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Dan Shaughnessy

Powerful gift at tough time

SAM CALLAHAN McDonald HR for him SAM CALLAHAN
McDonald HR for him
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / July 8, 2010

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A couple of hours before the Red Sox played the Giants June 26 in San Francisco, Darnell McDonald came in from shagging flies to say hello to a small group gathered by the first base dugout at AT&T Park. The Sox outfielder shook hands with Sam Callahan, a 14-year-old boy battling Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone/soft tissue cancer that targets teens.

McDonald asked Sam about baseball. Turns out Sam is a switch-hitting shortstop/pitcher who last summer played Pony League ball near his Campbell, Calif., home. McDonald asked Sam how he was feeling. It was not a particularly strong day for Sam (he went to the hospital for a blood transfusion and a 48-hour stay later that night), but Sam told McDonald he was feeling great at that moment. McDonald gave Sam baseballs signed by Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, and himself.

“It was humbling for me,’’ remembered McDonald. “We tend to get caught up in how tough things are around the team, and here’s this kid battling cancer. We took to each other right away. I told Sam to keep battling. I told him he’d be in my thoughts.’’

After a few moments, it was time for McDonald to get into the cage and hit. As McDonald was saying goodbye, Jim Messemer — a family friend — pulled out a “Sam’s Team’’ blue wristband and gave it to McDonald.

“Wear this today and you’ll hit a home run,’’ said Messemer.

Everybody had a good laugh about that. We’re all familiar with the iconic American tale of Babe Ruth promising to hit a homer for a sick kid named Johnny, but these things do not happen in real life. John Updike famously reminded us that a home run cannot be hit at will. And Darnell McDonald is not a home run hitter.

“I’ll do the best I can for you today,’’ said McDonald.

Imagine the look on Sam’s face when McDonald came out of the Red Sox dugout in the top of the first inning, wearing his “Sam’s Team’’ band on his left wrist. Then try to imagine the joy and wonder in Sam Callahan’s heart when McDonald swatted Madison Bumgarner’s third pitch over the fence in left.

“I thought of it as I was rounding second base,’’ said McDonald. “I remember that they said I was going to hit a homer. And then I did. It made me feel blessed — to be able to put a smile on Sam’s face.’’

“I was stunned,’’ said Sam. “My brother [Joe] and I were jumping up and down and giving each other high fives and talking to everyone around us. We just went nuts.’’

“We were crying,’’ said Sam’s mom, Suzy Callahan van Bronkhorst. “When that ball went out, it was like things were frozen in time. It was almost embarrassing, the most amazing moment. We were hooting and hollering and we were the only ones around us making any noise because it was all Giants fans around us. I looked at Sam and he said, ‘Well, that made me feel better!’ It was a gift.’’

“All I could think of was the Babe Ruth story,’’ said Messemer.

According to the oft-told yarn, young Johnny Sylvester was lying in a hospital bed, failing badly (he’d been tossed off a horse), when an autographed baseball arrived from the great Bambino. Newspaper accounts of that day reported that the ball was accompanied by a note in which Ruth promised to hit a homer for Johnny in the 1926 World Series. Ruth, in fact, hit three homers in Game 4 against the Cardinals (there are photographs of Ruth visiting Johnny in the hospital after the World Series). Inspired by Ruth, Johnny recovered, served in World War II, went on to become president of a packing machinery company in Queens, and died in 1990 at the age of 74. In 2007, the Ruth-Sylvester story was the subject of a book, “Babe & the Kid,’’ by Charlie Poekel.

“Sam’s Team’’ wristbands are designed to raise awareness and funds for Ewing’s sarcoma research (stellar BC linebacker Mark Herzlich battled Ewing’s sarcoma last year and will be back on the field in the fall). San Francisco 49ers running back Moran Norris was wearing a Sam’s Team wristband when he crossed the goal line against the Rams in Week 17 of the 2009 NFL season.

Darnell McDonald didn’t promise to hit a homer for Sam Callahan, but he had the power of Sam’s Team around his left wrist and he delivered.

McDonald and Sam have been texting one another since that nationally televised home run moment. McDonald is still wearing the blue band around his left wrist. And Sam is still battling Ewing’s sarcoma. He was back at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital for a stem-cell harvest earlier this week. He wants to return to baseball when he starts high school at Bellarmine College Prep in September.

No illness or medical procedure can alter Sam’s Red Sox DNA. His grandfather is from Hingham and his grandmother is from Worcester.

“You should see my room,’’ he said. “I’ve got Red Sox stuff all over the walls. I like the Giants and the Sox, but if I had to choose, it’s the Sox all the way.’’

He wasn’t able to play baseball in the spring, but his classmates thought enough of him to ask him to speak at eighth-grade commencement exercises. Brave and bald, he told the assembly, “No matter what the odds against you, the human will is the strongest force in the world. In each of us we possess a drive that can move mountains and achieve anything we focus on.’’

“He’s one of the most amazing, strong kids you will meet,’’ says his mom. “He inspires everybody, even if you only meet him for a few minutes.’’

Even if you play major league baseball for a living.

Anyone wishing to learn more about Sam’s Team or Ewing’s sarcoma can contact www.samsteam.org. Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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