SARASOTA, FLA. – Even though Monica Barlow was the Orioles public relations director – and as part of her job she was the link between Baltimore’s baseball team and its fans and media – she never liked the spotlight.
I can just imagine what she would think about the fitting tributes she’s received since her death Friday morning at the age of 36.
“Really?” I could imagine her saying in a high-pitched voice.
Monica’s battle with Stage IV lung cancer ended Friday after more than four years. I would never say that she lost that battle because the impact she made on all of us was a great one.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said it well when he said Friday morning that the Oriole lost a feather with Monica’s passing. Even though she never wore a uniform and did most of her work behind the scenes, she epitomized everything we know that defines “The Oriole Way.”
As many of my colleagues have written, you wouldn’t know that Monica was battling cancer by being around her. She didn’t want to be defined by her illness and she never wanted even a hint of sympathy.
When talking about clubhouse chemistry, Showalter often says that once spring training begins your friends are selected for you. From the first day of workouts to the end of the season, players and coaches are around each other more than they are their spouses, family and friends.
There’s a similar dynamic in the press box. Even though we work on different sides of the spectrum, the media that covers the team and the PR staff see each other every day. We eat dinner together on the road and we’re at the ballpark together on a daily basis.
I am the junior member of the Orioles press corps, but I can’t remember how many times on the road – especially on West Coast trips -- when I’d be pecking away at my keyboard trying to file my pregame notebook on deadline and Monica would ask if I was eating dinner before the game.
“Wish I could,” I’d often say. “Deadline calls.”
Now, I wish I would have said yes more often.
It was during those times when you got a glimpse of who Monica really was. It was during one of those pregame meals during a split-squad game in spring training of 2012 when she first told me she had cancer – almost matter of factly.
We are essentially the same age – our birthdays just a few months apart. I was shocked. But as I got to know Monica better and saw firsthand her mettle in her fight with cancer, my mind -- and probably others' -- were eased. Even though she had Stage IV lung cancer, it seemed like there was anyone who was going to beat it, it was going to be Monica.
That was the first and last time she’d ever bring it up in conversation with me. I obviously often asked how she was doing, but she never wanted it to be a primary talking point. She preferred to give periodic updates by email. She never made it about herself.
Instead, most of our ballpark conversations were about life on the road. She loved to travel and made most of the road trips she took with the team. She also loved the outdoors. I remember talking to her about how the peace of being out in nature was such a welcome departure from the hustle and bustle of a game day.
During the Orioles’ interleague West Coast trip last season, we both happened to go to Muir Woods National Monument separately on an off day and talked about the the majestic redwoods there. We often talked about how the job kept us away from loved ones far too often, but she loved spending that spare time with her husband, Ben, and her family.
Throughout her illness, Monica worked passionately campaigning for lung cancer research. She was a speaker and fundraiser for the LUNGevity Foundation, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization for the disease. Even though she was uncomfortable with the attention brought to her when MLB announced a Stand Up 2 Cancer benefit auction during the Winter Meetings in 2012, she used the moment to point out the disparity in lung cancer research vs. other forms.
Monica was a nonsmoker who lived a healthy lifestyle. She never looked at cancer as a curse. She felt lucky that experimental trials she participated in kept her alive – over the course of her treatment she went through several trials -- but was more hopeful that they would allow her to do her part in eventually helping to find a cure.
Friday was a difficult day for all of us. Monica never made it down to spring training this year, an indication that her health had taken a turn. But it was difficult to cover Friday's Grapefruit League opener when our thoughts were elsewhere.
Before the game, no baseball questions seemed fitting when the media met with Showalter. Eventually, Showalter became so choked up that he apologized and excused himself.
After the game, I asked him if it was tough to manage – adding that reporters faced our own obstacles keeping focused in the press box. He said that the game was a reprieve, but so many things during the day reminded him of Monica, including speaking with us on the field after the game.
He expected to see her over our shoulder, like she’s been so many times before following spring games.
“But she [still] is,” Showalter said, getting choked up again.
On Saturday, as the Orioles played their Grapefruit League home opener, several players and coaches wore gray wristbands with Monica's initials written on them in black marker. Initially, the club wanted to put something on their hats, Showalter said, but had to settle for the wristbands.
Showalter said he hopes the Orioles can find a way to honor Monica this season, even though everyone knows she's wouldn't have wanted the attention.
"Knowing Monica," center fielder Adam Jones said. "She definitely would have been like, ‘No, no need. Please don’t do it,’ because that’s Monica. She doesn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. That’s just a testament to how strong a woman she was battling all the illnesses and everything that came along with it."