'Just be aware': For one Yankees coach, cancer scare a reminder of the sun’s danger (2023)

NEW YORK — With all the joys that come with spending time at the ballpark, it’s easy to forget the dangers. If you’re in the stands, you relish every crack of the bat, but glaze past signs warning of scorched foul balls. If you’re on the field, there are any number of ways to get hurt in a game that goes from dull to frenzied in a snap.


Then there’s the sun, which has been Travis Chapman’s enemy since birth. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed and pale-skinned, he knows he must protect himself the best he can. For an afternoon game in sweltering late July, he’ll wear long sleeves under his uniform top. He’ll lather his face, neck and hands with sunscreen before throwing pregame batting practice, and he’ll do it all again before first pitch.

So the skin cancer scare that Chapman experienced at the beginning of the regular season came as a shock — and he hopes it can be a teachable moment for others like him who call the baseball field a second home.

“Just be aware,” he said.

'Just be aware': For one Yankees coach, cancer scare a reminder of the sun’s danger (1)

Yankees first base coach Travis Chapman. (Photo: Mary DeCicco / MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Chapman is smiling. He’s sitting in the home dugout at Yankee Stadium, more than three hours before the start of what would end up an 8-7 loss to the Rays despite a late Yankees rally. It’s Sunday morning, May 14 — about a month since team dermatologist Dr. Darrell Regil delivered the news to Chapman. He was going to be OK.

“I’m doing fine,” he said. “Every day is a great day. I’m feeling great.”

Except for a while, things were a little strange for the 44-year-old.

Starting in spring training 2020, Chapman noticed that a few long days of coaching at the team’s training complex in Tampa would leave his lips raw and chapped. The issue continued as he served as assistant infield coordinator at the Yankees’ alternate training site at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Sometimes, his lips would crack. They would bleed.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t give my wife a kiss,” he said. “Then it would heal up and it would be like, ‘Something happened or whatever.’”

Chapman decided to finally tell Yankees trainers about his concerning condition when spring training started this season. That’s when he saw Rigel, who recommended a follow-up check before the end of camp. But at the second appointment, Rigel showed worry. While the doctor initially thought Chapman might be dealing with something precancerous, his tone shifted. “He was like, ‘Yeah, this might be a little further along than what I first thought,’” Chapman remembered.


So, Chapman had a biopsy when the team returned to the Bronx. A doctor sliced out his skin from the inside of his bottom lip. When Chapman arrived at Yankee Stadium the next day, the lip appeared mangled. People noticed.

“I didn’t know if I should talk to him about it or ask him about it or bring it up,” Aaron Judge said.

“When I saw it,” Oswaldo Cabrera said, “I was worried. I was like, ‘What is that?’”

Chapman figured it would be easiest if he just told everyone the truth, and Yankees players and coaches responded with an outpouring of support. Catching coach Tanner Swanson’s wife, Laura, is a dermatologist in Seattle. Chapman sent her pictures of his lip and she advised him he was on the right track. Gleyber Torres asked him every day how he was feeling. Anthony Rizzo, a Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, “tried to make it light” around Chapman with some jokes. Judge made it a point to bring baseball questions to Chapman to “get (his) mind off of it.”

“The most important thing is to be there for him,” Judge said.

A few days after the biopsy, Rigal told Chapman that he was dealing with precancerous actinic cheilitis. If left untreated, it could have developed into squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer that “can be particularly aggressive,” according to dermatologist Dr. Jesse Lewin, the system chief of the Division of Dermatologic & Cosmetic Surgery at Mount Sinai Health System.

Lewin, who didn’t treat Chapman but has treated cases like his, said that actinic cheilitis is a common precancerous condition. It particularly occurs in people like Chapman, who is “out and about in the sun every day. … That’s a risk factor. People who are fair(-skinned). The lower lip is an area where we don’t tend to use sunscreen.” Signs of the condition include cracking and bleeding, and sometimes the blurring of the vermillion border, or where the face skin turns into lip, Lewin said.


Chapman was relieved at the diagnosis.

