Fans and players pay tribute to Akerfelds

Fans and players pay tribute to Akerfelds

Fans and players pay tribute to Akerfelds
SAN DIEGO -- It didn't seem to fit: as fans happily settled into their Petco Park seats on a bright and beautiful San Diego Sunday, they received the heart-breaking news that Padres' bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds had lost his battle with pancreatic cancer earlier that morning.

Not a cloud marred the sky as the public address announcer delivered the news that the longest-tenured Padres coach had passed away at age 50.

Suddenly, a day reserved by the Padres to honor and celebrate the efforts of military servicemen, was no longer celebratory, but somber, the levity of a baseball game erased by the weight of grief.

Fans, writers and staff, alike paused to honor Akerfelds in a moment of silence punctuated by sirens. Then came the National Anthem, a moment of silence and the first pitch. It was business as usual under that usually brilliant San Diego sun. It just didn't fit.

But in some ways, it did. Akerfelds was, after all, the man who vowed to keep coaching despite being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2010. He was, remember, the man who dealt with chemotherapy and constant fatigue as he coached at 148 of 163 games despite his illness in 2011. For the past 19 months, the brilliance of the ballpark was what made his struggle tolerable. For Akerfelds, baseball always fit.

"Ak was an invaluable member of the Padres coaching staff. He brought a tireless work ethic and compassion for baseball to the ballpark every day," said Padres manager Bud Black. "He was a loyal Padre to the end ... he will be sorely missed, and what he brought to this organization will never be forgotten."

Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Akerfelds was in the hearts of Padres players as they took the field for the series finale with the Mariners. Tweets poured in from players, fans and members of the baseball family far and wide, but also from the Padres themselves who, like their beloved coach, were to allay grief with the game.

"This one's for Ak," Tweeted pitcher Anthony Bass less than an hour before first pitch.

And it was. For as soon as the news sunk in, the Sunday showdown between two last-place teams suddenly meant more. The most telling reaction was the enthusiasm of Padres' fans, who needed little goading by the "make noise" sign on the scoreboard to show just how much their Padres meant. The roar that followed a fourth-inning two-run double from Alexi Amarista had more behind it than hopes of a series win or winning Interleague record. It was, rather, evidence of the kind of passion for the Padres shown by Akerfelds, who dedicated 16 years of his life to the organization.

"Ak was as much a Padre as anyone who ever wore the uniform ..." said Padres President and COO Tom Garfinkel. "Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and the many people who were lucky enough to know him."

Among the lucky were his relievers, whom he prepared for action day in and day out. Three of them, Joe Thatcher, Luke Gregerson, and Huston Street, sealed the victory for Akerfelds with 2 1/3 innings of scoreless ball Sunday. Gregerson and Thatcher were two of Akerfelds' most devoted students. They earned a win for the man who taught them so much, the mentor who they will sorely miss.

"He was so instrumental to my career, I wouldn't be here without him, I know Luke [Gregerson] feels the same way," Thatcher said of Akerfelds. "He loved us so much, he took a lot of pride in our bullpen, and no matter who came in, new guys, old guys, we were always close. We've always had success, taken pride in that, and he was our leader down there ... he's going to be missed."

"He was a tremendous part of this bullpen, this team," Gregerson said. "Look back and the bullpen has been one of the top in baseball for I don't know how long, and I think he's been a tremendous part of that. He was always analyzing the game and helping us out with hitters ... he was the one you never wanted to disappoint down there."

Akerfelds' reach extends far beyond the current Padres family. Former San Diego star and 2007 Cy Young winner Jake Peavy was a close friend of Akerfelds, and took as much inspiration from him off the field as he did lessons on it.

"To get the news he had given to him, he knew the percentages, he knew what he was up against," Peavy said. "Just the attitude he kept. This guy was laying on his death bed sending me texts, encouraging me after a bad start. It was amazing to me.

"His friendship meant the world ... he was a dad, he was a brother, a mentor and a best friend there in San Diego. It has been a tough last 24 hours."

The sun was still shining brightly when Street struck out Chone Figgins to end the game, but instead of the face of their fallen coach, something else shone on the scoreboard: a zero, as in a shutout, preserved by the players closest to him. The perfect tribute to the man known as "Ak," a perfect goodbye to a beloved coach.

"That was fitting," said Black.

Chelsea Janes is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.