Archdeacon: Softball is tonic for toughest time

Donnie Deaton on his 60th birthday earlier this month. CONTRIBUTED

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Donnie Deaton on his 60th birthday earlier this month. CONTRIBUTED

SIDNEY – Even in the most monumental moments of his life, softball always has held sway.

“When we decided to get married, I asked him ‘So, when do you want the wedding?’” said Susan Deaton. “And he said, ‘I want to get married on New Year’s Eve.’

“I thought, ‘I’m marrying a poet! I’m marrying somebody who’s just so romantic. That’s beautiful.’”

Her husband Donnie, who was sitting next to her in their Sidney home the other afternoon, couldn’t hold his growing smile and started to laugh.

“It wasn’t until a year or so later, he’s like, ‘I just couldn’t have it during softball.’”

Donnie nodded: “I would’ve had to take time off from the season.”

“That’s his true love,” Susan laughed. “That’s how much he loves softball.”

Now – four months shy of his 12th wedding anniversary – Donnie Deaton is in the fight of his life after being diagnosed with terminal stage IV pancreatic cancer last October.

Again he’s making accommodations for softball.

Originally, he was undergoing his 72-hour chemo sessions once every two weeks, but they were so rugged that for five days he would be out of it.

Finally, Susan said, they decided: “He’s just not having enough good days.”

That especially became evident as softball season approached.

A Dayton Softball Hall of Famer who this past July also was enshrined in the Legends of the Game hall of fame, Donnie, who just turned 60, plays in a Monday night league in Dayton and also plays on the Dayton Legends 60-and-older team that travels to weekend tournaments around the nation.

The couple talked to Donnie’s oncologist, Dr. Rajeev Kulkarni of the Dayton Physicians Network, and he agreed they could make the chemo sessions every three weeks. Then Donnie got them to start the sessions on Tuesdays, instead of Mondays, so wouldn’t miss games with his Dayton Cattle Company team in the Monday night league at Kettering Field.

And it’s because of that total embrace of the game that he and Susan are in Dalton, Ga. this weekend, where his Legends team is playing in the ISSA Pic-O-Dixie Senior Classic, a huge tournament that draws over 100 teams.

Then in mid-September he and the Legends will head to Las Vegas for the senior softball World Championships.

“Softball has done so much for me,” Donnie said. “I just love the game.”

Susan sees it every time he takes the field: “When he gets out on the ball field, he’s like an eight-year-old boy. When he has a big tournament like this one in Georgia, he will not sleep the night before. It’s not that he’s nervous. It’s just the excitement that he’s going to go play ball.”

And that’s why softball is more important to him now than ever before.

It is providing him with the best tonic for what otherwise could be the worst of times.

‘I want to play softball’

Last fall, Donnie was feeling fatigued and had constant indigestion and went to see a doctor. Tests were run and eventually suspect spots were seen on his liver and pancreas.

“We’re sitting there afterward and they told us it was cancer,” Susan said. “Then they took us down the hall to see Dr. Kulkarni and we’re told it’s stage IV pancreatic cancer. Within five minutes you find out it’s terminal and you don’t have very long to live. They’re not talking years, they’re talking months.

“We couldn’t speak. We couldn’t even think.

“I remember standing in front of the nurses’ station as they handed me the papers and were speaking to me, but I couldn’t understand a thing.”

Before they made the numbing ride back from Troy to Sidney, Susan said they wanted to tell their five children: “They’re all adults and scattered all about. We told three in person and two had to be over the phone.”

Later, they went to tell Harold Evans, who has a large grain farm near Rosewood in northwest Champaign County. He’s Donnie’ best friend.

They met in 1979 when the teenage Donnie – fresh out of Miami East High – began working with Harold at the Cargill soybean plant in Sidney. It was Harold who introduced him to softball and the two have played since.

“Donnie and I have been through all the ups and downs of life together,” Harold said. “We’ve been through marriages, divorces, miscarriages, good things, bad things, just everyday life. “This time when he came over, Susan got out of the car, too. She doesn’t usually come with him. And as he started walking up, his body language told me: ‘Something is really bad.’

“We sat down at the kitchen counter and we all cried and tried to talk our way through it.”