“Very happy that it had not progressed further,” he said.

Chapman was especially glad because he was keeping the issue quiet away from the stadium. The hardest part of Chapman’s job isn’t the long hours or the travel or the pressure that comes with performing on baseball’s biggest stage. Instead, it’s being away so often, and for so long, from his wife, Julie, and their three children, who all live in their home in Jacksonville, Fla., where Chapman grew up. It’s why he often arrives at the stadium nine hours before the first pitch of a night game. He can either lay in bed at his apartment near Columbus Circle in Manhattan and stare at the ceiling, thinking about how much he misses them, or he can pour himself into his work. Aside from his duties coaching first base, he’s the team’s infield defense coordinator and base-running lead, plus he throws batting practice.

“It’s always a fine line,” he said. “You think about and wonder if you’re doing the right thing. At the end of the day, it’s a job that I really appreciate, that I really enjoy and have been doing with the Yankees for 11 years now.”

His kids saw Chapman’s busted-up lip on TV and asked if he was OK. His parents received calls from worried family friends about it.

“Obviously,” he said, “I didn’t tell them I had a biopsy on my lip.”

One day next month, Chapman will arrive at Yankee Stadium, and his lip will be busted up again. But this time, he’ll be happy about it. Doctors are slated to burn off several layers of his skin containing precancerous cells with a laser. The procedure should eradicate the problem entirely. And there’s an added bonus.

“Dr. Rigel says after you have the treatment, your lip will look younger and fresher,” he said, “which I don’t really care about.”


But the Yankees certainly care about their coach putting the saga behind him.

“He’s a really impactful coach,” Boone said. “So committed. He’s the cliche of the first one here, last one to leave. That’s Chappy.”

They appreciate that he hasn’t missed a second of work throughout the scare, but they also know it’s about more than baseball.

“That’s life in general,” Rizzo said. “You have to just keep going. Keep putting your next foot forward and follow that mentality. I know that’s the way that Travis goes about it. I think it’s a testament to him, too, how much he cares about us.”

'Just be aware': For one Yankees coach, cancer scare a reminder of the sun’s danger (2)

Aaron Judge and Travis Chapman. (Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images)

“It takes a lot of mental toughness,” Judge said. “This is a wonderful game that we get to play and that he gets to coach. He gets to be a part of playing a kids’ game. Everybody has a life, everybody has a family, everybody has things they want to do once they’re done playing this game. But when the word cancer gets thrown around, that’s bigger. That’s bigger than any baseball game with us.

“So, for someone like that to continue to show up every day and stay focused — he didn’t skip a beat even though we all knew what was happening and what was going on. He still showed up every day. … It’s impressive. I think that just speaks to the character and what he’s done throughout his whole coaching career and why he’s in this position with the Yankees now. It’s good to be around the guy, I guess.”

It’s also been a reminder for some players to take skincare seriously. Boone said team doctors perform skin checks at points during the season. “It’s a reminder of how susceptible we are to just being out in the sun all day, and I think sometimes we take our skin for granted,” Swanson said.

Lewin said had a few tips for fans and players. He said “basically starting sun protection as a baby” is key because “it’s cumulative sun exposure over a lifetime and that leads to skin cancer and precancerous (conditions).” He added that people should use sunscreen that’s at least 30 SPF, and that there’s little difference in effectiveness in SPFs higher than that. Also, Lewin said, use sunscreens labeled “broad-spectrum” and preferably ones that contain zinc or titanium.


“I think it’s a lesson for everybody in our clubhouse,” Swanson said. “It’s real. It’s something that we’ve got to take care of. It’s important.”

In fact, when The Athletic approached Chapman about potentially reporting on his ordeal one day recently at Yankee Stadium, the coach thought about it for a moment, but then agreed. He hopes his story can spread awareness about protecting your skin from the sun to people like him, who want to enjoy their time at the ballpark while minimizing danger.

“Be aware of things that can happen and try to be open to getting the help you might need as soon as possible,” he said.

(Top photo of Travis Chapman, left, and Oswaldo Cabrera: New York Yankees / Getty Images)

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