NEW YORK — With all the joys that come with spending time on the ballpark, it's easy to forget the dangers. When you're in the stands, enjoy every hit of the bat, but don't forget the signs warning of scorched foul balls. When you're on the field, there are a number of ways to get hurt in a game that goes from dull to insane in the blink of an eye.
Then there is the sun, which has beenTravis Chapman's enemy since birth. With blond hair, blue eyes and pale skin, he knows he has to protect himself as best he can. For an afternoon game in sweltering late July, he wears long sleeves under his uniform top. He'll slather his face, neck, and hands with sunscreen before throwing pregame batting practice, and he'll do it all again before the first pitch.
So the skin cancer scare Chapman experienced at the start of the regular season came as a shock — and he hopes it can be a teachable moment for others like him who call the ballpark a second home.
"Be aware," he said.
Travis Chapman, the Yankees' first base coach. (Photo: Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Chapman laughs. He sits in the dugout at home at Yankee Stadium, more than three hours before the start of what would end in an 8-7 loss to theShinedespite being lateYankeesrally. It's Sunday morning, May 14 - about a month since team dermatologist Dr. Darrell Regil broke the news to Chapman. He would be fine.
"I'm fine," he said. “Every day is a great day. I feel amazing."
Except for a while, it was a bit strange for the 44-year-old.
As of spring 2020 training, Chapman noticed that a few long days of coaching at the team's training complex in Tampa would leave his lips raw and chapped. The trouble continued as he served as an assistant infield coordinator at the Yankees' alternate training site at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Sometimes his lips cracked. They would bleed.
"It got to the point where I couldn't kiss my wife," he said. "Then it would heal and it would be like, 'Something happened or whatever.'"
Chapman decided to finally tell Yankees trainers about his worrying condition as spring training began this season. Then he saw Rigel, who recommended a follow-up check before the end of camp. But at the second appointment, Rigel showed concern. While the doctor initially thought Chapman might be dealing with something precancerous, his tone changed. "He was like, 'Yeah, this might be a little bit further than I first thought,'" Chapman recalled.
So, Chapman had a biopsy when the team returned to the Bronx. A doctor cut his skin from the inside of his lower lip. When Chapman arrived at Yankee Stadium the next day, the lip appeared disfigured. People noticed.
"I didn't know if I should talk to him about it or ask him about it or bring it up,"Aaron Judgesaid.
"When I saw it,"Oswaldo Cabrerasaid, "I was worried. I was like, 'What is that?'”
Chapman thought it would be easiest if he just told everyone the truth, and Yankees players and coaches responded with an outpouring of support. Coach Tanner Swanson's wife, Laura, is a dermatologist in Seattle. Chapman sent her pictures of his lip and she told him he was on the right track.Gleyber Torresasked him every day how he felt.Antonius Rizzo, a survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma, "tried to make light" around Chapman with some jokes. Judge made it a point to ask Chapman baseball questions to "get his mind off it."
"The most important thing is to be there for him," Judge said.
A few days after the biopsy, Rigal told Chapman he was dealing with precancerous actinic cheilitis. Left untreated, it could have developed into squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer that "can be particularly aggressive," according to dermatologist Dr. Jesse Lewin, the systems chief of the Department of Dermatologic & Cosmetic Surgery at Mount Sinai Health System.
Lewin, who did not treat Chapman but has treated cases like his, said actinic cheilitis is a common precancerous condition. It's especially common in people like Chapman, who's out in the sun every day. … That is a risk factor. People who are honest (current). The lower lip is an area where we don't tend to use sunscreen. Signs of the condition include tearing and bleeding, and sometimes the blurring of the vermilion line, or where facial skin turns into lip, Lewin said.
Chapman was relieved at the diagnosis.
"Very glad it hadn't progressed further," he said.
Chapman was especially happy for keeping the matter quiet outside the stadium. The hardest part of Chapman's job isn't the long hours or the travel or the pressure of performing on baseball's biggest stage. Instead, it's being away from his wife, Julie, and their three children, all of whom live in their home in Jacksonville, Florida, where Chapman grew up, so often and for so long. That's why he often arrives at the stadium nine hours before the first pitch of a night game. He can either lie in bed in his apartment near Columbus Circle in Manhattan and stare at the ceiling, thinking about how much he misses them, or he can throw himself into his work. Aside from his duties as first base coach, he is the team's infield defense coordinator and base runner, plus throws batting practice.
"It's always a thin line," he said. “You think about it and wonder if you are doing the right thing. At the end of the day, it's a job I really value, really enjoy and have been doing with the Yankees for 11 years now.
His kids saw Chapman's busted lip on TV and asked if he was okay. His parents received calls about this from concerned family friends.
"Obviously," he said, "I didn't tell them I had a biopsy of my lip."
One day next month, Chapman will arrive at Yankee Stadium and his lip will be broken again. But this time he will be happy with it. Doctors plan to burn off several layers of his pre-cancerous skin with a laser. The procedure should solve the problem completely. And there is an added bonus.
“Dr. Rigel says your lip will look younger and fresher after the treatment," he said, "which I don't really care about."
But the Yankees certainly care about their coach leaving the saga behind.
"He's a really impactful coach," Boone said. “So dedicated. He's the cliché of the first here, the last to leave. That's Chappy."
They appreciate that he didn't miss a second of work during the scare, but they also know it's about more than just baseball.
"That's life in general," Rizzo said. “You just have to keep going. Keep putting your next foot forward and follow that mindset. I know that's how Travis goes about it. I think it's also proof to him how much he cares about us.
Aaron Judge en Travis Chapman. (Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
"It takes a lot of mental toughness," Judge said. "This is a beautiful game that we get to play and he gets to coach. He gets to be part of playing a child's game. Everyone has a life, everyone has a family, everyone has things they want to do when they're done with it playing this game, but when the word cancer gets thrown, it's bigger, that's bigger than any baseball game here.
“So, for someone like that to keep showing up every day and staying focused – he didn't miss a beat, even though we all knew what was happening and what was going on. He still showed up every day. … It's impressive. I think that just speaks to the character and what he's done throughout his coaching career and why he's in this position with the Yankees now. It's good to be around that man, I think.'
It has also been a reminder for some players to take skincare seriously. Boone said team doctors perform skin checks at points during the season. "It's a reminder of how susceptible we are to being in the sun all day, and I think we sometimes take our skin for granted," Swanson said.
Lewin said he had a few tips for fans and players. He said that "basically starting with sun protection as a baby" is key because "it's cumulative sun exposure over a lifetime and that leads to skin cancer and precancerous [conditions]." He added that people should use sunscreen that is at least 30 SPF, and there's little difference in effectiveness in SPFs higher than that. Also, use sunscreens labeled "broad-spectrum," Lewin said, and preferably ones that contain zinc or titanium.
"I think it's a lesson for everyone in our clubhouse," said Swanson. "It's real. It's something we have to take care of. It's important."
When actuallyThe athleticApproached Chapman about possibly reporting on his ordeal one day recently at Yankee Stadium, the coach thought about it for a moment, but then agreed. He hopes his story can raise awareness among people like him about protecting your skin from the sun, who want to enjoy their time in the ballpark while minimizing the danger.
"Be aware of things that can happen and try to be open to getting the help you need as soon as possible," he said.
(Top photo of Travis Chapman, left, and Oswaldo Cabrera: New York Yankees/Getty Images)