Making mom proud
UCF's Bates makes team after helping mom battle cancer
ORLANDO, Fla. -- She calls it the "scream heard around the world."
UCF led 17-2 against Presbyterian on March 22 when the Knights' No. 12 came up to the plate as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning. Big picture, this one at-bat would go down as a 10-word blip toward the end of the game story.
But for the Bates family, this moment was six months in the making.
After Oviedo native Sam Bates gave up his guaranteed spot offering from a Division II baseball team to stay at home and help care for his mother through chemotherapy and radiation treatments for breast cancer, he successfully walked on to UCF's nationally ranked squad.
Now, here he was with a chance to register his first career hit with the Knights.
First pitch: ball. Next two: fouled off. Organ music pumped over the loud speaker. Then came an off-speed pitch and the ping of ball meeting bat. After that, the sound of his mother's high-pitched "aaahhhh!" was followed by a giddy laugh as Sam dashed down the line safely to first base.
"It's just so nice to finally see when you work so hard for something that sometimes it happens," Mary Lou Bates said while trying to hold back tears. "And it happened for him."
Mary Lou Bates and her husband, Chris, met at a local church as high schoolers. They both attended UCF -- she was an education major; he, computer science -- and married six weeks after graduation. The couple settled into a housing development called Stillwater, just two miles from the heart of UCF's campus.
Their son Danny arrived first, and five years later came Sam. Like any little brother, Sam wanted to do what his big brother did. That meant baseball.
Sam started as a 4 year old with his father as the head coach of his Little League team. The family members were regulars in the stands at UCF cheering for the Black and Gold during the next decade of Sam's life.
"He was the kid that was running the bases afterwards. He was the kid holding up his baseball trying to get it signed. He was that kid," his mother said. "Baseball has always been his passion."
While Sam always dreamed of attending UCF, he thought he had a better chance to continue playing baseball at a smaller program after he graduated from Hagerty High School. So he headed to Daytona State College, where he was a starter for two years and was named the 2014 Baseball Student-Athlete of the Year.
Around the time Sam was looking into schools following his junior college stint, doctors informed Mary Lou that she had a small, malignant tumor in her breast.
"It seemed like every test I had," she said, "more bad news would come."
An MRI showed another tumor on the other side of the same breast. It also revealed that cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
Her original course of action -- a lumpectomy and six weeks of radiation -- now turned into a double mastectomy, radiation and five months of chemotheraphy along with a five-year maintenance drug.
Sam turned down a guaranteed spot with Florida Tech's program and decided to stay home to help with his mother's treatment.
"I was hoping he wasn't doing it just for me. He was," she said. "Of course, I felt badly about that, but it was his decision. We kept asking him, `Are you sure you want to do this?' He said, `You know I've always wanted to go to UCF.' "
So he stayed by her side, supplying the fix of her new addiction, Coca-Cola Slurpees, and preparing meals for her. When she decided to go to Eden Spa at Florida Hospital to have her head shaved, Sam and his friends shaved their heads in support.
Between her husband and two sons' shifts, Mary Lou was never alone.
"Seeing her go through chemo was tough, but she was a warrior about it. She kept me going," Sam said of the walk-on process. "You don't know. Am I going to get cut today? Should I just quit? And seeing her not quit chemo really helped me out."
Sam started classes in fall 2014 and after earning a spot with the club baseball team, attended walk-on tryouts for UCF Baseball on Sept. 15. Five ground balls, 10 swings and a 60-yard dash.
"There was a lot of pressure on those five ground balls and those 10 swings," he said.
Head coach Terry Rooney said Sam's qualities as an infielder, a left-handed hitter and an experienced player thanks to his junior college years are what initially caught the staff's attention. A day later, they called Sam while he was at home to tell him they wanted him to stick around for further evaluation.
Sam's spot on the team wasn't official -- it would be another 135 days until that happened -- but for now, he had made the cut.
Sam went into his parents' room where he found his mother in her walk-in closet. She started to cry when he told her his news and enveloped him into a hug. He said it was the happiest he had seen her in the previous three months.
Rooney said as the weeks went on, the coaching staff was taken by Sam's love of the game, his work ethic and infectious positive attitude.
"You could just tell that not only was he a good player, but he loved being around the guys and being a part of UCF baseball," Rooney said. "That was something that was really important [to us]."
The coaching staff and team didn't learn until Jan. 29, along with the rest of the world via Twitter, of the Bates' saga:
"In the last 8 months my mom has found out she had cancer, has had 3 surgeries and 16 chemo sessions and now I get to go home and tell her I'm a UCF baseball player! Nothing beats that feeling!"
By Sam's standards, the tweet went viral with 58 retweets and another 179 favorites.
His parents attend games rain or shine. Sam leaves tickets for his older brother -- also a UCF alum -- at will call every night. His father, who works on Research Parkway, drives through campus every day right by the baseball stadium where his son now plays for the hometown team.
The ball Sam hit is stashed in his room. Although the ball stayed in play immediately after Sam's base hit, senior JoMarcos Woods was able to keep an eye on it until he could snatch it up and hand it to his teammate.
Sam describes the past several months as a dream come true. Sam's family and friends are overjoyed that he suits up for not only their favorite team, but a team that reached its highest national ranking in school history this season.
The experience reaffirms to him that his faith helped him to never lose sight of his path.
"This is where I'm supposed to be right now in this moment. I know it. I can feel it," Sam said. "And maybe my mom getting cancer in some weird way down the road led me to my dream. And her dream was for me to follow my dreams. And it's just cool how all that stuff works out."