Sports

Safe at home

Winthrop senior Billy Tinsley missed the majority of last season while dealing with family concerns.
Winthrop senior Billy Tinsley missed the majority of last season while dealing with family concerns.

Billy Tinsley will probably never describe a pitching situation as "bad," even if it's one of those days where nothing looks good.

He's seen bad. And a full count with the bases loaded doesn't come anywhere close.

Bad is losing a mother and sister to cancer within eight years. Bad is getting a phone call saying a father was losing a battle to the same disease, just when Tinsley was beginning a new chapter in his life.

Bad was hearing his sister's voice in Vienna, Va., telling him the cancer's progression in Bill Tinsley was bad. Billy got the call on Feb. 1, 2007, just as he and his Winthrop teammates arrived in Los Angeles to play UCLA in their season-opening series.

"You kind of know," Billy said. "We've kind of been through this a couple of times. When someone says, 'It's bad,' you kind of know."

Bad was seeing his father, the guy who'd caught for him in all those endless backyard sessions, in a hospital bed, trying his hardest to beat an unbeatable opponent. Bad was Billy wondering what he should do with himself, at the time 22 years old with both parents and a sister gone, his future as up in the air as one of those baseballs he'd been throwing around The Winthrop Ballpark just a few months prior.

But bad, as bad as it was, never became worse. Because even though Tinsley lost his father two months after that call, he again rebuilt himself and once again began the journey to turn bad into good.

"I knew I'd come back," Tinsley said, gazing at the spacious new Winthrop locker room, the garnet plate with his last name and No. 16 etched above his space. "I like it so much here. It'd be too depressing to not come back. This is fun for me.

"A good way to get away from everything else."

Not again

Cancer took his sister, Shannon, when Tinsley was 13. He began college at George Mason and shortly thereafter lost his mom, Barbara, to the same sickness.

Tinsley was 20 and wanted a change. He caught the interest of Winthrop's coaching staff, which liked what it saw and told Tinsley he had a spot if he wanted to transfer.

Tinsley made the seven-hour trip and fell hard for Winthrop's campus, loving the renovating stadium and recognizing an excellent chance to play right away. As a left-hander, he was penciled in as a guy who could start or relieve with a shot at plenty of innings.

He was enjoying the sunny L.A. weather with everybody else when he got the call. Cancer had been found in Bill Tinsley -- Billy knew what his dad's chances were as soon as he heard those nasty three letters.

B-A-D.

"My sisters had known about it for a couple of days; they didn't want to tell me right away," Billy said. "They just figured they should tell me. They were going to wait until the trip was over."

He got the news the day before the first game and Winthrop coach Joe Hudak immediately made arrangements to get him home. Tinsley flew to Virginia two days later with a clear understanding he could come back to Winthrop whenever he wanted.

When he got home, Tinsley's sisters and the doctors told him his dad had six months. They would continue to treat him to try to make him as comfortable as possible, but there wasn't much hope the radiation and other medicines would provide a miracle.

"He asked about baseball, asked about school, just normal everyday things, nothing too deep," Tinsley said of those last days talking to his father. "I tried to keep it like everything was normal."

Bill encouraged his son to go back to Winthrop instead of waiting by the bedside every day, and following a few weeks of deliberation, Billy agreed. He came back, made his first appearance of the season and began waiting every day for another call.

Turns out he never really got a message saying, 'You need to come home. It's ... bad.' It was more him feeling like he should be there amid the constant updates from his family members.

He went back to Hudak and told him his dad had been moved to hospice care. Hudak told him of course, go home, take care of your family. Tinsley would have to withdraw from school but hopefully the NCAA would be lenient enough to restore his eligibility -- if Tinsley ever came back.

"During the whole process, from our end, we didn't know if he was ever going to come back or not," Hudak said. "When something like that happens, and you've lost your mom and your dad both ...

"But I told him, 'Whatever you need to do, you certainly have my full support.'"

Billy returned to Virginia. Bill Tinsley died on April 17.

What now?

The cards and calls from his teammates never stopped coming, and it helped that Billy's roommates and best friends, Kellen Taylor and Ryan Schwartz, came to the wake and funeral. Once Taylor and Schwartz returned to Rock Hill, Tinsley followed the Eagles online, watching his teammates on the stat tracker as they went out every day, first hanging Tinsley's jersey in the dugout to honor his contribution.

The game's pull was too strong to ignore. That Tinsley knew he could go back to Winthrop, where he'd found a home, and play again someday helped chase away a lot of those lingering thoughts.

