Billingsley's dad exemplifies ultimate survivor
Father coached Dodgers pitcher in youth, despite illness
LOS ANGELES -- When Dad worked the graveyard shift and would sleep in the mornings, so he could play catch when you got home from school, you remember that on Father's Day.
When Dad didn't let cancer or chemotherapy stop him from coaching Little League, or a stroke keep him from teaching you how to grip a baseball, you remember that on Father's Day.
When the family didn't tell you about Dad's heart surgery, because they didn't want to upset you before your next start, you remember that on Father's Day, too.
And when Dad is all that rolled into one, you're Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley, who understands what Father's Day is all about.
"Cancer, stroke, heart surgery, two inoperable aneurisms in the brain -- you have no idea how much it means that he's still around," Billingsley said of his father, James. "Father's Day is a big day for him, and for me. He thanks God every day that he was able to see me and my brother get married, give him grandkids. It's huge to see that, just to see your kids grow up and have families of their own."
Despite his athleticism, Chad's dad was never into baseball. His eldest son, Shawn, gravitated to football, wrestling, and track. But when Chad showed the raw potential as a Little League pitcher, James began to pour over baseball manuals at bookstores and libraries so he could teach his son the finer points of the game.
That research led father and son to isolate Nolan Ryan as the textbook example of how to be a pitcher.
"My dad enjoyed watching baseball, and he said if any pitcher was an example of how to pitch, it was Ryan," said Billingsley.
They would study the Nolan Ryan's Pitcher's Bible, break down Ryan's mechanics by watching him pitch on television, and employ drills that Ryan used to develop proper habits.
"He'd have me throw off three rubbers at distances of 46, 54, and 60 feet," said Billingsley. "When I was in Little League, he had me throwing 60 feet. At 9 years old, that was a long way, but it helped build up my arm strength. Then, when I'd pitch at 46 feet in a game, it felt a lot closer."
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."
In 2006, Billingsley's father suffered a heart attack.
"That was a couple weeks after I got called up. I never told anybody," said Billingsley. "He needed surgery. He's been through some tough times. He has his good days and bad days. He needs all kinds of medication, it's like he has a pharmacy. It's tough for him to travel. He pretty much is limited to around the Midwest. It's hard for him to be in crowds.
"But he was able to go to the All-Star Game last year. He's not a very emotional guy -- I've got a lot of his personality, I don't like to show a lot of emotion -- he's pretty much even-keel. But I could tell he was very happy, very proud to be at the All-Star Game with me."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.