Duke baseball takes a swing at cancer
After celebrating Aaron Cohn's game-winning RBI single in the bottom of the ninth, the Blue Devils shaved off theirs voluntarily.
Both Duke and N.C. State participated in a fundraiser for Vs. Cancer, a non-profit that raises money to benefit pediatric cancer patients by teaming up with baseball teams from the youth level up through the minor leagues. The organization collects online donations, and in return, players on the participating teams trade in their hairstyles for buzz cuts to show their support for children battling cancer.
"Guys at our level, baseball's something we do every day of our lives," Duke captain Mike Rosenfeld said. "It's easy to get wrapped up in an 0-for-4 day, but there are so many bigger problems in the world, and it's great for our program to be able to help make a difference."
Duke head coach Chris Pollard was first approached by the founder of Vs. Cancer, former North Carolina baseball player Chase Jones, while serving as head coach at Appalachian State. Jones was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer in fall 2006 but still fulfilled duties as a bullpen catcher for the Tar Heels from 2007 to 2011 and has been cancer-free for six years.
Pollard said the idea was still in its infancy when the two began communicating. At the time, Jones' organization had a different name: BaseBald. When Pollard's career brought him to Durham, Jones got in contact with him once again.
"When I took the job at Duke and moved down here to the Triangle, Chase was one of the first people who reached out to me," Pollard said. "He lives in the Triangle, so it was a lot easier to connect with him down here."
Pollard took Jones' idea to his players last season, asking if they wanted to participate. The answer was a resounding "Yes", and the Blue Devils received their first buzz cuts after a game against Jones' Tar Heels last April.
When Jones came calling this spring, Pollard again deferred to his players, not wanting them to be forced to give up their locks.
"The players have to own it. They have to own the decision on whether or not we participate, because it's an undertaking," Pollard said. "It's hard work. But our guys were very much behind the idea of doing it again this year."
In their two years of participating, Pollard said the Blue Devils have raised more than $20,000. Half of the money raised by Vs. Cancer supports a local hospital, with the other half going toward cancer research at the national level.
The Blue Devil coaching staff and the team's four captains were invited to Duke University Hospital—the hospital benefitting from their partnership with Vs. Cancer—before the N.C. State series to see how the money was being used. Rosenfeld said the donations had been put toward creating a more patient-friendly environment—including flat-screen TVs—for the kids to enjoy.
"It was an incredibly emotional experience, I told our team it was life-changing for me," Pollard said. "We had a chance to meet with several of the patients and their families and just talk with them about their experiences. To see how strong and resilient those kids were was something that really touched me."
Last season's head-shaving was the bright spot of an otherwise forgettable weekend for the Blue Devils, as the Tar Heels swept the three-game series by a combined score of 21-3. The monumental comeback effort against the Wolfpack made this year's edition of the head-shaving a happier occasion.
"To come back and win the way we did was unbelievable, but the event is way bigger than baseball," Rosenfeld said. "Having that win and then going through [the head-shaving] definitely made it more enjoyable than last year."