OMAHA, Neb. — The man wearing the Virginia blue and orange shirt in section 108 insists he is living a dream, when it would be so easy to be overwhelmed by a nightmare. Jeff Michaels keeps saying how blessed he is to be in Omaha. “I just told my wife,” he says, “I think I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Jeff Michaels has one of the meanest diseases a man can face. But what’s pancreatic cancer, when a dad can sit in the stands at the College World Series and watch his son hit a home run on Father’s Day?
“My surgeons told me I have a two-percent chance,” he says. “When you have a two-percent chance, you live for every moment. I’m still here, and I’m living for every moment.”
As Jeff Michaels speaks, Virginia is blowing past Tennessee (it would end 6-0) and Logan Michaels is in the middle of it all. The Cavaliers catcher gives his team the lead with a home run in the third. He singles in another run in the seventh, adds another hit in the ninth. Think about this: Michaels didn’t have a home run all season, hadn’t hit one in 16 months, since February of 2020. But he sends a breaking ball into the left field stands this day — “I couldn’t believe it,” coach Brian O’Connor later says — with his mother and brother and sister sitting 24 rows away. And his father.
“There’s no words for it,” Logan will say later. “When I hit that home run, I instantly thought about him . . . It means everything.”
Same for the man in section 108.
“I have three great kids, it’s Father’s Day, we’re all here together. And to have the home run come today . . . “ Jeff says. “It reminded me of the day I was diagnosed with cancer and then Logan went off and played in the College World Series at the JuCo level and he hit a home run in that. He’s not a home run hitter, and it was like the greatest thing that could ever happen to me in my life.”
This reaction 🧡— ESPN (@espn) June 20, 2021
Jeff Michaels, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three years ago, watched his son hit his first home run of the season for @UVABaseball on #FathersDay in Omaha 👏
(h/t @accnetwork) pic.twitter.com/sXFyQyyWow
“I never expected today to happen,” Jeff says. “The emotions all came out; my cancer, my family here, Father’s Day.” Hollywood, meet Omaha. Don’t forget the Kleenex.
The diagnosis was made in the spring of 2018. Jeff had felt ill, thinking it was food poisoning. His wife Peg insisted he go to the hospital for tests. Pancreatic cancer were the awful words that came back — one of the most merciless versions of the disease, with a horrific survival rate. “Unfortunately, what I have is one of those cancers that wants to come back,” he says. “So far, it hasn’t.”
Michaels’ tests keep turning up clean. Tomorrow? Who knows? That’s why today is so important. That’s why Sunday feels so special.
The day began with an early Happy Father’s Day text from Logan. Then Jeff and the family were off to get their first look at TD Ameritrade Park. Just before the game, the scoreboard flashed several players sending video best wishes to their fathers. One was Logan Michaels. “I cried like a baby,” Jeff says.
As he’s describing all this, the game goes on down below, and Virginia second baseman Max Cotier makes a terrific catch of a Tennessee line drive to help stifle a Vols threat. Jeff leaps to his feet, roaring with the rest of the Cavaliers’ crowd. He’s having the time of his life.
They are a Wisconsin family and Logan thought about not going to Virginia, to stay closer to his father. “There was a time three years that I didn’t know if Logan Michaels would show up to campus,” O’Connor said. After a visit home when Jeff was particularly ill, Logan cried on the flight all the way back to Charlottesville. Maybe he really needed to stay home. But his parents told him to follow the dream that he had worked his whole life to see. The son’s love of baseball had come to mean much to the father. When Jeff was undergoing chemo, he would watch Logan’s streamed games, sometimes even replay them to get through the exhausting ordeal of treatments. He was never well enough to travel to Virginia for a game until this spring, but it was something he knew he had to finally do. “It would have been a travesty,” he says, “to not see my son play in his own ballpark.”
And now he’s here, watching his son take a home run trot around the base paths of TD Ameritrade Park. Actually, Jeff figured he’d seen his fondest wish granted earlier in the NCAA tournament.
Some background about that: There was a time Jeff would collect his three kids at their Wisconsin home and play a game called Most Amazing Catches. Jeff would throw a ball over the house and the kids would try to make a diving, highlight-worthy grab. If he or she did, everyone would chant the ESPN-theme ditty. Then came the day earlier this month that Logan made a play that was actually shown on ESPN. Jeff assumed that was as good as it gets.
But it wasn’t.
It has to be a little tough to be here, dealing with the crowds and the heat. Just don’t try to tell Jeff Michaels that. “What’s tough is watching my son battle on the field,” he says. “This is a great thing about having kids; they take your mind off whatever you’re dealing with. He is making life easy for me.”
Sunday is awfully good for the Michaels family. Virginia advances, Logan is a hero, interviewed afterward on TV, sending a message to his father: “I just want to say I love you with everything I’ve got.” The moment is so emotional, O’Connor’s voice wavers when he discusses it, and he just won a College World Series game by six runs. Meanwhile, Jeff does not leave the ballpark empty-handed. Late in the game someone comes by to offer him a white object. His son’s home run ball had been tracked down and taken directly to section 108.
Happy Father’s Day.