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Heart of Dunedin baseball returns to the fold

Tyler Nolan, an assistant manager with the team, recently underwent surgery for a brain tumor. “He’s always with us. We love Tyler.”

CLEARWATER — Tyler Nolan is running late.

His doctor’s appointment went long and now he and his father, James, are scrambling to get from St. Petersburg to Clearwater through rush-hour traffic in order to see Dunedin’s baseball game at Countryside. But first they have to stop by their Dunedin home so Tyler can change into his uniform.

Can’t let the team see its assistant coach out of uniform.

By the time they pull into the parking lot, it’s the bottom of the second inning. Dunedin leads 1-0.

Tyler, or “Tyno’’ as he is known, walks through the gate and makes his way to the third-base dugout. He is immediately recognized by the Dunedin faithful. Parents and fellow students give him high-fives and hugs. He smiles broadly and hugs them back.

As he nears the dugout, players begin to chant “Tyno, Tyno, Tyno.” They can’t wait for him to reach them, so they meet him on the walkway and practically carry him to the bench. Shortstop Ray Sass is still on the field, but he can’t help but give Tyno a wave between pitches.

Their fellow student and assistant coach is back — a little over two weeks after surgery to remove part of a tumor in the middle of his brain.

“He wouldn’t miss it for the world,” his dad said.

The Dunedin High baseball team greets Tyler Nolan, center, behind the dugout. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)

• • •

Tyler Nolan, 19, was born with neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder of the nervous system. The disorder affects how nerve cells form and grow. It causes tumors to grow on nerves.

Tyler’s older brother, Nathan, also has the disorder. His younger sister, McKayla, does not.

Tyler spent most of his youth with his siblings. As a 10-year-old he went through his first serious surgery. He was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, fluid on the brain, and made a complete recovery.

His condition kept him away from youth sports. But James wouldn’t let Tyler feel sorry for himself.

“Suck it up, buttercup. That’s what we always say to each other,” he said.

When Tyler turned 18 in February 2018, he moved in with James full time in Florida. James is a security leader for Palms of Pasadena, St. Petersburg General and South Bay hospitals. His siblings stayed in Northern Virginia with their mother.

Looking for things to do now that his son was around, James started taking Tyler to Rays games. He would buy the $7.11 Friday night special tickets and sometimes upgrade to outfield seats.

“That’s the greatest thing they ever did for single parents who are on a tight budget,” his dad said.

James said they went to about eight or nine games last season.

Tyler fell in love with baseball.

Dunedin manager Ron Sexton greets Tyler Nolan during a game at Countryside. "He is our team," Sexton says. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)

• • •

In the fall of his senior year, James enrolled Tyler at Dunedin High. He joined the ROTC. Despite being just 5 feet tall and about 100 pounds, Tyler was out on the practice field doing drills.

Then he saw a group of baseball players going through offseason workouts.

“He came out and did conditioning with us in blue jeans and a hoodie tied around his waist,” Dunedin baseball coach Ron Sexton said. “He had more energy than most of the kids out there.”

From then on, Tyno was part of the team.

“He found his way to us and just meshed right away,” Sass said. “He’s always with us. We love Tyler.”

Senior first baseman Jonathan Hubbard remembers a typical Tyno moment early in their friendship.

“During lunch he comes into the room and yells, ‘Tyno’s in the house!’ Everyone just starts laughing,” Hubbard said.

As the season neared, it was clear Tyler wasn’t going to make the team. But there was no way Sexton was going to tell him. Instead, he made him an assistant coach. Gave him jersey No. 9.

“This baseball team is family to me,” Tyler said.

From left, Tyler Vogel, Tyler Nolan, Dominic Baratta and Jaydee Marks talk in the dugout during a game against Countryside. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)

• • •

Once the season started, Tyler was there for every practice and game. He gave pregame pep talks. He gave postgame pep talks. He gave in-game pep talks.

“He gets us pumped up,” Hubbard said.

All the while, he knew a bad day was coming. April 3, when he had to undergo surgery for his tumor.

But there was one more good day.

On March 30, Tyler accompanied the team to Orlando for a double-header against two area schools. In the second game against Bishop Moore Catholic, the Falcons lost 7-1. Sexton arranged prior to the game to have Bishop Moore stay on the field after the final out.

He told Tyler to grab a bat and pinch-hit. Sass took the mound and lobbed in a pitch. Tyler swung and hit a ground ball. He then raced to first. Then second. Then third. Just before he hit home plate, he slid on his knees. Safe.

“I hit a home run off you,” Tyler kidded Sass later.

“You sure did,” Sass said.

• • •

James Nolan said the tumor was the size of a golf ball. Doctors told him the surgery was risky, due to its location. They wanted to get as much of it as possible so they could get a biopsy.

The surgery at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg took just over three hours.

“The longest three hours of my life,” his dad said.

After several days of recovery, Tyler went home. He was unable to go back to school, let alone see the baseball team. He thought he might be able to see the April 11 game against Clearwater, but was too weak to walk.

The target would be the Tuesday game at Countryside. Right after his 3 p.m. checkup with doctors.

Tyler was told he would need 18 months of chemotherapy. If his followup visits go as planned, he will start chemo on May 8 and get treatments once weekly. Every 12 weeks he will have an MRI to monitor the tumor.

James Nolan said if everything goes well, Tyler should be good for the next 20-30 years. And he is able to do his schoolwork at home so he will graduate on time.

None of that mattered when he reached the ball field. His dad brought Tyler’s walker, but he refused to use it. He showed off the scar on the back of his head to a few girls before getting to the dugout.

Tyler Nolan (center) greeted Joey Breese, 18, (left) in the stands, and other Dunedin High School students during the game. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)

Between innings (and sometimes during innings) Tyler would walk to the concession stand for sunflower seeds or french fries covered with cheese sauce, ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise.

“You put hot sauce on those?” James said.

“Ewww. No,” Tyler said.

Tyno was back in his element.

“I missed these guys like crazy,” he said. “These guys are like my brothers. Me being back here is like being home.”

Having him back is the highlight of the season.

“People ask me ‘Is he on your team?’” Sexton said. “I tell them, ‘No, he is our team.’ That’s what it has become. He’s given our team great perspective.”

Contact Rodney Page at Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.