This is a story about cancer, and baseball, and how they intersected over a week in the life of the New York Mets.
Two weeks ago, Sandy Alderson was sitting in the waiting room at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Alderson, the Mets’ general manager, has been cancer-free since May 2016, but he has to go for checkups every four months.
While waiting, Alderson picked up the spring issue of the hospital newsletter. The cover story — written in the first person — was about a fervent Chicago Cubs fan named Abby Wood, and how her favorite team and her lucky Cubs hat helped her get through her battle with lymphoma.
And when the team won the World Series last season — after an epic 108-year wait — it felt intensely special to her because two of the Cubs’ most prominent players, Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester, are also cancer survivors.
Alderson knew the Cubs would soon be in New York to play the Mets, so he decided he would invite Wood to one of the games.
As he was preparing to do so, Alderson was also getting ready to join a large contingent of former and current Mets players and employees in Little Ferry, New Jersey, for a ceremony dedicating a newly renovated softball field in honor of Shannon Forde. A beloved public relations executive for the Mets, Forde, after a long battle, died of breast cancer at age 44 in March 2016.
So over the course of a week — at the hospital, on the phone, at a recreation site — cancer became the backdrop for Alderson in ways both sad and uplifting. And because cancer is such a constant in almost every walk of life, none of it, in the end, was surprising for Alderson to encounter.
“It’s all around us,” Alderson said of the disease. But baseball is a constant, too, Alderson noted, played day in and day out, month after month.
“Baseball influences people on an everyday basis,'’ he said. “It has the ability to divert one’s attention from an illness. It’s a way of inspiring people at a time when they may need it. It’s kind of the dailiness of the game that provides that kind of respite.”
As it surely did for Wood. A Chicago native and a lifelong Cubs fan because of her father and grandfather, she was told she had stage IV Hodgkin lymphoma in March 2008, when she was 21 and a junior at Princeton University.
She had ignored pain in her left hip for some time, until one day she could not lift her leg out of her bed. She finally mentioned this to her twin sister, Daisy, who alerted their parents.
“I thought I was invincible, like any college kid,” she said.
An MRI examination found a tumor. Wood’s parents flew in from Chicago and took her to Sloan Kettering. She withdrew from college, and she and her parents temporarily relocated to Manhattan so she could begin an intensive chemotherapy regimen over the next five months. And to that regimen, she applied her own twist.
“I hated wearing my wig,” said Wood, who is now 31. “So it became a thing among my family and friends that I’d wear my Cubs hat everywhere instead.”
On the few occasions that she got permission to go outside, her father, Arthur, got her tickets to New York Yankees or Mets games. “Not even when they were playing the Cubs, but just to be at a ballpark,” she said.
Because Wood’s immune system was so weak from chemotherapy, she received shots to boost it. The side effect was intense bone discomfort. The ESPN highlights of Cubs games or the games themselves helped her get through it.
“I went from just being a fan to the Cubs having a really special place in my heart,” she said. “They were with me through the entire battle.”
As was her lucky Cubs hat, which also accompanied her to hip surgery in 2013 and a left hip replacement operation in 2014, both needed because of the long-term effects of her cancer treatment. The hat will most likely be with when her right hip is replaced in the future.
The hat is faded, no longer the bright Cubs blue. The brim is frayed. There are sweat stains, too. It is in bad shape, but it is everything to Wood.
She wears it on plane rides for work. She wore it when her mother, Peggy, had major surgery. She left it at a restaurant once and raced back to find it.
“It was just a hat to me until I went through everything,” Wood said. “If there’s one possession I need with me for the rest of my life, it’s this hat.”
Wood’s story struck a chord with Alderson, who quietly dealt with a cancer diagnosis as the Mets swept the Cubs in the 2015 National League Championship Series and then lost the World Series to the Kansas City Royals.
Alderson, 69, is a former Marine, a lawyer and a longtime baseball executive. He has been hesitant to talk often about his own cancer because he does not want it to define him. Yet as he contended with his own diagnosis, he watched Forde deal gracefully and courageously with hers.
Forde spent more than two decades with the Mets. The mother of two children, she managed to stay in her job as the Mets ended a long run of losing seasons and nearly won a championship.
Jay Horwitz, the Mets’ vice president for media relations, was a close friend of Forde’s and said he could not talk her out of going to Kansas City during the 2015 Series.
“She was too weak to go, but she said, ‘I’ve waited too long to do this,'” Horwitz said. “It gave her hope, because she wanted to go to spring training in 2016, and she never gave up hope of not going.'’ He said there was no question in his mind that baseball had helped keep her alive.
The dedication ceremony for Forde, which Horwitz spearheaded, took place on a Friday. Alderson was there and spoke to reporters about how “everyone fights the disease physically and spiritually,” but not everyone wins the physical battle.
Omar Minaya, the general manager whom Alderson replaced, was there. So was Jim Duquette, who had the job before Minaya. Two former Mets managers — Bobby Valentine and Willie Randolph — were in attendance, along with the Mets’ captain, David Wright, and former players like Ron Darling, John Franco and Al Leiter.
And then a day after honoring Forde, Alderson got in touch with Wood. People at Sloan Kettering had told her that a fellow cancer patient who worked in baseball wanted to speak with her.
“I didn’t realize it was the general manger of the Mets,” Wood said. “I thought it was just some guy that worked for the Mets.”
Instead, it was Alderson, and he invited her and her family to whichever Cubs-Mets game they wanted to attend.
So last Monday evening, Wood — plus her boyfriend, her twin sister and her husband, and her parents, who flew in from Chicago — sat behind home plate. The Mets won, 6-1, but so what?
Wood, with the lucky Cubs hat on her head, met Lester and Rizzo. She told Rizzo that in August she would hit her ninth anniversary of being cancer-free. “I’ll be nine years cancer-free, too, in November,” Rizzo said.
“I started crying twice, maybe three times,” Wood said. “I never thought this would happen. This is the best day of my entire life.”
“This is all she wanted for years,'’ her mother said. “This is as cool as it gets,” Wood’s father added.
Wood just moved back to Chicago — to work for a medical technology company. She continues to be struck by the fact that a fellow cancer survivor — Alderson — reached out to her the way he did.
And Alderson, in the face of the daily challenge of trying to straighten out a 2017 Mets team besieged by too many injuries and too many defeats, knows that one week in June will still stand out a bit when the season ends.