Bring a ball and two gloves.  I need to practice.”

As it turns out, I don’t think practice helped much.  The mound is a lonely place when an introduction takes nearly a minute and you have thrown a baseball only a handful of times since college (and weren’t very good then, either).  Predictably, the “pitch” was more of a “first toss” that was only a strike to Shawn Bradley.  While high and tight, it was still near the strike zone and didn’t bounce, so we’ll take it.  Besides, I can now join the likes of Moriarity and Neal as 1990’s Eustace baseball alumni who have tossed the ball around a major league diamond (sorry, Mike and Blaine, for tarnishing the club).  My television debut probably could use a second take, but I was grateful to the Marlins for asking me to represent melanoma patients and giving the opportunity to speak about sun protection. 

And just to be clear, the Marlins (and particularly Juan Pierre) have been great and I appreciate everything they have done for us; heck, we’ll probably go to a few more games just because the organization has been so generous.  They gave me a Marlins shirt to wear, which I will sport whenever they’re not playing the Phitans (especially, like Sunday, when they play the Mets – it’s easy to root for Miami then).  They can even try getting my kids to make them their favorite team – Billy the Marlin is sneaking up on the Phanatic in Josie’s eyes.  But I will always be a Phillies fan first, and have many years left of trips to Marlins Park wearing red.

Kids, follow your baseball heroes.  Adults, listen to one of the greats of the game from your childhood or early adult years.  Keep yourself protected.  Get yourself checked out – show a parent or a doctor any spot that looks suspicious.  Skin cancer is one of the most preventable “lifestyle” cancers, where simple steps now will avoid potential issues later.  Don’t let a day at the ball field now turn into a medical problem a few years down the line.  After all, the Phils (and the Marlins) will win another World Series one day, and it might take a while, so make sure you are around to see it.

T.J. Sharpe shares his fight against Stage 4 Melanoma in the Patient #1 blog. Read more »