James Billingsley worked in the auto industry until his health went south. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer when Chad was 8.
"When he was fighting the cancer and going through chemo, that's not a pretty sight," Billingsley recalled. "But I was doing my sports, and he kept coaching. He was out there in the fall for football practice -- he wasn't looking good. I knew he wasn't good. But he was out there, and no matter what was bothering him, he never said anything. He always acted like a normal dad to us. And he'd be out there throwing the ball around. And that's where I get the work ethic from.
"I don't know how many times I thought I was going to lose him. When he had cancer, I was too young to realize the severity of the situation. Parents don't want their kids to know that. We almost lost him then. I remember when he had the stroke. I remember waking up, and Mom telling me Dad was in the hospital."
Last summer, James Billingsley again was ill, which got me to wondering: How do family issues affect players on the field? It's very easy to say, "Don't bring your home life to work", but not so easy to actually do.
As you might imagine, there isn't any systematic data that we can look to for guidance on this issue. There isn't a "family issues" statistical category. But anecdotally, there have been a number of players in recent seasons whose performance, in hindsight, could have been affected by off-the-field troubles.
Quite possibly, one of those players is John Lackey. Lackey, of course, has arm woes and will be out for most if not all of this year after Tommy John surgery, but in addition to that, his divorce, which became final this month, was apparently weighing on him for much of last season. Lackey filed for divorce last summer:
Lackey filed on August 30, according to court docs in Texas, claiming "the marriage has become insupportable because of discord or conflict of personalities." Krista and John got married in November, 2008.
You can see how something like that could be on someone's mind while at work, no matter how hard they try to block it out. Aaron Miles had the worst year of his career in 2009 with the Cubs; turns out he, too, was having marital troubles, in addition to trying to play hurt:
"I had some personal problems, too, with my marriage," said Miles, who was going through a divorce that's still not finalized. "But for the most part, the injuries were hard to overcome early in the year. Once I started to get a little healthy, I didn't have that many at-bats under me. I didn't get a whole lot of playing time at the end of the year when I could have come on."
Ryan Dempster was coming off the best year of his career and a sixth-place finish in Cy Young voting when his daughter Riley was born just before Opening Day in 2009 with DiGeorge Syndrome, a disease that gave her difficulty in swallowing. Dempster spent the first two months of that year shuttling back and forth between Chicago and Phoenix, where Riley and Dempster's wife Jenny stayed for treatment. Dempster posted a 4.48 ERA through June 1; once Riley was out of danger and back in Chicago, Dempster's ERA was 3.21 for the rest of 2009, and he has since begun a foundation to help raise money to fight the disease.
On the other hand, Cliff Lee and his wife had to deal with their infant son having a rare form of leukemia when the pitcher was still in the Montreal Expos' minor-league system. Going through that ordeal, which happened mostly during the offseason, could have made Lee mentally tougher; they spent the winter getting Jaxon Lee treatments, and:
When it came time for Cliff to report to spring training, "that was easy'' by comparison, he said. He started the season in Double-A Harrisburg and got daily reports from Kristen. Jaxon began to get well. One hundred days after the transplant, a test on his bone marrow showed no signs of cancer.
In mid-summer, the Expos traded Lee and other prospects to the Cleveland Indians for starter Bartolo Colon. By September, Cliff had made his first major league appearance in Cleveland. Whatever growing up he had left, he did in a hurry. "That's when he really turned the corner on maturity," said his old pitching coach, Ace Adams. "He handled [Jaxon's illness] unbelievably. It really locked him in."
Another difficult thing: the death of a close family member. Sometimes, it makes players perform better, or so it would seem; Justin Smoak's father passed away in April 2011, and Smoak homered in his first game after returning from the bereavement list, then went on a 10-game tear where he hit .351/.429/.703 with three home runs and 14 RBI. And Barry Bonds also homered in his first game back in the lineup after his father Bobby died in 2003. Beginning with that contest, the younger Bonds had a 16-game stretch where he hit .348/.592/.761.
I wish the best for Chad Billingsley and his dad; the two seem very close and it's impossible to tell how the older Billingsley's illness will affect his son's performance (though it should be noted that after entering June 2011 with a 3.46 ERA, Chad Billingsley had a rough time the rest of the year, posting a 4.71 ERA the rest of the season).
If it's rough on him, here's hoping Dodger fans will forgive him. He is, of course, only human.