The sports world lost one of its all-time greats when Tug McGraw, a relief pitcher who coined the phrase, "Ya Gotta Believe," died on Jan. 5, 2004 after an arduous nine-month battle with cancer.
McGraw, originally from Vallejo, was one of baseball's top relievers and most colorful characters. He spent 19 big league seasons as a pitcher for the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies and compiled a 96-92 career record with 180 saves, a 3.13 ERA and two World Series rings. His teammates included some of the greatest players of all time, from Tom Seaver to Pete Rose.
"He had a lot of charisma and a lot of excitement," said Napa's Warren Brusstar, a teammate of McGraw's on the 1980 World Series champion Phillies. "He was definitely a unique individual. He knew how to take the stage and run with it. He was a great teammate and a great person."
Thanks to the work of The Tug McGraw Foundation, McGraw's memory and spirit lives on. The symbol of the foundation is a white bracelet with red seams made from a baseball and held together by tying the red strings. It has McGraw's No. 45, followed by YGB. The idea for the bracelet came from Dylan Brusstar, Warren's son and a senior pitcher for the Napa High School baseball team.
Over 90,000 bracelets — which are available for $4.50 each at Party Time in Napa or by going to www.tugmcgraw.com or www.timmcgraw.com — have been sold since Sept. 10. All of the proceeds go back to the foundation, which has been financed by Tim McGraw, Tug's son, the country music superstar.
"The word is out there and it feels real good," said Jennifer Brusstar, Warren's wife and the vice-president of The Tug McGraw Foundation. "This feels so right, having the connection with the Napa Valley and Tug's family here. The reaction has been positive."
The goal of the foundation is to raise $1.9 million per year, with part of that going to The Tug McGraw Center for Neuro-Oncology Quality of Life Research, which is based at the Brain Tumor Center at Duke University in Raleigh, N.C. It's also to fund scholarships. Students looking for a scholarship can visit www.tugmcgraw.com or can call the foundation at 363-1026 to get an application.
"I just wish that Tug could have seen all the positive things that have come out of it," said Jennifer Brusstar. "Every day brings something new, knowing that we're helping so many people feel so good and helping athletes. It just feels really, really good, and I think Tug would be really proud. The 'Ya Gotta Believe' spirit lives within this foundation."
Jennifer acted as Tug's full-time caregiver during his illness and was the project manager for Tug McGraw's memoir, "Ya Gotta Believe!: My Roller-Coaster Life as a Screwball Pitcher And Part-Time Father, And My Hope-Filled Fight Against Brain Cancer." She spent seven months with McGraw, assisting him with his doctor's appointments at Duke University while also fact checking, researching and conducting interviews for the book. McGraw was diagnosed with brain cancer in March 2003 while working as a pitching instructor with the Phillies during spring training.
He died in Brentwood, Tenn. He was 59.
"Ya Gotta Believe," written with New York Times best-selling author Don Yaeger, is a heartwarming and heartbreaking account of McGraw's life in and out of the spotlight.
"I tell people the greatest thrill I ever had was just having to catch with him — whether it was when we were growing up or whether it was when we were in pro ball," said Hank McGraw, Tug's brother. "He was just unbelievable talent-wise, with what he had to work with. He was that good and he stayed that good.
"He found a way to get you out. Because of his enthusiasm and his intestinal fortitude, he inspired other players to play over their heads, which is why I think he was on a lot of winning ballclubs. He was one of those guys that stirred up the chemistry on a ballclub."
The Tug McGraw Foundation was established to raise funds for pioneering brain cancer research, to support collegiate athletes with leadership potential to carry on Tug's "Ya Gotta Believe" spirit, and to raise public awareness of the disease of brain cancer.
Tim McGraw's hit single, "Live Like You Were Dying," the 2004 winner of single of the year and song of the year by the Country Music Association, is dedicated to his late father. In addition, Grammy Awards were presented to the song's writers, Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman, for Best Country Song, and McGraw received the Best Male Country Vocal Performance award.
"From my vantage point, being up on stage with (Tim) McGraw every night, the thing that's really been astounding to watch is the support that Tug has been given and therefore the foundation has been given," said Jeff McMahon, a keyboardist and vocalist with Tim McGraw's band, the Dancehall Doctors.
"So many of the fans are showing up and show Tug McGraw bracelets, with Tug McGraw jerseys, with numbers and posters and signs — for a number of reasons. They personally want to support Tim, because it's his dad. Also, because they appreciate Tug's whole mantra of 'Ya Gotta Believe.' When we put that song out there and the message of 'Live Like You were Dying,' it's essentially a re-wording of 'Ya Gotta Believe,' and the way Tug lived that last year of continuing to embrace everything that was important to him. That song became a reflection of Tug's last year and certainly became a reflection of the struggle that a lot of people have with their various obstacles or relationships or whatever. We see that every night.
"We get to that song and the lights come up in the arena, and the entire arena of 25,000 people will sing that song back to us — we don't even sing it sometimes, because they're all singing it.
"The song has a lot of meaning and a lot of depth — and it has a lot of personal elements to it. It's really embraced audiences."
E-mail Executive Sports Editor Marty James at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 256-2223.