When the Orioles take the field Monday, one of the least visible but most beloved members will be missing from the team.
Monica Pence Barlow, the public relations director, had been there through 14 seasons — in the press box, in the locker room, at the elbows of reporters conducting interviews — and some say they are having difficulty imagining the coming season without her.
"She was one of us. She was around us for the 162 games. She was around us as much as our teammates," said shortstop J.J. Hardy.
Opening Day "won't be the same, that is for sure," added manager Buck Showalter.
The team will announce during a pre-game tribute how it plans to memorialize her, along with Orioles investor Tom Clancy and former outfielder Paul Blair, who all died during the past 12 months.
Barlow, 36, was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2009 and died Feb. 28, a death the players and manager are still processing. She had continued to bounce back after repeated treatments, her family said, and looked well, which masked her condition in public.
Up until a week before her death, when she asked for a leave of absence, she continued to tap away on her laptop from her hospital room and at home.
"We didn't grasp the severity" at the end, said Gregory E. Bader, vice president for communications and marketing. "I think we all knew, but she made it hard to remember because she didn't let it impact her work."
Barlow was a good traffic cop, one who could field the dozens of requests from the public and the media and figure out which request should get a green light. She had to understand the different personalities of the 25 players and the manager, who would be fine sitting down for 40 minutes with a newspaper reporter and who was best on television. She knew how each one handled criticism and compliments, and how to deal with the issues that arise when a player is injured, sent down or called up, according to Bader.
In a world with insatiable hunger for details about sports figures, players said they felt she never left them alone.
"Every time she came to me, she would know the questions I was going to be asked and she would prepare me. I am going to miss that," Hardy said. "She was kind of right there by your side making sure the questions were appropriate on the road or at home."
First baseman Chris Davis said Barlow understood the competing interests in a player's life.
"She made my life a lot easier because she understood not only that it was important to not only how the fans see me, how the media see me, how people in the baseball community see me, but also she understood how important it was for me to be with my family," he said.
Showalter said he liked Barlow almost immediately after he joined the Orioles, seeing in her someone who, like him, didn't suffer fools. She briefed him on the news and issues of the day, and thought strategically, he said, about which interviews he and his players should do.
"I would always trust her. She knew the lay of the land. She knew the way things would be seen," Showalter said, adding that he is angry about her death. "I miss her. It is not fair."
Recently Showalter hung a picture of Barlow outside his office in Sarasota, where the Orioles hold spring training. She's wincing as beer is poured over her during the postgame celebration after the Orioles' wild-card game win in 2012.
Her skills extended beyond public relations, according to Showalter, who said she was good at evaluating players and was the best hitter of anyone on the support staff.
"I tried to stay in touch a lot with her. She didn't like a whole lot of drama," Showalter said.
She had been unhappy that she couldn't be in Sarasota for spring training and he had joked with her about it. He sent a text on the night of Feb. 27 and expected a swift reply, as usual.
"I knew that when I didn't hear back from her ... it scared me," he said.
Barlow was slowly losing strength at her home in Ellicott City with her mother, father, husband, Ben Barlow, and Ben's parents by her side. The death of the very private, but warm, woman who rarely spoke about her pain took many by surprise.
Davis said her absence will be felt more now that the team is back in Baltimore.
"Baltimore is our home and being up there and really seeing all the places we used to see her in and just not having her there, there's going to be an iffyness in that clubhouse," he said.
Ben Barlow said his wife's passion for her job was a byproduct of her love for the team.
"She took a lot of pride in working for the Orioles," he said. "She wasn't looking to move up and out. She wanted to build a career there."
Barlow grew up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley on a farm that had been in her father's family for more than a century.
"We were not huge sports fans," said her father, Wayne Pence, a pastor and part-time farmer. Her mother, Ramona, is a middle school principal.
Outside the roomy, old, wooden house, she rode a pony and learned to help her father feed calves with a baby bottle. By age 14, the studious girl decided she would go to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. She did, graduating with honors. While in college, she played softball and helped out with the men's baseball team, then managed to snag an internship with the Orioles during the summer of 1999.
After two post-college entry-level jobs, she made her way back to the team as a public relations assistant in 2001. She was named director of public relations in 2008.
The elder Pences like to say Monica and Ben's marriage was arranged. A chance meeting by the couple's parents at a concert in Virginia ended with an exchange of an email address. Ben, a young attorney in Harrisonburg, said he felt that sending an email to a woman he didn't know was "out of his comfort zone," but he finally did.
"Monica is the only person who could have gotten me to move three hours away from home," he said. They married in 2008.
Less than a year later, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She had never smoked and was training for a half-marathon at the time. The cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and her liver. During the four and half years of her fight, she opened up about the illness when she realized she might be able to help raise money for research that would lead to new drugs, like the kind she was taking.
She became a spokeswoman for LUNGevity, a nonprofit focused on lung cancer research and support for those with the disease. Since her death, players have been wearing their orange LUNGevity T-shirts around the clubhouse.
Barlow was described by her colleagues and friends as forthright and stoic about her illness, never asking for pity. She told Showalter it would help her deal with her cancer if he didn't mention it, so he rarely did.
Brittany Ghiroli said that when she took over the Orioles beat as a reporter for MLB.com, there were few women in the clubhouses. Barlow showed her how to navigate the landscape with professionalism.
"It was really helpful to me to see how it was done. It is possible to carry yourself the right way and gain respect of the players," she said.
Roch Kubatko, who covers the Orioles for MASNsports.com, said he had known Barlow since 1999, but it wasn't until recently as she battled cancer that he "found out that she was the toughest person I have known."
He added, "It will hit me when I walk into the press box on Opening Day. I will be waiting to see her."
Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun