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David Haugh: White Sox' Peavy pitches with a purpose

Published: Thursday, May 24, 2012 9:12 p.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, May 24, 2012 9:17 p.m. CST

(MCT) — Before every start in this season of rediscovery, White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy hears two distinct voices inside his head that regularly provide inspiration.

With due respect to manager Robin Ventura and pitching coach Don Cooper, one belongs to Peavy's grandmother in Alabama; the other to a dear friend in San Diego. Both maternal grandma Dama Lolley, 75, and Darrel Akerfelds, the 49-year-old bullpen coach of the Padres, are suffering from different forms of terminal cancer. Neither can possibly grasp how much, in their final months, they have helped Peavy seize every day in what could be his last season in Chicago.

"When you have people who I would gladly lay down my life for heading down those roads, you realize what's important," Peavy said. "It's humbling. At times we all live in a fantasy world. Baseball has been unbelievable to me and I respect this game, but at end of day there is much more."

There are lessons of hope and perseverance Peavy plans to pass along to his three children, examples of indomitable spirit that go beyond returning from latissimus dorsi reattachment. A few months after Peavy underwent potential career-ending surgery in July 2010, his buddy Akerfelds discovered he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Suddenly, having a reconstructed shoulder didn't seem so bad and asking "Why me?" sounded silly.

"Doctors didn't think 'Ack' would make it a year, but he's battling his rear end off because that's the way he is," Peavy said of the former Arkansas football player.

The two developed a bond that began forming in 2002 when Peavy was a 21-year-old rookie called up from Double-A and Akerfelds was the Padres' affable bullpen coach. The regular road companions shared similar tastes in food and country music and, when Peavy won the NL Cy Young Award in 2007, Akerfelds and Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley were the first people he called.

"These guys became my best friends on the team, which was a little odd because they were coaches," Peavy said. "But I got to the big leagues and didn't have any friends and 'Ack' bridged the gap. I'm as close to him as I am anybody in baseball."

Peavy relied on that trust when he invited Akerfelds and Balsley over to dinner in Arizona before spring training in 2011 to watch him throw as he began his comeback. During the Sox's West Coast trip last month, Peavy flew to southern California the day after shutting out the A's to spend a special night with Akerfelds watching the Padres on TV.

"Everybody in San Diego knows Jake is true to his roots and his boys," said Padres broadcaster Andy Masur, formerly of WGN. "Everybody knows 'Ack' had a huge impact on him."

Doctors tell Akerfelds, who Peavy says didn't feel up to an interview, 95 percent of pancreatic cancer patients in his condition die within five years. He remains fixated on the 5 percent who don't.

"They've tried to get him into hospice care so he's pain-free and he has told me, 'Jake, no way because what if tomorrow this research breaks through?' " Peavy said. "He understands the long shots, but he's a fighter."

Down in Semmes, Ala., so is the woman who helped raise Peavy. The deep faith Peavy openly professes comes from the influence of, "a down-home, Southern lady who loves her church," he said. When Peavy chartered a plane in April so Lolley and Grandpa Sonny, 80, could see him pitch the Sox home opener, it provided Peavy's thrill of the season. When Peavy became a big leaguer, the small-town kid avoided homesickness by calling his grandparents on days he started _ a ritual he maintains.

"It has become a huge tradition," Peavy said. "Obviously, it's going to be an emotional day when I'm no longer able to speak to her before a game I pitch."

The sadder Peavy sounds the more resolved he becomes. Tired of feeling helpless, Peavy organized an effort on NetRaffle.org to raise funds for the Jake Peavy Foundation and for pancreatic cancer research on behalf of Akerfelds and Lolley. The winner and three guests will receive travel accommodations and choice seats for the Sox-Cubs series June 18-20 at U.S. Cellular Field, which also includes memorabilia, pregame access and a meal with Peavy.

"I wanted to do something to let them know I'm fighting with them," Peavy said. "We can be selfish and caught up in our little worlds, not just in baseball. We think the world begins and ends with us and that's so far from the truth. So I speak to 'Ack' and my grandma as much as I can." It's hard to tell whom those conversations benefit more.

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