A Swing And A Prayer Having beaten cancer, Florida's fast-rising third baseman, Mike Lowell, is regularly hitting the sweet spot, at bat and in life

May 26, 2002

Mike Lowell is 28 but has a much older head. The Florida
Marlins' third baseman puts only so much stock in mid-May stats
and standings. As Memorial Day loomed, his team, 76-86 in 2001,
was 23-21 and in second place in the National League East. A
good start. He was batting .337, fifth in the league. Solid. He
knows deep truths. The season is long. Baseball is a game. Real
life unfolds when there's no umpire around to decide fair and
foul.

When reporters gather by his changing stall and ask Lowell why
he is batting 66 points higher than his career average, he
doesn't know where to begin. With his father-in-law, Jose Lopez,
who spent 15 years as a political prisoner in Castro's Cuba, who
taught Lowell the meaning of patience in a way no
wait-for-your-pitch Little League coach ever could? With his
father, Carl, who fled the communism of Cuba in 1960 for Puerto
Rico, where he pitched for the national team, went to dental
school and made a life for himself? With the day, more than
three years ago, when a doctor placed two fingers under Lowell's
scrotum at a spring training physical, asked him to cough and
sent him straight to Oncology?

Lowell settles on this: hot afternoons in the final weeks of the
New York Yankees' dominating 1998 season, in the dank recesses
of Yankee Stadium, after his September call-up from Triple A
Columbus. The organization had imparted baseball just as his
father had: mechanics, preparation, carriage. "The Yankees
taught me how to blouse my pant leg," Lowell says. (A prize to
you if you can find another 28-year-old who uses that phrase.)
But nothing the former 20th-round draft pick saw in his stops en
route to the Bronx made an impression on him like those first
tours through Yankee Stadium's darkened tunnels. He heard before
he saw. Thwap. Grunt. Thwap. Grunt. Thwap. Grunt: rightfielder
Paul O'Neill, in the late innings of his estimable career,
alone, hitting in a batting cage seven hours before game time.
"Seeing Paul O'Neill in the cage, it gave me a whole new
appreciation of dedication," Lowell says. "Here was one of the
great players in the game, with the title clinched, and he's
taking extra hitting every day."

Lowell shares this memory while sitting in his one-story house
in a bilingual, middle-class Miami suburb called Kendall, away
from the beach. He is in the second year of a contract paying
him $6.5 million over three years, but the only difference
between how he lives now and how he grew up in Coral Gables is
that now he has a pool, plus an office filled with baseball
books and autographed balls and bats. (On the bat signed by
Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman Matt Williams are the words
YOU PLAY THE GAME THE WAY IT SHOULD BE PLAYED.) On a shelf are
hitting books by Ted Williams, Mike Schmidt, Charlie Lau.
There's also a history of baseball in Cuba, written in Spanish.
Lowell's surname (it comes from his paternal grandfather, who is
German) will fool you. He was born in San Juan and came to the
U.S. as a child, but he's as Cuban as Hemingway's Old Man. Miami
and Lowell fit como mano y guante. Like hand and glove.

October 1998 was a dream, nearly. Lowell wasn't on the Yankees'
postseason roster, but he wasn't far off it. He was told to stay
loose at the team's spring training complex in Tampa in case an
injury required a last-minute roster change. After New York
swept the San Diego Padres, Lowell received a World Series ring.

The next month Lowell married the woman he had begun dating at
Coral Gables High, Bertha Lopez, smart and vivacious, with a
degree in early childhood education from Miami's Barry
University and a couple of years on the Miami Heat dance team.
(Mike has a degree in finance from Florida International.) They
dated for seven years, through good times and bad. During their
courtship doctors discovered a tumor on Bertha's right ovary.
She said to Mike, "If I can't have a baby, I'll adopt. If you're
not comfortable with that, then we should terminate our
relationship."

Mike's view of the world is Cuban and Catholic. To him,
fathering a child is a sacred obligation. He is one of four
children. He said, "Breaking up is not an option. Whatever road
you take, I'm taking it with you." She was 22; he was 23. Their
heads were far older. The surgery went fine, if the removal of a
tumor--noncancerous, it turned out--and an ovary can ever be
said to be fine. After the operation the doctors told Bertha she
would be able to have children. She and Mike wept with joy.

Three months after the World Series, on Feb. 1, 1999, Lowell
received a call from Brian Cashman, the Yankees' general
manager. We think the world of you, Cashman said, but with Scott
Brosius ahead of you at third, you're not going to play for the
big club anytime soon. Lowell had been traded for three pitching
prospects. He was thrilled. He would be playing at home. More
important, he would be the Marlins' every-day third baseman.

Eighteen days later Lowell was at Pro Player Stadium on a day
reserved for physicals: eyes, ears, lungs, heart, genitalia. An
internist, Dr. Aldo Alamo, did not like what he felt. There was
a lump on one of Lowell's testicles.

"Have you ever been hit with a ball there?" the doctor asked.

"I think I'd remember that," Lowell answered.

The next day, Lowell went to a hospital in Fort Lauderdale. He
was told he had testicular cancer. He drove himself home, crying
all the way. He knew nothing about the disease, except that John
Kruk, the former Phillies first baseman, had survived it. He
didn't know if he would play ball again. He didn't know if he
would be able to father a child. He didn't know if he would live
or die. On Feb. 21 his cancerous testicle was removed.

