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A most painful Thanksgiving

11/26/2003 - Chicago White Sox

This will be a very difficult Thanksgiving for Chicago White Sox scout John Kazanas. This will be the first Thanksgiving for his family since his wife, Chris, died of cancer.

"I just picked up the turkey on the way home,'' Kazanas said from his Phoenix home Tuesday. "It's a 12-pound turkey. I'm going to try to handle the cooking. Chris always cooked it so this will be the first time I've done the bird. I've got enough recipe books, but I'm a little nervous. But we'll get through it.

"I'll have my two girls get involved. (Wednesday) we'll go shopping and buy what we need and Thursday we'll cook everything. We've been invited about five places and as much as I appreciated and felt good about the invitations, we turned everybody down. I just think this is something we have to get through ourselves.''

Chris Kazanas was a remarkable woman. In addition to raising her family with John, she was a successful lawyer for several years with one of Arizona's largest firms. She quit when she found the job unfulfilling and became a public school teacher in a poor section of Phoenix, inspiring some to go on and become teachers and lawyers themselves.

She was still teaching in early 2001 when she developed a pain in her left shoulder. When the pain worsened and spread, she went to a doctor that March. The initial speculation was that the pain was arthritis, but when the pain continued to get worse, she returned for more extensive tests in June. Those tests revealed she had cancer and it was terminal.

Thus began two painful years of chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, blood transfusions and hospitalization. The cancer spread and fed on her bones and muscles, eventually forcing her into a wheelchair. Last Christmas, doctors told her she probably wouldn't live to see another one.

Chris died at age 46 last May, leaving behind four children -- eight-year-old Rachel, 10-year-old Julie, 18-year-old Kevin and 21-year-old Nick. And, of course, her husband of 24 years, John.

This isn't the first tragedy for Kazanas, 49. His father died when he was nine and his mother had a breakdown. She was forced into a psychiatric hospital due to severe manic-depression and Kazanas spent much of the next eight years living in a children's home until he graduated from high school.

"I used to ask God, 'Why do you take a person of 33 years old and force that situation on my mom,' those 30 years of torment she went through,'' Kazanas said. "People would say there's a reason for everything and some day you'll know it. And now losing my wife, maybe that's the reason. Maybe everything I went through growing up made me stronger, made me able to be a mother and a father to my kids so that they don't go through what I did. So that they feel like there's someone who gives a darn.''

I met Kazanas last weekend while he was coaching at the tryout camp for the Greek Olympic baseball team (yes, you read correctly -- the Greek Olympic baseball team. It's a good story, but one that will have to wait for another day). In just a couple days, he impressed me with his optimism and generosity, as well as his dedication and passion for baseball and life.

Scouts are the hardest working, least recognized people in baseball. They'll drive hundreds of miles in a day and thousands of miles in a week on the chance that the high school kid they heard about really has a 90-mph fastball. They're away from home for days at a time, staying in cheap motels in small towns across the country. They aren't paid enough and don't receive enough recognition. General managers, owners, umpires, broadcasters, even writers, have their place in the Hall of Fame, but not scouts.

Kazanas' scouting area includes Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas, Utah and Idaho, an enormous territory. He is used to working hard and making sacrifices to stay in the game he loves so much.

But it all got so much more difficult when Chris died.

"I tell people, you try to find a way to get it done. You make sure that you cover all aspects. And you just get it done," he said. "Now it's just part of the routine. At the start, it was, Holy smokes, that's too much, how will I do it? But now I'm like a fly in a jar. That sucker is trying to get out, he's just in perpetual motion.''

Kazanas says Chicago director of player personnel Duane Shaffer and the White Sox have been very supportive, understanding and flexible. He took more time off than normal this past summer while Kevin and a generous family friend takes in the girls when work takes him away from home.

This winter is a trial period to see whether a career in baseball is still viable.

"The bottom line is if it can't work, I need to stay home and find something else to do for a living,'' he said. "Obviously, my children are the priority.''

The holidays beckon and Kazanas knows the next month will not be easy.

"I'm a bit scared,'' he said. "I'm not sure how it will play out when you sit down at the table to say prayers and not see your wife across from you. When you're married and one spouse does some things and you do the others, it's hard to think you have to do them both. And you just hope you're able to do them as well as she did.

"Chris did a lot at Christmas. She was big time into doing all the Christmas cards. She loved listening to Christmas music. Rachel has been listening to Christmas music the past month because she remembers Chris listening to it. She listens to it while she does her homework. Kevin is going nuts hearing it all the time, but that's all right -- I'm not going to take away what they remember of Chris.

"I'm not going to let people forget her.''

Most of us will spend this Thanksgiving watching football and the Macy's parade. Kazanas and his children will begin it at the cemetery.

"I've cried more in two years than in my entire life,'' Kazanas said. "The day I stop crying, that's when I need to get a readjustment.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.