Amid last year's Opening Day fanfare there was a somber feeling in the press box at Camden Yards -- a reminder we had lost some old friends the previous offseason, including a longtime sportswriter, an Orioles superfan and Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver.
That day stung a little bit.
In comparison, I imagine this year's opener will feel like the business end of a swarm of angry wasps.
Since the end of the 2013 season, the Orioles family lost, among others, former minority owner Tom Clancy and Gold Glove stalwart Paul Blair.
Then, on Feb. 28, Orioles public relations director Monica Pence Barlow succumbed to lung cancer after a valiant, years-long battle. She was only 36.
Monica and I were rookies together in 2001 -- my first year on the beat and her first as a fulltime member of the club's public relations department. I'm not sure I've ever had an Opening Day at the park without her. That changes Monday.
I don't remember when I first met Monica; I do know the first time I realized the effect she had on people. It was probably two months into my baseball-writing tenure. By then I had noticed that the toughest, most ornery, most curmudgeonly scribe on the beat acted differently around Monica. He softened. He was less acerbic. He was almost nice.
Being a group of suspended adolescents, we incessantly ribbed him about his change in countenance, chiding him that he was sweet on the young PR rep. He told us to pound sand -- or something like that. I kidded Monica about it, too, about how the chief curmudgeon treated her like royalty. She'd just laugh and chirp, "What can I say, Danno? I'm likable."
In our years together, she always called me "Danno" and I always referred to her as "Mon." Admittedly, not the most creative monikers, but they worked for us. In those rare times in which we were in conflict, she always threw in a "Danno," to help diffuse tension.
As our careers progressed, she took over the PR department and I, apparently, inherited the title of press box curmudgeon. At least that's what she would say when we were playfully spatting. "My goodness, Danno, you've become such a curmudgeon." The word always stopped me in my tracks -- I hated that I possibly could be viewed that way -- and Monica inevitably won that round with her curmudgeon trump card.
For the length of her tenure leading the department, I was the local chairman of the baseball writers' association. Our roles occasionally would have us on opposite sides of an issue. To her credit, we almost always worked things out quickly and rationally. I'm sure there were times when I ticked her off, when she went back to her husband, Ben, or her PR co-workers and vented about me in that comically high falsetto that she unconsciously adopted whenever she got excited. (You had no relationship with Monica if you didn't at least attempt to mimic her voice).
Soon enough, though, we'd be back talking and laughing about life. We had several common interests: A love for music, a strong faith and a penchant for sarcasm and chop-busting. The last text exchange we ever had -- about two weeks before her death -- ended with us each poking fun at mutual friends.
I'm saving those texts, as well as savoring all the memories of Mon -- which rush back to me when I least expect them. I'll see a bag of Skittles candy and think about how she always pilfered the green ones. Or I'll be riding in my car listening to my shuffling iPod when a Jamey Johnson song comes on and my thoughts drift to her. Despite protests that he was too country for my tastes, she pushed Johnson on me until he stuck. In turn, I introduced her to Jason Isbell and Ryan Bingham, among others. (I once tried to get her into Lyle Lovett with disastrous results. "Terrible Danno, just not feeling it.")
Recently a co-worker used the phrase "medieval times," and I immediately thought of one of "Monica's Greatest Rants." Every now and then a subject would set her off, and she'd launch into a hilarious diatribe, her voice reaching near-screeching decibels. She almost always punctuated these high-pitched soliloquies with "Really?" and, "I mean, honestly." Whether it was about a former player's wife who never dressed appropriately or a media member who had no clue, these rants were classic press box moments. My favorite might have been her take on those medieval-era-themed restaurants. "The Medieval Times were horrible," she'd screech, "Why would you celebrate that? Really? Plagues wiping out entire villages? I mean, honestly, 13-year-old girls dying in childbirth? Yay, pass me a turkey leg."
We'd all laugh for hours as she would smile and shake her head in disgust. Those who didn't know Mon well saw her as the ultimate professional, a true class act. For me, it was that biting sense of humor that won the day. If you were exposed to it, it was fantastic.
Case in point: I was on the road one Saturday afternoon at an outdoor cafe having lunch, when Monica, Ben and another couple walked in. Monica introduced me to her aunt and uncle and asked if I wanted to join them. On a tight schedule, I declined and they took a table several spots away from me. I couldn't hear their conversations, but for the next hour I would recognize Monica's unmistakable pitch followed by her aunt's uproarious laughter. Later that day at the ballpark, I told Monica that I had nearly called the management on her table because her storytelling and her aunt's guffawing were disturbing me. She responded: "What can I say Danno? I'm hilarious."
She also could be serious. And exceptionally private. I found out about her disease shortly after she was diagnosed. Yet we only talked about it a few times, and only when she brought it up. Usually when she did, it was as lead-in to another point or story. Occasionally, she would send out a group email to friends updating her situation and asking for prayers. That's the way she wanted it. And that's how we all handled it. I knew about her change in treatment toward the end of her life only because she had gone to Nashville to meet with doctors, and sent me a text that she had visited the legendary Bluebird Cafe to hear music.
Her private nature and unfailing optimism lulled many of us into a false sense of invincibility. Yes, she had Stage IV cancer, but she never acted like she did. And so I never really considered life without Mon until the end of last month when she suddenly took a tragic turn. Texts went unreturned -- completely un-Monica-like -- and then, a few days later, she was gone.
It's often said that you can judge the kind of life someone led based on the outpouring of emotions after they have died. Monica's passing affected so many people, from good friends to casual acquaintances. The courage and humility she demonstrated throughout her life, and especially, in the past few years, was evident in those tributes.
I have no idea what the Orioles have in store Monday and throughout this year to honor Mon's memory. I know I won't need reminders. They'll just enter my thoughts at random times in inexplicable ways.
In the 48 hours after Monica died, I was twice referred to by friends in separate conversations as "a curmudgeon." Those people didn't really know Monica. I don't remember them ever using that word to describe me previously. The subjects which prompted the curmudgeon references had nothing to do with Monica's death. But there it was, that word, her word: "curmudgeon."
Each time it was said, the word startled me. But only for a moment. Because then, each time in my mind, I pictured Monica smirking and then piercing my eardrums with that unmistakable voice.
"What can I say, Danno? I'm unforgettable."
Yes, Mon. Yes, you are.