All cancer is evil; testicular cancer is less evil than most
other forms. In the U.S. about 7,500 new cases are reported a
year. The survival rate is better than 90%. After surgery,
Lowell began three weeks of intensive radiation treatments. He
is 6'3" and 220 pounds, a big, strong man. After his treatments
he would come home, crawl into bed and vomit violently after
every sip of water and nibble of food. His wife of four months
cleaned up after him. Thirty-seven days after surgery he played
his first game as a cancer survivor, an exhibition for Calgary,
the Marlins' Triple A team. He had two doubles and a home run.

Lowell has been getting better and stronger ever since. He is a
righthanded pull hitter who stands close to the plate. Last year
was his best thus far: .283, 18 home runs, 100 RBIs. This year
has begun even better. Through Sunday, to complement his gaudy
batting average, he had slammed seven homers and driven in 30
runs, tied for seventh in the league.

Lowell is his team's unassuming, bilingual leader. One of
Florida's strengths is its infield defense, which Lowell's deft
glovework typifies. At week's end he had made two errors in 113
chances. He's a rock at the hot corner: good to his left,
excellent to his right, a little slow charging on bunts but
solid on his throws, with a chest that blocks hot smashes and
turns them into outs. At bat he rips numerous doubles, many of
them liners past third. He already had 20 doubles, tops in the
majors."There's nobody I've worked with less," says Bill
Robinson, the Marlins' hitting coach. "He has a perfect,
compact, fast swing, a tremendous work ethic and a pregame
routine he follows religiously. His head is in the game."

At home there's one major change for Lowell from this time last
year. Turns out his surviving testicle is doing its job. Last
Sept. 3 Mike and Bertha welcomed Alexis Ileana Lowell into this
strange, sorrowful, joyful world. Bertha and Mike know how
Bertha's father suffered for plotting against a government he
believed to be corrupt. On May 9 Jose Lopez, now an electrician
living in Miami, swelled with pride when three Cuban
defectors--Hansel Izquierdo, Michael Tejera and Vladimir
Nunez--pitched for his son-in-law's club in a 1-0 win over the
Padres.

In the Florida clubhouse Mike Lowell and outfielders Cliff Floyd
and Kevin Millar share a row. When Lowell's not around, the
other two speak of him respectfully. "He's alive; he could have
died," Millar says. "He's got a baby; he didn't know if he ever
would. He's got perspective; that can only help you in this game."

But this is still a baseball clubhouse and these are still
ballplayers. A mono-testicled teammate batting .337 for a
contending club, that's open season. A while back Floyd, Lowell
and Millar were watching a game on the clubhouse TV. A pitcher
was trying to work inside, but the batter wasn't giving him an
inch. "Damn," Floyd said. "That guy's got balls."

The next voice belonged to Lowell, never one to back off an
inside pitch himself. "What about me?" he asked. "What do I got?"

"You, Mikey?" Millar said. "You got ball."

One good one can take you far.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN SMITH/CORBIS-OUTLINE HEATING UP Traded in '99 by the Yankees, Lowell has prospered mightily in Miami. COLOR PHOTO: ALAN DIAZ/AP HOME BASE Lowell, whose family fled Cuba, is a product of South Florida, where he and Bertha welcomed Alexis last Labor Day. COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE LOWELL FAMILY [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT ROVAK THROWN OFF Cancer left Marrero fatigued throughout his rookie year.

Survivors

Mike Lowell and Eli Marrero have much in common: They are of
Cuban descent, they were teammates in Little League and at Coral
Gables (Fla.) High, and they have defeated cancer and returned
to the major leagues. In March 1998, during spring training with
the St. Louis Cardinals, Marrero, then 24 and a rookie, was told
he had thyroid cancer. Thirty-eight days after surgery to remove
his thyroid gland, Marrero homered and tripled in the Cardinals'
8-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants. However, throughout '98
Marrero was fatigued by postsurgical iodine treatment. He also
was sapped emotionally. "After all the stuff that happened,
mentally I wasn't ready," Marrero says. "Baseball really didn't
seem that important to me."

Today, coming off a career-best .266 season, Marrero is going
full blast. Playing catcher, first base and all three outfield
positions, the 6'1", 180-pound Marrero was batting .284 at
week's end with two homers (including a three-run smash on
Sunday in St. Louis's 10-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds) and 12
RBIs. Says his manager, Tony La Russa, "Eli is one of the best
athletes in baseball with his quickness, his live bat, his arm
and his defensive capabilities."

Lowell and Marrero are two of a dozen players (the others are
listed at right with team and age at the time of diagnosis) who
in recent seasons were afflicted with cancer but were able to
return to action.

Scott Radinsky, LHP, White Sox
Hodgkin's disease, February 1994, age 25 Retired 2000

Jerry DiPoto, RHP, Indians
Thyroid cancer, March 1994, age 25 Retired 2000

John Kruk, 1B, Phillies
Testicular cancer, March 1994, age 33 Retired 1995

Darren Daulton, C, Phillies
Skin cancer, August 1994, age 32 Retired 1997

Danny Jackson, LHP, Cardinals
Thyroid cancer, February 1995, age 33 Retired 1997

Tim Spehr, C, Expos
Testicular cancer, August 1995, age 29 Retired 1999

Brett Butler, OF, Dodgers
Tonsil cancer, May 1996, age 38 Retired 1997

Eric Davis, OF, Orioles
Colon cancer, June 1997, age 35 Retired 2001

Darryl Strawberry, OF, Yankees
Colon cancer, October 1998, age 36 Suspended 2000

Andres Galarraga, 1B, Braves
Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, February 1999, age 37 Still active with
Expos

"He's got perspective," says Millar of his close friend and
teammate. "That can only help you in this game."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)