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A pitch for life

Former Sox prospect Montalbano is taking on cancer with a vengeance

While inspecting scrapbooks from his baseball career, Greg Montalbano is heartened by an addition to his collection of memorabilia - a giant get-well card from friends and family. While inspecting scrapbooks from his baseball career, Greg Montalbano is heartened by an addition to his collection of memorabilia - a giant get-well card from friends and family. (Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / October 16, 2008
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One in an occasional series on courageous athletes.

They were two young lefthanded pitchers fast-tracked for Fenway Park. They were teammates on the 2004 Gulf Coast Red Sox, and were both Red Sox Minor League Pitchers of the Year. They have also faced a dreaded, common foe: cancer.

The uplifting tale of Red Sox ace Jon Lester, who beat both cancer and the Colorado Rockies in the clinching game of the 2007 World Series, is already local lore. The continuing battle of Greg Montalbano is the untold story of a particularly cruel fight with cancer.

Jon Lester just faced the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. Greg Montalbano is facing an experimental clinical-trial cancer treatment.

But this is not a sad story. Montalbano is a man without bitterness, the rare athlete who sees the big picture. He sees Lester's success as a big win for a lot of little people.

"I'm so happy for him," says Montalbano, "because I think it gives hope to every kid laying in a hospital bed with cancer."

Montalbano, 31, is tall and handsome, with big hands and long, nimble fingers that could make a baseball dance. He was first diagnosed with testicular cancer as a freshman at Northeastern in 1996. He missed a year, but his cancer went into remission and he pitched his way into the Northeastern University Hall of Fame.

Drafted by the Red Sox in 1999, he was chosen as the best pitcher in the system when he went 9-3 with a 2.96 ERA with Single A Sarasota before being promoted to Double A. He already had a baseball card issued by Topps for top prospects. He had already thrown off the mound at Fenway, looking over his shoulder at that big Green Monster.

Those were heady times. But his offseasons were spent getting tumors removed. Over and over.

"I am a tumor machine," he says. "I make tumors. I have no idea why."

He's had to go under the knife 16 or 17 times - he's lost count. He has had more stitches on his back than there are on a baseball.

Series of false starts

Montalbano was slated to pitch for Triple A Pawtucket in 2002 but developed a frayed labrum during spring training that required surgery. He missed the entire season. In 2003, he won his first two games for Double A Portland but then developed more arm troubles and again missed an entire season. But that was the least of his problems. He had surgery to remove five noncancerous growths in his groin.

In spring training of 2005, he was finally healthy again. In a minor league practice game in Fort Myers, Fla., he struck out four batters on 15 pitches. Three days later, the Red Sox released him.

In the unkindest cut of all, Montalbano launched a comeback, only to be stricken by cancer again.

In 2005, he was recruited by former Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman, who was managing the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Can Am League, and Bobby Ojeda, Worcester's pitching coach.

By July 2006, Montalbano was practically unhittable in the Can Am League, posting an 0.86 ERA. He went 35 1/3 innings without giving up a run. Major league scouts started calling.

"The inner strength that he has, you only see very rarely," says Ojeda.

Then while he was driving to the ballpark on a day he was scheduled to pitch, his cellphone rang. He recognized the number. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

"It was the nurse practitioner," says Montalbano. "She says, 'Your numbers are really high. We need to take care of this right away. You've got cancer.' "

Again.

Montalbano didn't tell his teammates, only Gedman and Ojeda.

"They're like, 'Are you OK? We can get someone else to pitch,' " says Montalbano. "I said, 'I'm fine.' "

He took the hill for a seven-inning game, the opener of a doubleheader.

"So there's one out in the seventh inning and I got a no-hitter going," he says. "Wilton Veras comes up. I've got him out all night and I threw a fastball away and he hit it like 147 miles per hour through the box right past me to break up the no-hitter."

His biggest battle

For a month, Montalbano would go to Dana-Farber at 5:30 a.m. for tests, then to the ballpark. Eventually, he called a team meeting and disclosed that a malignant tumor had been found in his hip. It was pressing on his sciatic nerve and growing fast. He had to start chemotherapy again. Immediately.

Tough-guy ballplayers started crying.

"I told the guys I was proud to just go out there and play the game," he says. "That was the message - to go out and enjoy. You don't want to look back and say, 'I wish I'd done this or that.' "

Montalbano's biggest battle had begun. But he was anything but alone.

For the rest of the season, his teammates wore his number, 22, on their hats and wristbands and hung his jersey in the bullpen. On Sept. 17, "Team Montalbano" took part in a Jimmy Fund Walk, organized by his sister Kristen. His teammates from Northeastern and Worcester walked with his family and friends.

"He's a very special kid, courageous," says Gedman. "He doesn't want to be the kid that had cancer and survived it. He wants to be a normal guy.

Said Ojeda, "The kid had just a fantastic year and he did it while he was fully conscious he had cancer and that the cancer had come back. Granted, he's in independent ball, but he had a spectacular year.

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.

Experimental treatment

In May 2008, doctors found six new tumors. Cancerous tumors.

Montalbano started a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

"I think this is it," he says. "The doctors are really excited and it's worked for five out of six patients they've tried it on. I'm excited about it."

He goes to New York regularly for chemotherapy treatment.

On Sept. 27 - just days after receiving chemo - he played in the Andrew Sarkisian Memorial Golf Tournament at the New England Country Club in Bellingham. Sarkisian had refused to go into hospice care, celebrated his third wedding anniversary at home, and died three days later on April 27, 2007, of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

"No human being should go through what he went through," Montalbano says.

Montalbano, who plans on starting his own Jimmy Fund golf tournament, was devastated.

"Sometimes I think, 'Why did I make it and he didn't?' It's kind of eerie. I don't want to host a memorial tournament."

Montalbano was the after-dinner speaker (adding that he had "never spoken at a dinner at a golf tournament for someone that I knew") and he thanked the Jimmy Fund donors. It wasn't quite Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium, but it was straight from the heart.

"Somebody 20 years ago has basically given me the last 13 years of my life. I just know that what you're doing, it makes a difference."

Montalbano tries to describe living with his illness. "I just think of my stomach right now as a racetrack with two finish lines and neither of them are that pretty," he says. "Some of the most humbling times is when I'm in the hospital and I see somebody else, and I think I wouldn't trade with them for all the money in the world. I don't have it that bad."

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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