When I think spring, I think green. The various shades of green dazzle the eyes, but nothing signals the start of spring like the clean-cut outfield in a baseball stadium, the bright green a stark contrast to the brown dirt infield.
I wasn’t always a baseball fan. I mean, I played one season of softball when I was younger, and played with my brother and sisters in our backyard. I’ve always loved the hollow sound that echoes through a ball field when the bat smacks the ball. But I didn’t have any allegiance to a major league baseball team until I got cancer.
I was first diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in January, 2005. My brother, Ronnie, and his wife, Kathy, had become staunch New York Yankees fans since moving to Manhattan five years prior, and the day of my diagnosis, they drove down to Virginia. The first thing he said to me when he approached my bedside in the hospital was “Just so you know, I’m using all my bone marrow at the moment so I don’t really have any to share.” We both laughed and I felt secure in knowing that our older brother-younger sister roles would continue just as they had prior to being diagnosed with cancer. Teasing and laughter was central to Matthews family communications, and knowing that nothing had changed made me feel normal.
We never used humor to cover up worries and fears; it was simply a way to distract ourselves from the seriousness of the situation. Ronnie and Kathy came home from New York many weekends that year, and often times, Ronnie and I would stay up late, watching tv and talking. He asked me to share my dreams and my fears with him, and he always listened closely, offering words of encouragement or simply nodding and confirming that my thoughts and worries were normal. He told me he was proud of me and how I approached life as a patient.
When spring began, Ronnie and Kathy urged our parents to purchase the MLB package, and we began watching Yankees games on TV. Our entire family watched: my parents, Ronnie and Kathy, my two younger sisters and my brother-in-law (and of course all the dogs!). During the games, we focused on learning about each player, the rules, the history of the team and the sport. No one ever looked over at me and asked “How are you feeling? Are you OK? What did the doctor say today? What are your blood counts? Do you have a headache? What’s your temperature?”
One player in particular stood out from the rest for me: Mariano Rivera. It wasn’t only that he was an incredible pitcher; he also seemed like a truly decent person who wasn’t changed by his fame. He seemed thoughtful, kind and family-oriented…oh and yah, his pitches constantly broke bats…well, “broke” is probably not the most accurate term…it was more like “splintered”. I loved how his gentle demeanor contrasted with his kick-butt entrance song, “Enter Sandman”.
Several people including doctors, nurses and health care advocates had encouraged me to use visualization as a tool in my recovery. I should visualize the cancer cells being knocked out by the high-dose chemotherapy and imagine healthy red and white cells regenerating and flowing throughout my blood stream. After watching Mariano Rivera add save after save to his stats, it was clear I found my visualization inspiration.
I would close my eyes and picture an ugly leukemia cell wagging his bat at the plate, not unlike Gary Sheffield’s intimidating swing. On the mound, Mariano “Mo” Rivera would go through his graceful wind-up and strike each cell out, over and over again. Sometimes he would hit them, not a common occurrence for the real Mo, but something that made me smile in my visualizations. The point was these cells didn’t stand a chance. I should mention that I also adopted Mariano’s entrance song “Enter Sandman”, as my number one kick-leukemia’s-butt soundtrack.
When baseball season ended that year, I experienced my first taste of end-of-baseball-season depression. I took some time to put pen to paper (or more accurately, fingers to keyboard) and wrote a letter to the Yankees, thanking them for a wonderful season and sharing the meaning of that particular season for my family and me.
In the ensuing years, we continued to subscribe to the MLB package, and we ventured out to a few Yankees games when they came to Baltimore to play the Orioles. On my dad’s birthday in 2008, 3 ½ years after my first diagnosis, I learned that the leukemia returned. I transitioned into patient mode again and my family and friends gathered round to prepare me for the next step: a stem cell transplant in Seattle, 3,000 miles from my home in northern Virginia.
During the first month in the hospital following my relapse, a package arrived from the Yankees, actually the second package I had received from them (my brother reached out the first time I was diagnosed and they immediately sent me a note and some Yankees goodies, along with an autographed picture of Jorge Posada, another one of my favorite players). In this new one was an autographed picture of Mo.