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Donnie Deaton and his wife, Susan, with their new Bernedoodle puppy named Sugar Bear. CONTRIBUTED

Donnie Deaton and his wife, Susan, with their new Bernedoodle puppy named Sugar Bear. CONTRIBUTED

Combined ShapeCaption
Donnie Deaton and his wife, Susan, with their new Bernedoodle puppy named Sugar Bear. CONTRIBUTED

Once the Deatons were back home – alone – the dark reality took hold.

“In the beginning there was a lot of crying,” Donnie said. “I remember lying in bed every night crying, thinking: ‘Why us? Why me? Why now?’”

The first months after the diagnosis were rough and finally in January he retired from Cargill after 41 years.

Susan did her best to get them out of their spiral and seeing some sunshine.

They made their first-ever trip to Key West in December. In February, they went to Disney World with their kids and two grandchildren, Junior and Isabella.

Because the walking would have been too much, Donnie used a scooter. But he went on the rides and even though they all wore masks to adhere to COVID-19 precautions, he was able to enjoy the laughter of his grandkids.

“Was it the smartest thing to do in a pandemic? No, but we only have so much time as a family,” Susan said.

The times at home often were tough, especially when Donnie was diagnosed with diabetes in January and hospitalized with alarming blood sugar levels.

But through it all, Susan and Harold did their best to buoy Donnie.

“I came over once and he was feeling bad and having a pity party and finally I got (ticked off),” Harold said. “I hollered at him: ‘Donnie, get your head out of your butt! I’ve been going to the ballpark with you for 40 years and I’m not going without you.’ “He got (ticked off) at me, but then he said, ‘You know, you’re right.’”

The big turning point, Donnie said, came in March when he was going through a chemo session next to “a 75-year-old gentleman.”

“You don’t usually talk that much then,” Donnie said. “They’re basically pumping poison into your veins and you go from feeling OK to feeling like you have the flu.

“But we started talking and he had stage IV pancreatic cancer, too. He said he’s been going though treatments three years and he was planning on going through three or four more years. He looked great and said he wasn’t looking for an end. “I realized then, ‘Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Why couldn’t I be part of that 5 percent (that defies the odds)? Instead of focusing on dying, concentrate on living.’”

Susan said she asked him: “Where do you want to go? What do you want to do?”

She smiled as she remembered his answer:

“I want to play softball.”

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Donnie Deaton at bat for the Dayton Legends. CONTRIBUTED

Donnie Deaton at bat for the Dayton Legends. CONTRIBUTED

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Donnie Deaton at bat for the Dayton Legends. CONTRIBUTED

“He’s a really good ballplayer’

“When he came to work at Cargilll, we were talking about sports and told me he’d played high school baseball,” Harold said. “I told him I played slow-pitch softball and he was making fun of it.

“But then I talked him into going to a tournament in Botkins. And his first two times at the plate – and maybe it was three – he struck out.

“He still had his baseball swing going, so I took him out in the field and threw him about 50 pitches so he could get his timing down.

“The next game, he hit the first pitch out of the ballpark and it landed right in the middle of the city swimming pool!

“Right then, he was hooked,”

Although Donnie worked the swing shift at Cargill (mid-afternoon to midnight), softball again held sway and at one time he was playing in six leagues every week and eventually was travelling with the senior teams on the weekends. In the winter, he’d play indoor softball in Cincinnati.

Over the years, he learned how to play the game and Cattle Company manager Dave Melampy said he’s become the consummate team player.

“I’ve always tried to carry a higher average than most and I’ll hit a home run here and there,” Donnie said.

“He just hit one out of the park again a couple of weeks ago,” said Michael Carter, who plays on the other 60-and-over Monday night team. “He’s really a good ballplayer.”

Donnie said he loves softball because there are few sports where seniors can band together on a team and play for a common goal. And he loves the kibitzing in the parking lot afterward.

And now softball has become the very best medicine he could have in his cancer fight:

“When I walk out on the field, I forget everything else. I turn into this kid again playing Little League baseball. I can’t run around the block with our dog, but I can run out there. I don’t hurt. I don’t worry.”

When he gets chemo on Tuesdays, Susan said he’s sick and “doesn’t wake up until about Sunday.”

And the first thing he does that day is go join the team for a little batting practice.

“The other guys all check on him and he feeds off their energy,” Susan said.

“Everybody likes him,” Carter said.

Harold agreed: “Donnie’s just a hell of a good dude!”

