“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up,” North Carolina State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano once said, suffering a fatal disease at the time.
Valvano had adenocarcinoma, a glandular cancer, and passed away in 1993 — about 10 years after he led the Wolfpack to the NCAA title in The Pit in Albuquerque and two months after his “Don’t give up” speech at the ESPY Awards.
Santa Fean Rodney Tafoya won’t argue. He just can’t give up.
Earlier this year, his focus had been on winning his 460th baseball game.
Although getting to 512 victories as a baseball pitcher wouldn’t land him in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., it was still something to talk about.
Tafoya, 57, pitched for St. Michael’s High School in Santa Fe, then collegiately, then professionally, falling a few levels short of “The Show,” Major League Baseball.
He has bounced around the minors — you can find him on a Boise Hawks baseball card, and as one of the Erie Sailors, if you look hard enough.
As this “Ageless Arm” — the title of his autobiography – began aging, he played in the Pecos League and was, basically, a hired hand: Semi-pro teams traveling to tournaments often recruited him if they needed a left-handed pitcher.
When I last saw Tafoya in late 2021, he was thanking me again for a story I’d written about him for Sports Collectors Digest, and how he’d been thrilled to receive requests for his autograph by a hundred or so people who’d read my story.
Just a few months ago, Tafoya was in Panama Beach, Fla., as a mercenary of sorts for the East Coast Cardinals in the Sunshine Classic championship series.
He was inspirational, effectively pitching as he was approaching six decades of life.
In fact, on Feb. 21, Tafoya posted this on Facebook: “I still feel the same way today as I did four years ago.”
On March 27, Tafoya posted this: “Leaning to Cope with a Stroke a Month After Being Dealt A Second Chance toLIve.” (That’s how it was typed.)
Yes, his fans and friends (including me) learned, this talented, fun-loving ballplayer had suffered a stroke.
Facebook updates, some with photos:
April 3: “Rehab: Making Progress on a daily basis.”
April 11: “22 seconds of winning today. A great improvement after being at a NM hospital in an induced coma only a month ago after a bleeding stroke to the left side of my body. Rehab does work miracles…
Three minutes later: Left side working now… I can pick up my leg on my own tonight. Tears.
Eight minutes later: We have movements in both left fingers and left leg.”
And another April 11 evening update: “… I’m getting some of the most intense sessions of workouts to the point of almost passing out. April 22nd is my departure date to go home.”
Yes, it’s shocking.
How does this happen? Going from what Tafoya posted had been a joyful time in Florida —“Four-day getaway … sandy beaches … clear ocean setting” — he was fighting for his life.
He may never pitch again. He may never be able to play catch again.
But somehow, I know he’ll be smiling again and talking baseball.