For Royals prospect Luke Farrell, 2016 was a milestone year.
The 25-year-old Farrell continued his ascent through the minor leagues, reaching Class AAA Omaha, one step from pitching in the majors.
But that paled in comparison to off-the-field news: Farrell had a five-year scan and there was no sign of the tumor that at one time threatened not only his playing days, but his quality of life.
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It’s fairly typical for a person heading to college to get his teeth cleaned. What was atypical in Farrell’s case was that the visit came six months after his tonsils had been removed and a protrusion on one side of his throat remained.
“I thought that was kind of weird and the dentist thought so, too,” Farrell said. “I had a scan after that and it revealed that there was a pretty large tumor in what would look like the back of my throat, but basically at the base of my skull.”
The year was 2009, and Farrell’s dad, John, was the pitching coach for the Red Sox, so the family consulted specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Doctors formulated a plan: make a 4-inch incision in his neck, remove the golf-ball sized tumor and biopsy it because the doctors were unsure of what it was. But during an eight-hour surgery, doctors found the tumor was close to the carotid artery. One slip and there could have been extensive bleeding, so the tumor couldn’t be removed.
“When I woke up, I was thinking, well, first of all, I woke up, which was a plus,” Farrell said. “But hopefully this was done. They told me no, they weren’t able to get it, so that was a pretty crushing moment.”
Rustin Dodd and Pete Grathoff, who cover the Royals for The Kansas City Star, discuss the early part of spring training from Surprise, Ariz.Rustin Dodd and Pete Grathoff The Kansas City Star
Luke Farrell’s name is not to be found on any top prospect lists, but Royals officials believe he’ll be in the major leagues at some point.
Although he’s 6 feet 6 and 205 pounds, Farrell doesn’t push triple digits on the radar gun. The Royals were aware when they picked him in the sixth round of the 2013 draft that he had a different kind of pedigree that they covet.
“We knew this when we drafted him, he’s extremely smart,” said J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ assistant general manager of player personnel. “He really knows what his abilities are, how he needs to attack hitters. His pitching IQ is higher than most guys coming into the system.”
Farrell’s dad had spent time as a director of player development with the Cleveland Indians, as a pitching coach at Boston and manager with the Blue Jays and Red Sox. That was all before Luke Farrell finished college, so he was immersed in the game.
“He’s a little different,” Picollo said. “You feel like you’re talking to someone who has been coaching for 10 years when really it’s a player that has been with us for four or five years.”
As if the need for a second surgery wasn’t daunting enough, doctors told Luke Farrell that if they couldn’t get to the tumor through the original incision, they would take drastic measures.
Farrell’s jaw would be split in half and he would be put into a medically induced coma for up to 14 days.
“To watch your son, who at the time was 18, have a conversation with the performing surgeon as a consultation before the procedure, and talk about the potential of stroke or a bleed out, those are not normal conversations for an 18-year-old,” John Farrell said. “It was startling to say the least.”
One of the last thoughts Farrell had as he was given anesthesia: would he awaken in the hospital later that day or after a fortnight?
“That was pretty much 50-50 and I wouldn’t have known about it for two weeks,” Farrell said. “I kind of had a signal worked out with my mom just to let me know what had happened (when I awoke). When she pointed to her neck, that was good news.”
It seemed to be great news. The doctors removed the tumor and it was benign. A biopsy revealed it was a schwannoma, which is described by Johns Hopkins as a tumor that grows along the peripheral nervous system.
In Farrell’s case, the tumor could have affected nerves that control movement in face, arm, tongue, lips and eyes.
Fortunately the tumor was removed, Farrell finally got to start his freshman year at Northwestern, and the baseball season began four months later.
“They said in a hundred years, this tumor is not likely to come back,” Farrell said. “Well, by year two, it had completely come back.”
Farrell’s first two seasons in the Royals system were bumpy. While with teams at three levels, his ERA was 5.69 in 163 innings pitched.
