There are few things in life more beloved by John Bruce than the game of baseball.
But baseball, after all, is only a game.
As someone who has been described as the type of coach who has forgotten more baseball than most will ever know, Bruce recently had to make a difficult but seeming necessary decision.
After four increasingly challenging seasons trying to balance guiding Cascade Christian's baseball program while waging a very private battle with his own body, something finally had to give.
And Bruce's future understandably won out over his present.
Saddled by Lyme disease after being bitten by a tick while coaching a college team in New York five summers ago, the physical and mental toll has forced Bruce's hand and led him to resign his position with the Challengers.
"It was time," Bruce said of a decision made in April but not announced until after the spring season. "If I felt healthier maybe I could go on but all things considered really, the last month or two of the season I was just barely hanging on physically. Mentally I was doing OK but physically it was just too much. I had good assistants so that made it really easy, and the kids were great, but it was time to do this. I've got to get better."
Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Although the highest concentration of cases in the United States have been reported in the northeast, a report by Oregon's Public Health Department for 2008-09 showed that 31 confirmed cases and 52 presumptive cases were reported in this state. Of the cases, 25 percent were reported in Jackson, Josephine and Deschutes counties.
Early symptoms may include fever, headache, fatigue, depression and a characteristic bull's-eye target skin rash. Left untreated, later symptoms may involve the joints, heart and central nervous system.
Bruce said he successfully received treatment after discovering the tick bite five years ago, but the dormant disease flared back up in 2010 and has increasingly affected his quality of life ever since. He took off part of the 2011 baseball season when a spot for specialized treatment opened up in California. He's spent half of his summers undergoing hyperbaric oxygen treatment at a clinic in Ventura, Calif., and traveled to the Bay Area on three occasions for treatment at the Stanford Medical Center.
"It really didn't hit chronically until about three years ago and I didn't know I had it that bad until then," said Bruce. "I've been fighting it the whole time the last few seasons and I'm one of those in that category that doctors say is the hardest to treat."
In most cases, the infection and its symptoms are eliminated by antibiotics, especially if the illness is treated early. Delayed or inadequate treatment can lead to more serious symptoms, which can be disabling and difficult to treat.
Bruce said a challenge in treating Lyme disease are the co-infections that go with it, an often distressing battle where treating one infection can exacerbate others in the body. His main issue is neurologic Lyme, for which the oxygenated chamber helps by killing the anaerobic bacteria but feeds other co-infections that aren't inhibited by the extra oxygen.
"There's a really good Lyme support group here in the Rogue Valley and most of us are on and off with big, heavy treatments of antibiotics either orally or intravenously," said Bruce, "but you can only address a couple at a time. Most of us have four, five, six infections at a time, it's not just Lyme."
As he helped steer Cascade Christian to its first ever state championship in baseball in 2012, the toll of everything he was dealing with read clearly through Bruce's body language but remained unspoken. Along with most of the 2010 campaign, Bruce has been forced to miss a practice or two over the past few years, getting an especially big-hearted effort from assistant coach Paul Sha as he stepped in without fail on each occasion.
Bruce was up front about his ongoing battle with all, from his fellow coaches to the Challenger players and Cascade Christian administrators like Athletic Director Dave Fennell.
"They knew at any time I would not be able to get there if it was a particularly bad day," said Bruce, "and I appreciated how they were willing to work with that knowing we had a plan in place to handle it."
"But it was also good for me to get out for a two-hour practice," he added. "It was actually therapeutic to get out and move around in the fresh air rather than just waiting for the next doctor appointment. It was mental therapy plus physical therapy to be out there and keep moving."
But at 60 years old now and having coached baseball for the past 38 years, including two turns at Cascade Christian, the time just seemed right to step away. As he views it, Bruce could use the personal freedom to focus on his health, and the program could benefit by the infusion of an energetic leader who's in their 30s or 40s and better understands the culture of today's player.
"I feel good about it, I've just got to get healthy," said Bruce. "I've got a ways to go here and I don't want to be down and out too soon. Every season has been unique but the body is not getting better. And if it's not getting better it's probably getting worse, and I think that is the way with me."
"And over time you increasingly become less and less on the level of the kids that you're coaching," he added. "I could relate to them a little better through the years but over time you don't, and it's a different breed of cat now. The kids are nice and in some ways they're more receptive and easier than they were years ago, but you need an influx of younger coaches at some point to help everyone understand each other a little better."
While the decision is understandable, Fennell said it isn't without reservation that the Challengers move on without Bruce, who was head coach at the school from 1997-2001 following one year as Larry Baker's assistant, and then returned in 2010 after a stint as Tom Britton's assistant at South Medford High.
"He's done a phenomenal job and we're going to truly miss him," said Fennell. "He'll always be kind of a coach emeritus for us and one of those lifers for us that I just can't say enough good things about."
"If he doesn't have Lyme disease, selfishly I'm thinking as athletic director that he could be at Cascade Christian coaching for quite a while longer," he added. "But with the Lyme disease now for him going the way it is, it's going to be a new game for him and something he'll have to battle but he'll have all our prayers and our support."
The Challengers went 23-5 this past season, including an undefeated run to another Southern Cascade League title, but fell short in the Class 3A state quarterfinals with a 2-1 loss to Bandon/Pacific.
Beyond replacing Bruce, the team will have to move on without the services of ace pitcher Isaiah Luzny, who has opted to transfer back to North Medford High for his senior season, and junior-to-be standouts Cody Coggins (South Medford) and Jordan Ragan (North Medford), who also have transferred from the school.
"You hate to lose them but you always want what's best for them," said Bruce, "and apparently this is something they feel they need to do. They're good kids, I love them, with good families, but there's still a lot of good ballplayers that we have there (at Cascade Christian)."
Bruce's coaching career began as an assistant at Willamette University, where he played college ball after graduating from Crater High in 1970. He got his first head coaching job at Salem Academy and, from there, went to the University of Arizona as a graduate assistant to Jerry Kindall before returning to Medford to assist former Black Tornado coach Jim McAbee for five years.
"I got a chance to work in the heyday of Medford, which was in the late 1960s into the early 80s before the split and it was just a great opportunity," said Bruce, who took a lengthy break after that to work alongside his father as pitching machine manufacturers. "I really have been fortunate in all the opportunities I've had as a coach and when I was teaching; I can't say enough about all the people I've encountered through it all."
Fennell has already started interviewing for the vacant position and would like to have a decision made within the next couple months.
"But how do you replace a coach like coach Bruce?" said the AD. "That's going to be a tough thing. He's one of those guys you look at and you know that's what a true man looks like."
"There were days he would call me up and say, 'Dave, I'm running on one cylinder,'" added Fennell, noting Bruce described the disease as having a rat eating away inside his brain. "To watch a man who loves kids and loves baseball have to endure what he's endured, without making a fuss about it "» We talk about guys who are heroic because they make big shots but when you really see a man who sticks with his commitments like he has, to mentor these young men and give it his all, that's heroic."
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