Fivay baseball coach's lessons still resonate in his absence



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Mon. April 9, 2012 | Matt Baker | Email

Fivay baseball coach's lessons still resonate in his absence

HUDSON — They didn’t know what to expect on the way there, and they didn’t know what to say once they arrived.

Just a few weeks ago, the Fivay High School baseball players were fielding grounders with coach Justin Kunick. Now they’re visiting his hospital room, where a new mitt lays beside his bed.

“When you see it,” pitcher Ronnie Aldrich said, “the reality kicks in.”

Kunick has Stage IV cancer. It spread from his colon to his liver to his intestines, maybe more. Doctors give his family little hope. He’s 32 years old.

Kunick taught his Falcons about fielding and pitching. He taught them when to work hard and when to have fun. He taught them to rise above obstacles.

And with cancer sitting in his bowels and poison flowing through his veins, Kunick has one more lesson to teach.

• • •

Kunick’s health problems started with heart surgery shortly after birth. When complications temporarily paralyzed the right side of his body at age 2, he became a lefty — good enough to pitch in more games (36) than anyone in Keuka (N.Y.) College history.

“Now he can’t do anything right-handed,” said his father, Terry.

Kunick spent six years learning as an assistant at Ridgewood before becoming Fivay’s head coach. In his first few days with the Falcons, he saw a young teacher worrying about his first job. Kunick teased the rookie, then helped him relax.

“He said right away, ‘I want you to be my right-hand man,’ ” Fivay assistant Matt Hayes said. “Ever since that, we clicked.”

They shared a planning period, where talk always drifted to baseball. They ate lunch together and hung out on Friday nights. They celebrated Hayes’ first paycheck at Tarpon Springs’ sponge docks.

And they built a baseball program from scratch.

Kunick knew if he let bad habits fester in Fivay’s first season, he’d never fix them, so he installed discipline. Grounding out was fine. Jogging to first base was not. A mental mistake meant running a pole — a sprint from one foul pole to the other — for each game played so far. He told them to ignore distractions from school or work or girls.

Rise above, he said.

Kunick knew when to let up, too. On twins’ day during homecoming week, senior second baseman AJ Suriano dressed as his coach, right down to the notes hanging out of his pants. Kunick laughed.

His heart problems continued after the Falcons’ 12-13 inaugural season. He collapsed on Fivay’s field in July and had a pacemaker installed. Then he went back to work. He’d spent years building his foundation as a coach and months preparing his team. He was ready to enjoy the rewards.

“He said, ‘Dad, I just now got it right,’ ” Terry said.

• • •

Kunick thought the stomach pains that started around January were side effects of his new medication. Doctors told him his colon housed a cancerous tumor, large enough to have been there for years.

Kunick had surgery a few days later and was back on the field within a week. He coached two more weeks, long enough for his team to sing to him in the dugout on his 32nd birthday.

“He would always stick things out,” Suriano said.

But the cancer kept attacking. Doctors pushed up chemotherapy by almost a month. They couldn’t wait.

Hayes took over the team and started gently. He told the team he’d listen if they wanted to talk. As the season wore on, Hayes coached as Kunick would have. When his boys weren’t focused before a game against Anclote, he kicked them off the field.

They won 12 of their first 16 games.

“It’s nothing special that I’ve done,” Hayes said. “My grandma could have come in here and done this. Coach Kunick built such a good foundation.”

Kunick has stayed in touch with his team, first with phone calls every inning from his dad, now by reviewing his dad’s hand-written play-by-play notes. It’s enough for him to know that a first-pitch walk against Sunlake meant running 16 poles.

Fivay players pray for him together before games and alone before bed. They break pre-game huddles not with 1-2-3 Falcons but 1-2-3 Kunick.

They wear memories of him on their sleeves, with a cancer ribbon bearing his name stamped onto the sides of their T-shirts. They keep him in the back of their minds, with “Rise above” stitched onto the end of their gray caps.

The community held a fundraiser for the coach and chemistry teacher at Chili’s last month. The line stretched out the door.

• • •

Kunick gets by the same way many baseball fans do. He talks about the next game. He talks about returning to the dugout. He talks about which freshman will be stuck singing the national anthem on senior night.

He talks about next year.

“That man will not take no for an answer,” Suriano said.

The first rounds of chemotherapy failed. A new formula has stopped the cancer from spreading, but he cannot eat.

“You’re kinda in denial,” catcher Ryan Mettler said, “but you know it’s a reality.”

As Kunick grew too weak to talk much or return every text message, Hayes became the liaison between the team and its coach.

Although Hayes still believes a miracle will come, he tells his players if they want to see Kunick one more time and thank him, they should go now.

After a recent Saturday rainout, nine of them did.

They ate dinner at Red Robin then spent the first full day of spring break at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Some of the teenagers have lost grandparents or loved ones. Some never have.

“It’s another reason why I became a teacher,” Hayes said. “These life experiences are going to happen.”

The boys entered four at a time — not too many to overwhelm Kunick, but not too few to overwhelm themselves. They saw their coach lying in bed with tubes coming out of his body. They saw how the treatments sapped his strength and left a rash on his face.

They saw his eyes light up when they walked in. They shook his hand when they said goodbye.

Three days later they were on the field again.

Down 9-1 in the fourth inning of a meaningless consolation game in a spring break tournament, the Falcons stole a base. They got a sacrifice fly, an RBI double, a double play. They sprinted on routine outs and advanced on overthrown balls. They cut the deficit to 10-8 and loaded the bases.

And they kept running until the third strike hit the catcher’s mitt for the final out.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com.

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