The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nats VP Doug Harris needed help to beat cancer a second time. He found it in the game.

Doug Harris, shown here in 2015 at a Bowie Baysox game, has faced cancer twice. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The cancer was beaten, and Doug Harris’s career continued. Maybe he would help the Washington Nationals win a World Series. Maybe he would become a general manager. Maybe both. But on his résumé was an accomplishment no one can understand unless he or she has endured it: cancer survivor.

Last year, at spring training, Harris performed his duties as the Nationals’ assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel. They are many. At the end of his run in West Palm Beach, Fla., he felt a little off.

“With 50 days of spring training, most of us do,” Harris said.

He’s back there now, ready to go again. But that off feeling, well, he dreads it. In the year since camp broke in 2018, Harris has had cancer diagnosed again, tackled it again, beaten it again, and built his body back up to the point where his doctors have told him: Go soak up the sun. Go to work.

Those are the facts. It’s just that, when your past 3½ years have been a balance between building a baseball team and battling leukemia, it’s normal to have some trepidation. Harris’s home is in Carlisle, Pa. — where he grew up, where he and his wife have raised their three daughters, where he beat the disease once and then beat it again. He didn’t like the weeks spent in New York at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, waiting and wondering. He liked being home, working out when he could, resting when he needed to.

Now, spring training.

“I’m really good in my bubble,” Harris said. “I haven’t gotten out of my bubble too much.”

There is no one around Harris who doesn’t believe in him whether he’s in his bubble or not.

“Doug’s a machine,” said Mark Scialabba, his longtime top lieutenant. “He’s a workhorse.”

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There’s no straight line between Harris the machine from the old days to the Harris who expects to be a machine this season. I first wrote about his fight in May 2017, 18 months after he learned what a skyrocketing white blood cell count meant, a year after chemotherapy, seven months after he went through a blood “transplant.” After that first bout with leukemia, cancer was in the past. His future was back in baseball.

Except after last spring training — a spring training he started late, a spring training he fought to be a part of — he went home and got his blood tested again. The surprise: It revealed a trace level of leukemia.

“By nature, I’m a perfectionist,” Harris said. “I wanted to put this behind me.”

Except it was in front of him. The next step couldn’t happen until his blood could be tested again, and his blood couldn’t be tested again for a few weeks. He worked and worked out, both obsessions. In early May, he felt what he thought were back spasms. They subsided some in the evening. He got up the next day.

“I got out of bed, and I was stumbling,” he said. “I could barely walk.”

The culprit: A mass of cancerous cells spanned from his third to his fifth vertebrae. He had surgery the next day. But in consulting with his doctors, there was another possible step: a cutting-edge procedure known as CAR T-cell treatment, in which “CAR” stands for “chimeric antigen receptor.” He and his wife, Lisa, traveled to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. There, they were met by Bruce Quinn, the owner of the Nationals’ Class A affiliate in Hagerstown, Md., and a close friend.

“I think he was upset, obviously, and nervous, and not sure where to go with it,” Quinn said. “We just tried to slow him down and let him research his options.”

Slowing down Harris is nearly impossible. But the Harrises and Quinn met with hematologist-oncologist Jae Park at Sloan Kettering. “CAR T” isn’t widely available, isn’t covered by insurance, and hasn’t been typically used on patients older than 25. Harris was 49. Dr. Park, though, thought Harris was an ideal candidate for the treatment.

The cost: anywhere between $150,000 and $400,000.

“We told him if this is the best option, we will figure out a way to do this,” Harris said.

And here’s where you may have heard of this story before: Quinn and Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, Harris’s boss, worked to put together a GoFundMe page, then worked their contacts. Among the first donors: Mike Schmidt, the Hall of Famer and a friend of Quinn’s. But the list of givers spanned all walks: Mark Butler, the owner of the Nats’ Class AA franchise in Harrisburg, Pa., former Nat Steven Souza Jr., players from up and down Washington’s system, players who had never come through Washington’s system.

“There were people who gave $5 who didn’t have $5 to give,” Harris said. “You don’t have many times in your life when you understand how much people care for you.”

In six weeks, the fund raised $142,000, Harris said. And what happened next? A pharmaceutical company selected Harris — in peak physical condition, with just a trace of leukemia back in his system — to be in a trial. The burden of the cost went away.

“The Nationals, they went above and beyond,” Quinn said. “Rizz, so many of the people on staff, so many people supported him. He had wind in his sails.”

The Harrises donated all the funds that had been raised to Park’s research at Sloan Kettering. And that’s why this is important: Not because Harris can do his job again, and doing his job again might mean the Nationals develop more players and win more games, but because he was exposed to what he believed was the best treatment available. Others should be, too.

“They have told us that they think this is going to be a front-line treatment,” Harris said, “which, in a lot of cases, could replace chemotherapy.”

Last August, Harris went to New York, had a needle “about as big as a quilting needle,” he said, inserted into his arm, and gave the doctors his blood. They treated the blood so that T-cells become smart cells and essentially attack any bad cells they come across. On Oct. 1, he got his blood back, complete with those T-cells.

Harris had to wait in New York until doctors decided he was beyond the risk of side effects. The Nationals players and staff, led by coach Bob Henley, raised money for his stay by auctioning off autographed gear and memorabilia. Bob Miller, then another assistant GM, included the 2001 World Series ring he won with Arizona.

“We couldn’t have done any of this without them,” Harris said. “I don’t have the words.”

And now, another spring training. Harris traveled to Florida on Sunday. The first group of Nationals minor leaguers, roughly two dozen, reports Tuesday. Harris expects to welcome them. He might not be in the gym before dawn, setting the tone for workouts with a workout of his own. He has been told: Don’t be Superman, but do your job. That means something to his staff.

“We all have a real fondness for him in that role,” Scialabba said. “He holds you accountable. He wants the best out of you, and I think he gets the best out of his people and his players.”

That process starts again this week. The work Harris and his staff perform in West Palm Beach — and at Hagerstown and Harrisburg and all those out-of-the-way ballparks all summer long — might not be obvious to the fans at Nationals Park this year. But in beating cancer not once, but twice, Doug Harris knows that the work he put in meant enough to those he touched that they were there for him, too.

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