"With my sister, my mom and dad, really, they just want you to be happy," Tinsley said. "They raised you and they tried their best and they do everything they can to put you in the best position to succeed in life, and I just think I'd be letting them down if I didn't try and do that. I feel like I'd be disappointing them if I wasn't trying to be happy and trying to do the things they raised me to do."

Part of that was pitching. Bill had played in high school and Barbara had played softball, helping her son's development as a pitcher, since she was a lefty, too. Billy kept in touch with Hudak and his teammates, and when the phone rang in May, it held some good news for once.

"We were kind of traveling up near his area," Hudak said. "I told him, 'If you want to come to the Liberty series, we'd love to have you. You can stay in the hotel with us.'"

Tinsley agreed and met the team in Lynchburg, around four hours from Vienna. He got back around the team and found out nothing had changed -- they weren't looking at him as any kind of charity case, although they all naturally felt bad for him, and rallied around him as a friend.

Which was great. With everything Tinsley had been through, he just wanted some normalcy back in his life.

"Everybody was really good with that," he said. "I really felt confident."

"Everybody loves Billy," Schwartz said. "Everybody on the team likes him, everybody at school likes him. When I went to the funeral and the wake, I think I was more visibly upset than he was. He's just a strong man and handles his business."

The weekend helped Tinsley regroup, and he ended up coming to Winthrop for the Coastal Carolina series later that month. He went back home for the summer but had made up his mind -- he was coming back to Winthrop for his final year and would appeal the NCAA for an extra season to replace his lost 2007, relying on a strong precedent for hardship withdrawals.

"A big part of it was everybody here, teammates, and really my roommates and their families, were great," Tinsley said. "People really do come together. They kind of form a support group for you. You know you'll always have people around so there's not too much downtime to just sit there and think."

The present

The No. 16 that hung in Winthrop's dugout the majority of last year is back in the equipment room. It'll be on Tinsley's back on Sunday, when he's scheduled to start the Eagles' third game of the 2008 season.

There was never any question if he could handle the physical part of the game. And with what he's been through, there's not any doubt if he can handle it mentally, either.

"It's a credit to him and it actually is to his mom and dad and how they raised him," Hudak said. "He's a very mature kid. You never know what's going through a guy's mind when you go through something like that. You just make sure he knows you care about him and you love him and that you're there for him."

Tinsley said he doesn't mind talking about what he's been through with the public. He won't be the one to volunteer the story but says he has no problems with folks offering him a consoling handshake or a friendly pat on the back.

It was the same way with his teammates. Schwartz and Taylor saw him the most last year while Tinsley was dealing with his dad's death and said that while it was obviously tough, the way Tinsley emerged from the chaos was awe-inspiring.

"He's probably one of the strongest kids I've ever been around, because of that," said Taylor, who graduated last year and now lives in Charlotte. "I really admire him for that. Even when Ryan and I were up there visiting, he would crack a joke every now and then, keep the mood light."

Schwartz, still Tinsley's roommate, said the maturity is clearly evident in the way Tinsley pitches. While some players would want to dedicate the season or a game to the memory of a loved one, Tinsley prefers to concentrate on the mechanics, not the emotions.

"You don't dedicate your one game," Schwartz said. "You dedicate your life to their legacy and how you live. I think that's how you best honor your family. He does an exceptional job of that."

Not that Shannon or Barbara or Bill never cross Billy's mind when he's out on the mound. Tinsley, while talking with Hudak last year, wondered how to get through a game without those thoughts.

"You do think of them ... really can't help not to think of them," Tinsley said. "I talked to coach about it and he talked about when his dad had passed away and he was coaching and sometimes his mind would wander there.

"But kind of as time goes on, it kind of fades a little bit, at least in terms of playing."

The approach shows Tinsley's maturity. He didn't try to retreat into a self-protective shell, throwing out the stock "I'm fine" when he came back to school. There were no tears when he was sitting in the locker room, detailing the path he'd traveled in his 23 years. He didn't even say he picked The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" ("I see a line of cars and they're all painted black, with flowers and my love both never to come back") as one of the choices for his introductory music because of its somber tone or symbolism -- he just likes classic rock 'n' roll and it's a good song, he said.

His struggle to overcome tremendous heartache matters a lot more than any of the wins and losses that will be notched on his stat charts this year. And nothing he'll see on the mound this season could ever be as bad as those darkened months last year, Tinsley wondering if he could get through it for a third time and return to the game he loved.

"For this, I think it's good that everyone sees how good the team was, how good the university and coaches were," Tinsley said. "Like coach is saying, I'm sure some other people will go through what I go through, and if this helps anybody, that's good.

"Death is pretty much as much a part of life as life is. Just figuring out a way to deal with it and move forward with everything you've learned."

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