FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Always intent on finding the humor in any situation, no matter how grim, Rob and Samantha Ramsay once shared a laugh during the early stages of what became the most anguishing period of their married lives. And this time, they each played to a tough audience.
Rob was besieged with piercing headaches, the kind that knock a 250-pound man on his back for hours. Samantha, his sweetheart and soul mate since the were students at Washington State University, had a hunch the news would be bad, and it scared her like nothing else she could imagine.
But laughter still came easily to the couple two years ago as they drove to the hospital where Rob, who's in camp with the Orioles as a nonroster pitcher, would undergo a magnetic resonance imaging exam. Consider it a survival technique, one meant to maintain their sanity.
Tired of over-the-counter medications and home remedies that brought no relief, Rob turned to his wife and innocently said, "I hope we find something on this MRI."
"What?" Samantha replied in an exaggerated tone, the better to create a comedic moment. "No, we don't want to find anything on an MRI."
Realizing what he said, Rob played along. "OK, OK, we don't want to find anything."
Doctors did discover something, a brain tumor approximately the size of a baseball. Ramsay was told he had glioblastoma multiforme, a severe type of cancer that usually claims its victims within a year.
"They didn't give me a month to live or anything like that," said Ramsay, 30. "They said it was a very aggressive cancer, but I had a lot of good things going for me - my age, my health and my attitude."
Dr. Mitchell Berger, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, removed the mass from Ramsay's right frontal lobe on Jan. 23, 2002. The procedure lasted 10 1/2 hours.
Each brain scan taken since the surgery has been clean, but it's much too soon to classify Ramsay as recovered. Tentacles from the tumor dug into the brain, and radiation treatments were the only method of treatment. Recovered? How can anyone be sure?
A scar runs from the top of his right ear across to his left, a permanent reminder of the staples that held his scalp together after his skull was sawed in half. The radiation stopped the hair growth on the front portion of his head, and the rest is shaved to a stubble.
"People look at me a little funny and kind of wonder, 'What happened to that guy?' This kind of scar, you don't see every day. But it comes with the territory," he said.
"It's a good platform for me to try to get the word out about brain cancer awareness."
Proceeding with caution
The Orioles have 25 pitchers sharing space at the spring training complex in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. None of them has a more inspirational story to tell than Rob Ramsay.
He patiently recounts the details for reporters and teammates who see the line on his head and ask questions. He relives the horror, travels the same road to his return to baseball - highlighting certain points as if they were mile markers - and drops everyone off at his locker.
"I'm very blessed," he said. "I thank the Lord for where I'm at and hopefully where I'm going. I'm a firm believer that without that faith, I probably wouldn't be here right now."
The Orioles signed Ramsay to a minor league contract exactly two years after the surgery, and if he makes it through camp without being released, he'll most likely be assigned to Triple-A Ottawa.
"I'm totally out of my element when it comes to knowing what he's gone through and what the medical implications are," said Lynx manager Tim Leiper, "but if he's there and cleared by our doctors, then he's just like every other pitcher. And to have a guy with that courage, I think it will be real positive for everybody."
After appearing in 43 games with the Seattle Mariners in 1999 and 2000, Ramsay went to spring training with San Diego last year and pitched for Single-A Lake Elsinore and Triple-A Portland. His first victory came on June 5, with two innings of relief against Rancho Cucamonga.
Ramsay wants his next decision to come on a major league mound, but every breath he takes qualifies as a win.
"I'm just going at this like everyone else," he said. "Other than the fact that I'm new to this organization. I'm just trying to open some eyes."
Ramsay no longer is subjected to intravenous chemotherapy treatments, but he must ingest a pill every night before bed. He followed the same routine last year and resumed his career, but the Orioles have been cautious with him during the opening week of camp.
Able to throw during the first day, wearing a batting helmet for protection, Ramsay has been held out of subsequent workouts while the medical staff does blood work and becomes more acquainted with his condition and treatment. He isn't the only resident here who carries a scar. An entire organization is healing after pitcher Steve Bechler's death last spring from heatstroke.
"We just want to make sure everything's OK," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "After what happened last year, you don't ever want to see that again."
The team has contacted some of Ramsay's doctors to learn more about his medication, to get a firmer hold on a delicate situation and make sure they're doing everything right. Mike Flanagan, vice president of baseball operations, said nothing happened in the first workout that raised concerns, but there are no assurances Ramsay will return to the field.
"I feel fine physically and mentally," said Ramsay, who was throwing on the side for a month before reporting to camp. "This has been kind of a deterrent for other people who get a little hypersensitive with me, which is understandable. But at the same time I feel like, I played all last year and I'm ready to go.
"People are sympathetic with me. At the same time, with that sympathy, I feel like I'm being held back at times. But it's something I have to deal with. How many guys in here have had the same thing? A brain tumor, cancer, those are very rare conditions, and everyone is new dealing with a case like mine."
Said Leiper: "I know he doesn't want to be treated any differently, but he will be. That's just the way baseball is."
Slow to complain
The other pitchers in camp haven't gotten to know much about Ramsay, mainly because he hasn't been part of their on-field group. They'd find out that he can be stubborn when it comes to his health, which is why his wife practically had to drag him to a doctor when the headaches, going on three weeks, were leaving him incapacitated.
"He's not a man who really complains much," said Samantha Ramsay. "If it's bothering him, he'll take it easy on his own and try not to get attention. And for a while, he was really hiding it well. He'd play it off like it wasn't that big of a deal. But then I started noticing changes in his demeanor."
Rob Ramsay would lie on the couch for hours, unable to take his wife to the movies or meet up with friends. It was the only way to gain some relief from the pounding in his head and the occasional waves of nausea.
"That's when I said, 'Whoa, you better get this checked out,' " Samantha said.
The diagnosis "knocked me back completely," she said. "I've never been aware of brain cancer or brain tumors before. It's not something you hear in everyday conversation, and especially with both of us being relatively young. It blindsided us.
"There are so many thoughts that go through your mind. It's an overwhelming number of emotions. It was a very rough night - scared and a lot of pain."
Rob Ramsay, affable but quiet by nature, broke the news to his wife in his typically understated manner. After she walked into the hospital room, he looked up and said, "Yeah, I've got a thing in my brain."
"His demeanor was like, 'Hey, we're going to get this thing taken care of and move on,' " she said. "He wasn't dismissing the seriousness of it. It was more like, 'I'm going to do what I've got to do.' That helped to ease me."
They found strength in each other as Ramsay underwent surgery, and a second one in November 2002 to remove a blood clot. After the first procedure, Berger informed him a seizure probably would have killed him.
Samantha Ramsay didn't offer any resistance when her husband said he wanted to pitch again. "I would never want to take away an opportunity or a dream," she said.
"Without her," he said, "I really don't feel I'd be here right now. She's supported me, and she basically takes care of me. She's my hero."
The headaches haven't returned since the surgeries. OK, so he lost a 90 mph fastball. He can live without it.
"I feel I've beat it and I'm done with it," he said, "but you're never really done until six years or whatever. But I feel I'm done with it and I'm ready to lead my life."