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Donnie Deaton (right) and his lifetime best friend, Harold Evans. CONTRIBUTED

Donnie Deaton (right) and his lifetime best friend, Harold Evans. CONTRIBUTED

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Donnie Deaton (right) and his lifetime best friend, Harold Evans. CONTRIBUTED

Teammates make sure he keeps the chest protector over the port he has inserted into the right side of his chest.

“And after games, both teams walk into a circle and pray for him,” Harold said. “I’m not an ultra-religious person, but now I believe in the power of prayer.”

He said the Dayton softball community is “a close-knit family” and recently individual plyers and entire teams decided to collect funds and surprise Donnie with an all-expenses-paid trip to the Cincinnati Reds Fantasy Camp over the winter in Arizona.

“People gave 20 bucks here, 20 bucks there, one after another after another,” Susan said.

The only glitch is that the Reds’ 2022 Fantasy Camp – because COVID forced the 2021 cancellation and backlogged attendees – is filled and they’re having trouble getting Donnie a spot in the camp.

Regardless, Donnie said: “I can’t thank people enough. It would be the dream of a lifetime.” And while the length of that lifetime is now uncertain, he said he did have some encouraging news at his last checkup:

“My cancer markers were better. The cancer had gotten a little smaller and at least it hadn’t grown. That’s good news.”

He credited everything from his medical treatment to the camaraderie of the softball guys.

“And most importantly, there’s God’s grace,” Susan said. “It’s working.”

Donnie smiled and nodded:

“Yeah, in my book, God’s a softball fan.”

‘I’m the same dude’

Susan said her trip to Dalton this weekend is about more than watching softball:

“Do I want to go down and sit in Georgia’s 95 degree all weekend? Probably not. But I’m getting to watch my husband doing something he’s so passionate about.”

“Our time together could be short,” Donnie admitted. “Hopefully not, but we don’t know so we want to spend as much time together as possible.”

This summer Susan orchestrated a trip to Gulf Shores, Ala., for the whole family.

They hope to go to Naples, Fla., next February and sometime later make their first trip to Europe and go to Greece.

They did get a delightful black and white Bernedoodle puppy – a cross between a Bernese Mountain Dog and a poodle – that they named Sugar Bear.

“It’s the first dog he’s ever had,” Susan said. “He admitted he’d never had a puppy lick his face before…Now he loves it.”

As she was explaining, Sugar Bear was making Donnie chuckle as she gave him kiss after kiss after kiss.

“She’s lowered our stress level,” Susan said. Donnie nodded: “Right now, I’m having the best time in my life.”

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Donnie Deaton with his family a month after being diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. (left to right in back) son Kevin & wife Jenny; daughter Laura (4th from left) and her husband Craig, Kaitlyn (Susan’s daughter); Emily (Susan daughter) and Ryan (Susan’s son); (In front, left to right) grandson Junior, Donnie, Susan and granddaughter Isabella. CONTRIBUTED

Donnie Deaton with his family a month after being diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. (left to right in back) son Kevin & wife Jenny; daughter Laura (4th from left) and her husband Craig, Kaitlyn (Susan’s daughter); Emily (Susan daughter) and Ryan (Susan’s son); (In front, left to right) grandson Junior, Donnie, Susan and granddaughter Isabella. CONTRIBUTED

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Donnie Deaton with his family a month after being diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. (left to right in back) son Kevin & wife Jenny; daughter Laura (4th from left) and her husband Craig, Kaitlyn (Susan’s daughter); Emily (Susan daughter) and Ryan (Susan’s son); (In front, left to right) grandson Junior, Donnie, Susan and granddaughter Isabella. CONTRIBUTED

Susan felt the same: “We’re going to keep it rolling as long as we can. We feel blessed. I know that sounds strange. I never thought you could feel blessed and have your husband dying of cancer.

“But look at him. Look what he’s been able to do.”

Donnie has been very open about his cancer battle.

“Cancer shouldn’t be something people shy away from,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to feel pity for me. I’m living the best life I can today. I want them to know I’m the same dude.”

Well, not quite.

“Yesterday he was running the sweeper in here,” Susan laughed. “I sent a picture to the kids and they were all like: ‘I don’t believe it! Dad doesn’t run the sweeper!’

“I said, ‘There’s a chance yet!’

“‘Miracles do happen!’”

And now Donnie Deaton needs one more.

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