I took the picture with me to Seattle where I had my stem cell transplant at “The Hutch” October 7th, 2008. While my mom and I didn’t have the MLB package out in Seattle, we kept up with the Yankees through Ronnie, Kathy and the rest of the family back on the east coast. I missed the comfort of the game, the green of the outfield, the sounds of the crowds, but my mom and I embraced our new community of South Lake Union in Seattle. While I recovered, we explored, and we truly came to love “The Emerald City”.
I went home in January, 2009 and was able to enjoy a new baseball season surrounded by my whole family. Eventually we made more trips to Camden Yards and I always found such peace in the game. We didn’t watch it on tv as frequently as we did when I was first diagnosed, and over the years, as the players we knew so well began leaving, we found ourselves watching more Nationals baseball. It was nice to have a hometown team. Baseball in general though assumed a lesser role in my life, especially when I began working in 2010.
In 2011, Ronnie died suddenly from complications due to alcoholism. I was devastated. He was my brother, my friend, my advocate. He was 35. Although he was living in Virginia at that point, our youngest sister, Katie, had moved to New York City. She was pursuing her dream of working in film, but she was also following in the footsteps of Ronnie, who instilled in all of us an intense love for the city, its culture and Yankees baseball.
We grieve his loss every day, but we also strive to celebrate his life. When Mariano announced his retirement in 2013, I made plans to visit Katie in NYC to go to a Yankees game. Of course you can never know for sure if a closer will come into the game, but our hope was that I would get to listen to “Enter Sandman” for the very first (and last) time and see Mariano make that run from the bullpen to the mound. We sat in the bleachers near the “Bleacher Creatures”, undoubtedly the most loyal of all Yankees fans, and we waited.
The below video shows my reaction when the unmistakable notes of “Enter Sandman” started filling the stadium. As I wrote in my Facebook post, “I’m crying because I’m happy…to see Mo, to be in New York, to be healthy, I’m crying because I’m sad…because I can never tell Ronnie about this moment, because the Yankees were his team, because he was always so proud of how I handled my illness, because I will never see Mo pitch again. I’m crying because it seemed to be the perfect moment to do so…to celebrate victory and mourn loss. That is the great metaphor of sports and life and it is so very powerful.”
But in the moment, when things are just right,
they’re the most important thing in the world.
That’s what makes them so great.”
Enter SandmanI watch Mariano Rivera enter Yankees stadium to his signature tune “Enter Sandman”. If you don’t already know, Mariano was a key part of my treatment for leukemia. Doctors, nurses and friends all explained the value of visualization. Ronnie introduced the value of Yankees baseball, and I decided to combine the two. When we watched baseball, I knew no one would ask me how I felt or what medical appointments I had the following day. We learned about each player and we focused on the excitement of the game. It was an incredible release for all of us. I came to love Mariano for his laid-back ways and his kick-ass pitching, and I soon began visualizing him throwing out any remaining leukemic cells. If anyone could do it, Mo could. His entrance song, “Enter Sandman” became my number one kick-leukemia’s-butt song.So, you understand, there is so much emotion behind this particular Yankees game. It was my first visit to NY since my diagnosis of leukemia in 2005. It was my first visit to NY since Ronnie died in 2011. It was my first opportunity and the last chance I would get to see Mo run in to “Enter Sandman” because he is retiring after 19 years with the Yankees.Katie and I weren’t sure he would come in for this game because the Yankees were up by 4…not necessarily a save opportunity. But he did. And Katie captured my reaction on video. It was a moment I will never forget, and I firmly believe Ronnie had a hand in making sure Mo ran out onto the field that night.I’m crying because I’m happy…to see Mo, to be in New York, to be healthy, I’m crying because I’m sad…because I can never tell Ronnie about this moment, because the Yankees were his team, because he was always so proud of how I handled my illness, because I will never see Mo pitch again. I’m crying because it seemed to be the perfect moment to do so…to celebrate victory and mourn loss. That is the great metaphor of sports and life and it is so very powerful.
What role have sports played in your life? Is there any sport/athlete that has helped you through a difficult time?