But in 2015, Farrell had a bit of a breakthrough while at Class AA Northwest Arkansas. In 19 games, including 16 starts, his ERA dropped to 3.09. At Class AAA Omaha last year, Farrell had a 3.76 ERA in 91 innings.
During a five-game stretch late in the season, Farrell had a 1.13 ERA and held opponents to a .230 average.
While Farrell’s strikeout numbers don’t dazzle, he can reach 95 mph with his fastball that is usually a few ticks less than that, and Picollo said he uses his curveball to keep batters off balance.
“He has a plan in his mind that he’s able to execute,” Picollo said. “He’s not afraid to pitch with his fastball, even though he doesn’t throw 97. He’ll pitch in the zone with his fastball and he can locate a fastball down. Just with that, now you add in his slider and his change-up and he’s got pretty much a five-pitch mix with the way he uses his fastball.
“I think he just sees the game a little more clearly than most guys. He’s almost thinking two pitches ahead instead of just this one pitch.”
Just before his junior season at Northwestern in 2011, Farrell was trying not to think too far ahead. The devastating return of the tumor raised the possibility that his baseball career was over at age 20.
The doctors made a third cut into the same spot in his neck, and successfully removed the tumor again. This time, it was followed by proton radiation, a specific and localized treatment that lasted six weeks.
“That round of surgery and radiation was tough, just because there were a lot of complications from it,” Farrell said. “I had some paralysis in my neck. I couldn’t speak for about two months. I had no voice. And … you’re really fatigued.”
As he had done as a freshman, Farrell missed his fall semester at Northwestern as he recovered.
But Farrell was determined to return to the Wildcats baseball team, calling it the “light at the end of the tunnel.”
These days, Farrell admits that he perhaps returned sooner than he should have. But by his senior season, Farrell was second in the Big Ten in ERA and strikeouts and, perhaps most remarkably, was named to the academic all-conference team for the third time.
The Royals, having done the necessary medical checks, drafted Farrell.
Last week, Farrell could offer a smile as he recounted an unlikely journey that found him in the Royals clubhouse at spring training.
While he would be reassigned to minor-league camp as was expected later that day, he’d made an impression on manager Ned Yost. Farrell appeared in four spring games without allowing a run.
Beyond the numbers, Picollo said while unusual, the Royals sometimes use Farrell as a sounding board.
“We know he grew up around the game, and we go to him at times to get some perspective on how a player may be looking at things,” Picollo said. “Different training methods that are out there, things that he may be doing that we know that he is doing and we want to get his perspective on it.”
Farrell, of course, has a great sounding board in his dad. However, with John managing the Red Sox and Luke in the Royals’ system, time together is scarce, although they often talk by phone after a start.
But in November, John Farrell spent a week in the Dominican Republic and enjoyed watching Luke pitch in the winter league there.
“What’s really unique about our relationship is we can talk about real-life situations and then we can talk about baseball and more specifically pitching,” John Farrell said. “He does a great job of differentiating between the two, and I’m not always the father in some ways — I guess that’s the best way to say it — which allows us to have really good conversations.”
There is always baseball for father and son to discuss, and fortunately, the talks about doctors and hospitals are no longer prevalent. They can focus on fun things, too.
For instance, while well-versed at guitar, Farrell is teaching himself piano at his house in Surprise, to the amusement of his roommates.
In some ways, Farrell seems older than his 25 years. Whether it be his baseball acuity or his off-the-field pursuits, there is a maturity not often seen in young players.
The years-long medical battle affected Farrell, and it goes beyond the visible scar on his neck.
“It doesn’t change my effort or how competitive I am and wanting to succeed, but yeah, those are lessons that can only be learned if you go through something like that,” Farrell said. “Especially at such a young age, it forces you to grow up really quick.
“When it comes to things like baseball, it becomes a little bit easier to remind yourself, ‘yeah, it’s just a game, and it’s a really fun job that I love and am fortunate to be able to do.’ But the other thing is reminding myself that, hey, I’m just lucky to be playing.”