Saturday, August 22, 2009

Before Jon, There was Greg

In 2001, the Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year was Greg Montalbano. A fierce lefthander, Montalbano was a local-boy-makes-good story when drafted by the Red Sox. At the time he was 3 years removed from his battles with cancer. Two years later he was a top prospect.

Sadly, after several recurrences of his illness over the last few years, he succumbed to his illness today.

Just 10 months ago, the Boston Globe ran a moving feature story on Greg detailing his continuous battles with cancer as a ballplayer right up to 2007. While every member of Red Sox Nation has heard of Jon Lester and his brave fight with cancer, Greg's story was lesser known, and Greg probably would have wanted it that way. Like Lester, he did not define himself as a great pitcher with cancer, but as a great pitcher who happened to be fighting cancer. The difference between the two is Greg fought cancer over and over and over again.

This section from the Globe's article is very telling:
Montalbano's surgery was scheduled for January 2007. Until then, he spent as much time as he could outdoors, fishing or hunting. Alone.
"If this is going to be my one month, I'm going to breathe the fresh air and enjoy it while my body can," he said. "What am I going to do, sit and pout for a month? I might never get out of treatment until they put me in a wooden box.
"I know I'm bald. I know my facial hair is not growing. But I don't look in the mirror and say, 'Oh, Greg, your life sucks.' Crying? I've done it. It's overrated."
On Jan. 2, 2007, doctors removed a tumor. Seven days later, they operated again to remove another tumor.
Carlos Peña, a former Northeastern teammate and now a star first baseman for Tampa Bay, was one of the first to visit Montalbano.
"He never complains," says Peña. "The best way to describe him is his courage. He's got the mind of a champion, the way he lives everyday life.
"It's so easy to give up but he does the total opposite. We just love him. God bless him. To go through this with a smile on his face, it's amazing to watch. If we can only be half the man Greg Montalbano is, we'd be all right."
Somewhere around this time, Montalbano's dream of playing in the major leagues died. Getting 27 outs on a baseball diamond was no longer the most important thing in life.

In the interest of full disclosure, I knew Greg when I was younger. He was on my little league team for years, and definitely the best pitcher we had. He was the consummate teammate - older, cooler and way more talented than any of us, but he never acknowledged those traits in himself.

Before Jon Lester there was Greg Montalbano, and throughout Greg's all too brief life, he worked tirelessly to not be defined by his fight with cancer.  I will grant him that much. I will remember him by how he chose to fight his illness - with an attitude that was determined, courageous, stubborn, and optimistic - the attitude of every great pitcher.

UPDATE: Since word got out, there are a lot of stories you can read about Greg. In a great tribute, two players who knew him well gave him the highest honor a ballplayer can give another:
[Kevin] Youkilis was a teammate of Montalbano in Double-A Portland during the 2003 season while [Carlos] Pena was with Montalbano at Northeastern.
After one of the homers, Youkilis, who tied a career high with two homers and six RBI, he pointed to the sky in honor of Montalbano and had the initials “GM’’ on his hat. When he got to the locker room after the game, Youkilis saw Pena’s homer against the Rangers on television.
“I just saw Carlos Pena hit a home run and he had a sign that said, ‘That was for you, Monty,’” said Youkilis. “It’s an unbelievable feeling that two guys who played with him hit home runs today. It was a great thing.

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GIANTS FAN said...
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Mr. B-G said...

Nice post Chief.

Judy said...

Great tribute

imba said...

Nice write up. Thanks.

Sarah said...

Well said. Bummer, though.

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