High School Sports

Preps Plus: After beating cancer, second baseman Tino Luigi is having a blast with McClatchy

The kid who goes by “The Great McBeano” was the center of attention at batting practice Monday.

Tino Luigi, tagged with the nickname by his McClatchy High School teammates after his unexpected power surge days earlier, dug in, and then unleashed. The senior second baseman scattered baseballs every which way, if not very far, to everyone’s enjoyment.

“Is he going to crush the ball again?” McClatchy coach Mike DeNecochea said. “Well, he had two grounders to short, a couple up the middle, one to the right-center gap. We’ll keep him in the 7-hole as a hitter. That’s our Tino.”

On April 23, Luigi had a game every player dreams about when McClatchy played Florin in a Metropolitan Conference game that the Lions needed to win to keep their flickering playoff hopes alive. Because McClatchy’s home field doesn’t have outfield fences, deep fly balls often can become an adventure.

In his first at-bat, Luigi legged out a homer, with DeNecochea eagerly waving him home from his third-base coaching box. Luigi slid into the plate headfirst. In his second at-bat, he hit another deep shot – and made another headfirst slide into the plate. His third at-bat? He had another deep shot, only this time he didn’t have the energy to slide, instead running across home as McClatchy rolled 14-2 – and his teammates rolled in hysterics, too.

This outburst came from a player who had never hit a home run, and he became what is believed to be the first area player to hit home runs in three consecutive at-bats.

“That was really sweet,” Luigi, 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, said. “I’m not used to that. I wasn’t going to take any chances so I slid headfirst. It was like a miracle.”

The real miracle came years earlier, when, as his mother, Jean, said, “He stared down death.”

A grim diagnosis

When Luigi was 5, he was in pain. His legs, hips and back were tender to the touch.

What was feared to be a bone infection was diagnosed as something much worse, stage 4 neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system. A large tumor had wrapped around his adrenal gland, kidneys and liver. His bone marrow, doctors told his parents, was 90 percent cancerous.

“It was grim, very, very, very grim,” said Tino’s father, Perry, who operates the family restaurant Espanolin east Sacramento.

Added Jean: “We didn’t want to hear numbers, how bad it really was. We wanted hope.”

They heard numbers anyway: His chance of surviving more than five years was as low as 10 percent. They were told that if the cancer didn’t kill their boy, the treatment might. Luigi had chemotherapy and radiation and eventually underwent a stem-cell transplant, during which his cells were harvested, cleansed, frozen, thawed and replaced.

On Tuesday, in a Metro rematch with Florin in south Sacramento, Jean and Perry Luigi were emotional as they talked about a little boy who has grown into a young man. They thumbed through photo albums that detailed his ordeal and recovery as he had two Luigi-like singles in an 11-1 victory, again keeping those playoff hopes alive.

Jean, an elementary school teacher, said there were many sleepless, emotionally draining nights in the fall of 2001 when Luigi’s home was the hospital ward at UC San Francisco.

“One day, I lost it,” Jean said. “It just hit me. Our son’s in trouble. But I looked at him on the bed, and he’s hanging in there, and then I regrouped in a hurry. He wasn’t ready to stop fighting. He was amazing. The only time he really got scared was when he saw all of his packs of blood in the hospital.”

To ease their son’s fears, Jean and Perry printed pictures of Jackie Chan in action-figure attack mode and taped them to the bags, explaining, “He’s going to fight the bad stuff.”

“And typical Lucas (his given name), he couldn’t wait to be bald from treatments because his favorite Kings player at the time was Jason Williams,” Jean Luigi said. “He wanted to look like him. Adults don’t always handle things like this as well as kids.”

Recovery – and tragedy

The stem-cell harvesting was a three-day process in September 2001, during what would become known as 9/11. Because of the terrorist attacks, airports across the country were shut down. A lab technician, charmed by Luigi’s smile and spirit, volunteered to drive the kit containing the cells to Los Angeles because time was critical.

On Nov. 13, a day before his sixth birthday, Luigi had the transplant, and the healing process began.

By the following April, Luigi was strong enough to throw out the first pitch for Land Park Little League, the team for which his older brother Jake was the catcher. The next month, when the Kings were locked in that now-infamous seven-game Western Conference finals series against the Lakers, Luigi was a frequent guest at Arco Arena. He had photos taken on the arena floor with Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, Scot Pollard and Bobby Jackson. The Kings stars were moved by his battle, with Divac saying then, “How can you not be touched by this little boy?”

Weeks later, Luigi’s wish of a family trip to Alaska to see grizzly bears and glaciers was granted through the Make a Wish Foundation. Jake and oldest brother Nate joined Tino and their parents for the seven-day adventure. After the trip, Nate, 19, was dropped off at Fort Lewis in Washington to report back to Army infantry duty. The next day, the family had an unexpected visitor at their Land Park home.

“It’s hard to even say the words again,” Perry said, “but they said, ‘On behalf of the United States of America ...’ ”

Nate had lost control of his motorcycle hours earlier and slammed into a wall.

The Luigis had held onto one son but lost another.

To honor Nate, Tino and Jake, now at Cal Poly, and their parents wear Nate’s dog tags, and they bounce on Tino’s chest when he races around the bases.

‘He’s our miracle’

Luigi, who has yearly checkups, has been cancer-free for 12 years. Eager to attack life without restrictions, he played rugby throughout middle school and football for one year at McClatchy. But his favorite sport is baseball. Last season, he had three game-winning hits, and he’s batting .353 this spring.

The cancer treatments left him with five damaged discs in his back, so he’s sore after games and during shifts as a busboy at Espanol, but he doesn’t complain. It’s obvious from his perpetual good cheer he’s having too much fun. And he’s a good student who talks excitedly about attending Sonoma State to study kinesiology.

Luigi is moved that former McClatchy baseball players, now in colleges from UC Davis to Occidental, participate in St. Baldrick’s events that raise awareness and funds for childhood cancers, something the baseball team has been doing since Jake’s freshman season.

“I understand the perspective,” Luigi said. “I can’t believe that’s me in those photos, and I’m touched people cared so much and still do. I know they’re doing it for me and other kids, too.”

Said McClatchy teammate Beau Smith: “We all feel great for him because he’s been through a lot. When he homered the second time last week, we gave him the cold shoulder to tease him, but we love him. We all find inspiration in him.”

Jean Luigi wrote a book about her son’s plight, using journal entries from those days. They printed 500 copies and gave away 450, many to members of “Team Luigi,” the family and friends who offered support. They also have given books to families going through similar ordeals.

“Families are so desperate for hope when a child is so sick,” Jean said. “Some have called us. They want to hear something positive. ... Our son’s last day of first grade, during a graduation ceremony for sixth-graders, I saw moms with tears. Their little babies were growing up, and I was thinking, ‘If our little boy can make it to sixth grade, we’ll be so thankful.’ And he did. And then eighth grade. And now he’s going to graduate high school. He’s our miracle. I cry driving to games, but they’re good tears now.”

Luigi said he can’t comprehend his three-homer game. It just happened, he said. Then he paused and admitted, perhaps, that each home run had significance – one for each brother.

“It’s possible,” he said. “Maybe Nate pushed one out a little farther so I could get around the bases. I hope so.”