Orioles reliever Adam Russell draws inspiration from his family's fight against cancer

Adam Russell poses with his nephew Tommy Galvin. When he's not playing baseball, the Orioles reliever often looks out for his niece and nephew as his sister and brother-in-law battle advanced cancer.
Adam Russell poses with his nephew Tommy Galvin. When he's not playing baseball, the Orioles reliever often looks out for his niece and nephew as his sister and brother-in-law battle advanced cancer. (Courtesy photo)

SARASOTA, Fla. — Over the next two weeks, Orioles reliever Adam Russell will get a visit from two of his biggest fans.

Fiona Galvin, 6, and her three-year-old brother Tommy will light up at the first sight of their "Uncle Bubba." In the offseason, he's the one who takes them to the park back home in Cleveland. He will take Tommy to baseball practice. He will dress up like Bigfoot to make them laugh. The kids will climb onto Russell and make him their personal 6-foot-7 jungle gym.


Russell, 29, is fighting for a job in the Orioles' spring training camp. His ability to throw a mid-90s fastball made him a professional baseball player, but the open-mindedness to tinker with throwing sidearm carried him to the majors. He's still looking for a place to stick. The Orioles are his sixth organization since the beginning of the 2009 season.

His baseball career has been about resilience, but he says the fight he's shown is nothing compared to that which his family has displayed.


Fiona and Tommy's parents — Russell's oldest sister, Tracy, and her husband, Marty — both have advanced cancer.

Over a traumatic 30-month span, Russell has received a firsthand lesson about life and how sometimes it can be cruel. He's learned that the future isn't guaranteed — whether it's your days in a major league uniform or the days you can embrace a family member.

"I think now that we keep getting bad news after bad news, we're just more numb to it right now," Russell said. "My family is fighters. We just want to get better. We don't want anyone to feel sorry for us. Whatever we need to do to move forward and keep their kids happy, that's really the main focus."

"In a very scary place"

Two and a half years ago, Tracy Russell Galvin was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer at the age of 34. She endured nine weeks of weekly chemotherapy, surgeries for a liver resection, ovary removal and lumpectomy and five weeks of daily radiation.

Tracy has had no evidence of disease for the past year, but in September a common cough sent Marty to get some tests that revealed he had Stage 3 lung cancer. Surgery to remove his entire left lung — along with four rounds of chemotherapy — seemed to remove all of the cancer, until a follow up showed that it had spread to his remaining lung.

Radiation and a lung transplant aren't options, so the Galvins have spent the past two weeks traveling across the country to five cancer treatment centers searching for a solution. Now, they anxiously wait to see if Marty, 43, is eligible for a trial drug study.

"We're in a very scary place right now," Tracy said.

Saturday, they will fly to Florida from their home in Cleveland to get away from it all for a bit and to be a part of something that's brought the family great joy.

"Sometimes you do things like go to your brother's baseball games," Tracy said, "when you have that fear and you ask, 'Is this the last time I'll do it? Is this the last year I'm going to be healthy enough to go. Is this the last year, with my husband going through this, that we'll be able to go to spring training together.'

"A lot of times it's not like that. It's that this is what we do. This is our family. We're tight and we're always there to support each other. We'd rather be nowhere else."

Russell sees himself as the lucky one. After his sister's diagnosis, his entire family was tested for the cancer-causing gene that Tracy had. Russell's middle sister Lindsay had it, which meant she had an 87 percent chance of eventually developing cancer, so she had a preventive mastectomy.


Adam's tests showed he's the only sibling that doesn't have the gene.

Playing the "Manny"

When Russell isn't training for baseball, he's been helping Tracy and Marty take care of their young kids. They call him their "Manny" — or male nanny.

"He was just there for us with everything," Tracy said. "When I was in treatment, he would come with me to appointments. He'd always be there for the kids, babysitting. A lot of babysitting, just entertaining them and keeping the house in order. They just adore him."

Russell is inspired by the fight his sister has shown through everything.

"I'm sure that she's been there for me much more than I've been there for her, so I could never repay her back for everything she's done for me," he said. "Those kids are just a treat. It's been great. … They've been great. You just try to keep everything as normal as possible for them, because once they start getting older and start understanding what's going on, it's going to be difficult for them."

Tracy continues so be treated by medication. She gets scans every three months to make sure she still has no evidence of disease. Despite his prognosis, Marty looks and feels normal and still has plenty of strength.

Tracy says they also get strength from Russell and his baseball career.

"We've always been so proud of Adam, and watching him is such a joy," she said. "We all get such a kick out of it. Following him and his career is such a wonderful distraction. I think there are so many things on our life that drive us, but to have baseball, it's such a big thing for our family. It gives us something to look forward to when we need something else to focus on."

"A shared dream"

Meanwhile, Russell is focused on earning a roster spot. There are 29 pitchers in camp this season, and the Orioles bullpen returns entirely intact, so breaking through will be difficult.

"Baseball has always been a shared dream throughout my family," Russell said. "It's not just me; I'm doing this for them too. It seems like when baseball's right, everything's right in the world. My focus is here. I'm there for my family whenever they need me.

"They know that, and I don't feel guilt being down here that I'm not up there to watch the kids or anything. We've just got a really strong family, so I know that coming down here, I don't have to feel sorry that I'm here. My focus is here. That's where my family wants my focus, so that's what it's going to be."

Russell — who has made 85 career major league appearances in stints with the Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays — spent all of last season in Triple-A with the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Angels. He hopes going back to throwing sidearm, a move he credits with helping him get to the big leagues back in 2008, will be the difference in getting back to the majors. Because he can throw a power fastball, teams have discouraged him from throwing unconventionally in the past. He could pitch both sidearm and over the top for the Orioles, something he hopes will keep batters off balance.

On Saturday, Russell is slated to pitch an inning in the Orioles' Grapefruit League opener against the Minnesota Twins at Ed Smith Stadium, and he's focused on making an impression.

"Obviously, he's a strong willed guy with what's going on with him personally," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "We're just trying to create a good environment for him. It's kind of like a haven for him with some of the things that are going on, and you can tell he's at peace here at the ballpark."



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