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07/20/09 8:05 PM ET

Bonine coping with mother's passing

Pitcher mourning loss of biggest fan while at Triple-A Toledo

TOLEDO -- Eddie Bonine came into this season pitching for his mom, his biggest fan. He knew the time would come soon, likely this season, when he would have to do so without her. He also knew she would want him pitching anyway, doing what he loved.

He drew from her strength, and in many ways, still does. That didn't make the call he received near the end of May any easier.

The call came from Bonine's wife. The breast cancer that his mom, Danelle Eckman, had been battling for the better part of three years was starting to take more and more of a toll. She probably didn't have much time, something they expected when she was told last fall that the cancer had returned.

"[We knew] it might be a few days or a few weeks," Bonine said, "but it wasn't going to be too long."

He wasn't just losing his mom, or his best friend. He was losing his biggest fan, and in some ways one of his best coaches. He had spent the past few months as a sort of goodbye, bringing her on the road to Seattle in April while he was pitching with the Tigers and she could still travel. After being optioned to Triple-A Toledo days later, he talked about her for a Mother's Day story on MLB.com to raise awareness for breast cancer.

When he saw his mom back at home in Arizona, on the couch, talking with family and friends, he couldn't quite believe it. She looked way too strong to be in her final days. But as doctors explained to him, there's usually some time where the fight in them allows them to stay strong for a while.

"I went back there for two or three days, and she wanted me to go back here and pitch," Bonine said. "That was pretty tough."

He stayed with her nonetheless. He has been back pitching for almost a month now, but it still hasn't been easy.

Pitching runs in the family. Eckman's father, Bonine's grandfather, taught her how to pitch at age eight with the windmill motion, and it took years for opponents to catch up. She dominated youth softball leagues and into high school. In her final days last month, she and her sister, Janean Farley, were recalling the day she pitched 18 scoreless innings for Mesa Community College.

She married after her college career ended, and soon gave birth to Eddie. From the time he began pitching, his career was in many ways hers, which is what made for such an emotional moment on the phone when he made the Tigers' Opening Day roster.

"Danelle was quite the athlete in her own right," Farley wrote in an email, "but it was Eddie and his well-being and success that were her main focus. Danelle guided Eddie with loving discipline. She so wanted to live to see Eddie's progress and success."

Now, he's had to pitch without those phone calls, without the same cheers. His strength comes from the memories, from the moments he was able to spend with her over the past several months.

As others have observed, he's showing much the same strength that she did, even as she was fighting a battle she knew was a long shot.

To avoid leaving the Mud Hens looking for a spot starter, he stuck around for a couple days after getting the call from his wife to make his scheduled start. He gave up seven earned runs on eight hits over 1 2/3 innings in that June 1 outing.

"You try to go out there and try to be professional," Bonine said. "I felt fine, but I guess it's one of those things where, in the back of your mind, it's a little bit fuzzy."

Bonine spent about two weeks back home. He was with his mom and the rest of the family when she passed away June 9. She went on her own terms, at home with loved ones.

"Her attitude was just so positive with all that," Bonine said. "She knew that her odds weren't good, but she was so positive. She didn't want to feel that way. They exhausted everything in terms of treatments."

He spent about a week helping his stepfather and siblings plan the services. He returned June 23 and did about as well as he could, allowing four runs on six hits over four innings. Then he gave up 10 hits in each of his next two outings. He was getting used to pitching again, but that was just part of it.

"He went through some time there where he was physically all right, but mentally he wasn't," Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish said.

Parrish certainly understood, as did everyone in the Tiger organization. When he left, they told him to take as much time as he needed. They expected a transition to get back, even if Bonine wasn't quite prepared for it.

To Bonine, this is like a sanctuary for him, a place to help him cope.

"It's still tough, but I feel for my wife, my step-dad, who maybe don't have as much to come back to," Bonine said. "I've had a group of teammates to be around, to provide some sense of normalcy."

Slowly but surely, that normalcy is returning. After entering July with an 0-4 record on the season with the Hens, he has quality starts in each of his last three outings. He pitched an eight-inning gem Sunday at Buffalo, scattering two runs over eight innings.

"It may have taken him this long to mentally get back," Parrish said.

He's back, but his mind will always be on his mom. He still wears the glove with the embroidered pink ribbon that Nike provided him. He has written "MOM" on the bottom of the bill of his cap. Fittingly, his next start here Friday will be on the day that the Mud Hens wear pink jerseys in support of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

"Hopefully," Bonine said, "they can help somebody."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.