Matt Calkins column: Inspirational coach stays in game

Commentary: Matt Calkins

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A youth baseball game. An ambulance pulling up to the field. Players, parents and coaches all welling up with tears.

“It was wonderful,” said a glowing Blanca Orr, wife to Jim Orr, the man who was being transported in the emergency vehicle that evening. “It was like the perfect day.”

Um ... excuse me?

It’s OK. Let’s just back up a little.

Let’s back up two summers, when Jim was in the garage of his Washougal home fixing up his beloved ‘64 Chevelle. When it comes to Orr’s passions, car restoration is the bronze medalist behind his family and baseball, but when he bruised his finger trying to remove a bolt one weekend, it marked the beginning of a life where he would be the one in need of repair.

See, Orr’s finger never healed. It didn’t improve after a doctor labeled the injury a staph infection that September, nor did it get better after bleeding through thick wraps of gauze all winter. In April, Orr was finally referred to a dermatologist, who examined the joint and said “I think it’s cancer.”

He was right. Melanoma.

Orr, 42, was shocked, but that didn’t keep him away from his job with the Clark County Sheriff Deputy’s office, where he worked as a sex-offender detective after spending seven years as a custody officer at the county jail.

It didn’t stop him from coaching his son’s Junior Baseball Organization teams either, where part of his goal was to “take the weakest kid on our team and make him into an All-Star for any Little League organization.”

But Orr also stressed what is becoming a waning element of youth sports: fun.

A police officer in the workplace, Orr played Good Cop on the field, developing a reputation for encouraging kids who may have been on the receiving end of a reprimand.

As friend and fellow coach Todd Hubbard said: “I’m not afraid to point out errors or criticize players on the team, but Jim’s the one who puts an arm around them after I’m done.”

Unfortunately, the melanoma was just as committed as Orr. Doctors amputated his left middle finger in June of 2010, but by that point, the disease had spread to his lymph nodes. Tumors in his thigh, hip and buttocks later developed, and despite surgeries and regular radiation treatments, the cancer has reached Stage IV.

At times, the physical pain is excruciating, but it pales in comparison to what Orr feels when he thinks about leaving his three children.

He said 13-year-old Thalia, 10-year-old Alex and 4-year-old Lucas are what drive him to keep fighting.

And when Alex said recently that if his dad dies, he wants to die too, Jim and Blanca each endured an uppercut to their hearts.

That’s why soaking in every one of Alex’s baseball games has become so sacred to Orr. And that’s why last month, when an American Medical Response crew was driving him to a radiation treatment during a two-week hospital stint, he asked, “So what are you guys doing next Friday? You want to take me to a baseball game?”

It was just a joke, of course. Humor runs in the family. Whenever somebody is complaining about their situation in Jim’s presence, he quips “poor baby,” and makes a gesture with his left hand that would be much more offensive if he still had that middle digit.

His relatives, meanwhile, can often be seen sporting shirts that read “Jim Orr gave cancer the finger.”

But AMR drivers Dan Carlton and Della Bornman didn’t take it as a joke. As he does with most people, Orr made an impression on them, so they pitched the idea to their supervisor Marc Burnham.

After Burnham made three hours worth of approval-seeking phone calls, Carlton and Bornman got the OK and surprised Orr with the news.

“We knew there wouldn’t be a very good chance that the doctors would allow it, but we thought ‘Why not just ask our supervisor?’” Carlton said. “I have two boys, and they used to be in baseball. I know how important it would be for his son to see his dad, and I knew how important it would be for Jim.”

So three Fridays ago at Prune Hill Elementary School in Camas, the JBO baseball crowd froze during the second inning as an ambulance rolled toward the diamond.

When Carlton and Bornman rolled Orr out on a gurney, that’s when emotions exploded.

His players mobbed him. Dry eyes went AWOL. And about five minutes later, Alex did something no other player did that game — hit a home run.

Like Blanca Orr said: A perfect day.

Things aren’t so perfect away from the field, though. Jim Orr’s voice has been reduced to a whisper, disability is bringing in just $355 a month, and come August, Jim will have to go on COBRA while his family applies for state medical benefits.

Friends are having a garage sale for him from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at Crown Park’s Scout Hall in Camas, and a Columbia Credit Union account has been opened in Jim’s name. The account number to donate is 478931.

Orr confesses that he’s experienced just about every conceivable emotion these past couple years — feeling everything from anger, to sadness, to extreme gratefulness.

But while his story is rife with tear-jerking components, don’t expect him to start getting sappy.

“I don’t want this to be something where someone says, ‘Oh, he was an inspiration’,” Orr said. “I want this to be a testimony of healing.”

Don’t put that past Jim Orr. Just thumb through pictures of his old cars, or talk to the parents of any kid he’s ever coached.

You’ll be left with one thought: Orr knows how to make things better.

Matt Calkins is a sports writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or matt.calkins@columbian.com