Exclusive: MLB execs Billy Bean, Catalina Villegas – who fight for inclusion – now battle cancer

NASHVILLE, Tenn. − They are brilliant executives in Major League Baseball who have been trying to change the world, helping erode the deep-rooted prejudices and intolerance in the sport, but spent the summer living in fear.

Billy Bean, 59, MLB’s senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion after a 10-year professional playing career, is in desperate need for a bone marrow transplant as he battles acute myeloid leukemia.

Catalina Villegas, 36, a collegiate tennis player at Northwestern State University in Louisiana before becoming director of MLB’s diversity, equity and inclusion, is recovering after undergoing breast cancer surgery and six aggressive rounds of chemotherapy, praying the disease is gone forever from her body.

Together, they will be honored during MLB’s 10th annual charity auction, Stand Up to Cancer, started by Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch. Villegas will be making the trip from her Dallas home. Bean will remain home with a compromised immune system, waiting for that phone to ring with a bone marrow donor.

Billy Bean, 59, is MLB’s senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Billy Bean, 59, is MLB’s senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Mentally, it’s a new challenge," Bean tells USA TODAY Sports. “I’ve been fit my whole life, but there have been some nights where I can not recognize how my body feels. I still can not enjoy food.

Bean pauses, his voice cracking.

“I’m not angry, I’m hopeful," he says, “but it hit me really, really hard. I spent 21 days in a hospital with my immune system compromised, I couldn’t have visitors. It was a very isolating experience, especially when you don’t know what the outcome is."

The isolation, the emptiness, and of course, fear saturates the mind – and corrodes the soul.

“You need support, because you don’t feel whole," Bean says. “You don’t feel strong. You don’t have energy. It’s like, I’m not interested in watching TV. I’m not into reading books. When I have the energy, I just focus on work."

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Bean can’t go out running in Central Park or ride a Peloton bike twice a week with his husband, Greg Baker, as he did before the diagnosis of Aug. 28 that turned his life upside down.

You can’t play pickleball and run through the neighborhood like Villegas did with her wife, Jennifer Crocker-Villegas, until being diagnosed March 22 with Stage 2 breast cancer.

Cancer robs you of all that, and makes you wonder if you'll ever regain the strength to live a normal life.

“It’s such a horrible disease, it’s tough when you don’t know what going to happen," says Villegas who lost her grandmother to breast cancer at the age of 39 and her father to leukemia six years ago. “Your mind goes through very dark places. You go into survival mode. There’s the isolation. You don’t have the energy to work out. You don’t have the energy to go to the office. You don’t have the energy to do anything."

Bean, only the second MLB player to publicly disclose he’s gay after his retirement, is one of baseball’s biggest stars. He’s a tireless worker who has opened doors in baseball that have been slammed shut for a century.

He was tired, and had lost weight, but figured it just a matter of stress. It wasn’t until several of his friends were alarmed at his weight loss that he stepped on a scale. He had lost 22 pounds.

He went in for a morning appointment with his doctor, was lying in an emergency room by the afternoon, was undergoing chemotherapy the next day and didn’t leave the hospital for three weeks.

“I didn’t even realize that I lost that much weight," Bean says, “but I just wasn’t feeling well. I figured, I’ll just go for a run, drink some water, and I’d be fine. But I was going through night sweats. I finally went in, saw the doctor and nurse practitioner, and they said, 'There’s something going on here.’

“I heard of leukemia, but I never heard of AML. It was a total shock."

Bean started making calls, informing his family and closest friends of the news, and one of the most emotional calls was to Patrick Courtney, MLB’s chief communications officer. It was as if Bean felt as if he was letting Courtney and MLB down. He knew how much they accomplished together to help erase hate in baseball, but feared the mission would be put on hold.

“Nobody knows all of the work he does with teams and individuals," Courtney says. “He has made such an impact for us. He just didn’t want anything to slow down his momentum."

Courtney, who lost his college roommate to cancer this summer, says their office was devastated.

"It’s been rough on everyone here knowing what they’ve been going through," Courtney says. “First Catalina, and now him. This has been such a battle."

The disease has affected us all. We have family members who have lost their lives or battled cancer. We have best friends and neighbors going through chemo and radiation now. We have associates at work who have had to leave their jobs.

Rich, poor. Black, white. Gay, straight. Republican, Democrat. Cancer doesn't care.

“I remember going to the chemo room, it’s like walking into this big clubhouse, with six seats in there," Villegas says. “You’re plugged in there and connected for six hours with people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and everyone in there are fighting for their lives.

“That is the one beautiful lesson that cancer teaches you.

“It doesn’t discriminate."

Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo, one of Bean’s closest friends – they met in 1985 in Santa Maria, Calif. – will talk on behalf of Bean at the charity auction Monday. He’s auctioning a game where someone can spend the day with him next season.

It was during the postseason that Lovullo heard Bean was sick, but when he called, Bean told him not to worry about him. Go win a World Series, Bean told him. The diagnosis could wait.

Lovullo called back a day after the World Series was over, and Bean hit him with the stunning news.

“You hear the word 'cancer,’ you hear the word, 'leukemia,’ and it just rattles you," Lovullo says. “He explained exactly what he was going through. We laughed. We cried. And I got informed.

“Billy has always been such a giver. He’s one of the best human being I ever met. He’s just always been available to everyone, touching everyone.

“I want the world to know what a great human he is. I know it’s not in his DNA to allow people to give back to him. Well, now it’s time for him to catch all of that love. I want the world to know it’s for him.’’

Bean badly wishes he could be there to hear Lovullo, he says, and give him a hug, but his doctors are prohibiting him from flying. Villegas says she’ll gladly pinch-hit and share that love, hugging all of those who have reached out to both of them.

“I think it will be very emotional," Villegas says. “It’s not about me. It’s not about Billy. It’s about creating awareness that this happens to a lot of people. And when it happens, it’s hard for family members and friends.

“It’s so emotional, but it’s ok to feel down, it’s OK to ask for help."

Villegas and Bean will continue to fight the fight. They will persevere. They believe in their heart of hearts they’ll beat this ruthless disease, and will spend the rest of their lives spreading awareness that no symptom or sign should ever be ignored.

Villegas, who noticed a lump on her breast three months before she finally went to the doctor, will let the world know that no matter how busy your lifestyle, don’t wait. Bean, who had been exhausted for weeks, waking up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat, will share the message that any kind of delay can cost a life.

“We have so much to be thankful for, and all of the support we’ve received," Villegas says. “Now, we can share our story, create some awareness in hopes of saving some lives, and tell the survivors what to expect.

“There are going to be some good days, but bad days, but there is hope and a light at the end of tunnel. Just like any life obstacle, you have to believe that things get better. You’ve got to find that sunshine at the end of the day, right?

“This will be our story to tell."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB executives Billy Bean, Catalina Villegas both battling cancer