Coach Erik Radbill overcomes illness to return to the team - and field - he loves

Cherry Hill East baseball coach Erik Radbill missed the first six weeks of season with life-threatening complications from pneumonia.

Besides family, friends, co-workers and some special students, there might not be anything in this world that Erik Radbill loves more than the Cherry Hill East baseball program.

Except maybe the Cherry Hill East baseball field.

"Rad and this field," Cherry Hill East senior Zach Padersky said, shaking his head and smiling at the coach's borderline obsession with the condition of the Cougars' home field.

Everyone around the team knows how much Radbill loves David J. Martin Diamond, the manicured swath of grass and dirt that sits in the far right-hand corner of the property behind the high school on Kresson Road.

"My wife [Katie] calls it my mistress," Radbill said of the field.

Camera icon Tom gralish / Staff Photographer
Radbill back in uniform. He missed the first 10 weeks of the season with a life-threatening illness.

Late Thursday afternoon, as the sun began to set behind the trees, Radbill was in his version of Eden: Showing some callow sophomores how to properly care for the pitching mound after Cherry Hill East's stunning victory over Eastern in an Olympic Conference American Division game.

"Amazing," Radbill said. "Just to be out here, it's amazing."

This week marked Radbill's return to the team after missing 10 weeks with a life-threatening illness that began with what he thought was a bad cold in early March.

Radbill, now in his 12th season as the Cougars' coach, ended up spending 26 days in the hospital with a compounding series of complications from strep throat and pneumonia.

"Every doctor that came in to see me would read my chart and say they couldn't believe anybody could be this sick," Radbill said.

Baseball workouts began for Cherry Hill East on Friday, March 3. By Monday, Radbill was feeling out of sorts.

By Thursday, he skipped practice and took himself to an urgent care facility, where he was diagnosed with the flu.

"Sunday night [March 12], I had so much trouble breathing that I passed out in the bathroom," Radbill said. "My wife took me to the hospital, and they took an X-ray, and my lungs were clear."

In the next 48 hours, Radbill took a turn for the worse.

"My wife said I looked like walking death," Radbill said.

Another X-ray after another trip the emergency room revealed the extend of Radbill's illness.

"My lungs were filled with pneumonia," Radbill said. "And my chest and back, all between my organs, was all filled with fluid.

"It turns out I started with strep [throat]. Then I got pneumonia, [pleural effusion] and sepsis. If my wife had gotten me there a day later, I probably wouldn't have made it."

Radbill spent a total of 26 days in two hospitals, including a three-day stay after a relapse in April. He didn't eat for 16 days. He lost 30 pounds.

"We just thought he was sick, and he was coming back," said Cherry Hill East senior Skyler Colton, a team captain along with Padersky. "But then we realized how serious it was. It was all prayers."

Radbill describes his ordeal as "brutal" from a physical standpoint. But also contributing to his suffering was his knowledge that it was baseball season, and he was separated from the sport.

Radbill is a baseman man through and through. He said last month was the first April since he was 5 that he wasn't on the field.

A 1987 Cherry Hill East graduate, Radbill played four years for legendary coach Dave Martin, namesake of the field and now a Cougars' assistant. He was Martin's assistant from 1998 until taking over the program in 2006.

"I love this program so much," Radbill said. "It means so much to me to be a part of this. It's a family here."

Camera icon Tom gralish / Staff Photographer
Cherry Hill East coach Erik Radbill.

'It's family'

Sitting in the dugout before the game, Radbill was greeted by former Cherry Hill East player Kurt Barbera, whose son Jesse is a standout junior for Eastern.

"Welcome back," Barbera said.

"See," Radbill said. "It's family with this program."

Once the season started, Radbill was in steady contact with Jason Speller, the former freshman coach who became the Cougars' acting head coach, and Martin, a volunteer assistant.

"I knew the team was in good hands," Radbill said. "It wasn't that. It was me missing it."

When Cherry Hill East played Seneca in a tournament at Haddonfield in late April, Radbill attended his first game.

"We saw him pull up, and it was like the game stopped," Colton said. "We all ran over to him. It was a great moment."

Said Padersky: "He lives and breathes Cherry Hill East baseball - and this field. We're trying to take some of his passion and his energy and use it to help this team."

Radbill said he was "overwhelmed" by the support of family, friends, teaching and coaching colleagues and so many others.

"I consider myself a glass-is-half-filled kind of guy," Radbill said. "I try to be upbeat, positive. But you want to talk about getting some perspective about people and how good they can be. It brought tears to my eyes so many times in the hospital with all the support.

"We try to preach that, teach that - family, caring for each other. But that's not rhetoric. I saw that when this happened to me, and it meant so much more than any baseball game could ever mean to me."

Radbill has eased his way back into action. Tuesday's game against Lenape was his first in uniform. He coached first base but let Speller and Martin continue to run the team.

He rested instead of attending a game on Wednesday and was back on Thursday, coaching first base as the Cougars upset the No. 3 team in the Inquirer Top 25.

"I'm not trying to do too much," Radbill said. "Those guys still are making the decisions. I might make a suggestion, but mostly I'm just coaching first base, talking to the players, trying to help out."

After the game, Radbill took charge, especially when a sophomore had the audacity to start raking the pitching mound before it was watered down.

"These kids," Radbill said. "You have to show them everything."

He grabbed the rake and walked to mound, preparing to give his "mistress" some TLC for about the millionth time.

But this might have been the best.