SARASOTA, Fla. - The date has been marked on manager Buck Showalter’s calendar for a long time, an anniversary that he wishes did not exist, a day that he knows will bring back memories both warm and heartbreaking.
Tears can moisten the eyes and cheeks no matter which thoughts rise to the surface.
On the morning of Feb. 28, 2014, Orioles public relations director Monica Pence Barlow passed away after a courageous and inspiring 4-1/2 year battle with Stage 4 lung cancer. I received the phone call as I stood inside the clubhouse at the Ed Smith Stadium complex and had the misfortune of passing along the news to my friends on the beat.
Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck saw me bolt out of the clubhouse and said, “This isn’t good.” He knew. Schmuck also insisted on riding with me to the Rays complex to make sure that I got there safely, though he never gave a reason. I knew.
Showalter will gather his players this morning, but the first topic on his agenda has nothing to do with fielding drills or rounds of batting practice. He’s going to talk about Monica, knowing that the words may not come easily.
“That’s on the top of the list,” he said. “It will be recognized. Not just (today) but really the rest of your life. Those are people that impact you. She had a lot more impact on our lives than we did on hers.
“It’s just a reminder how fleeting this all is. She’s special.”
Players react with shock when reminded that it’s been exactly one year since she left us, especially the group that hopped on a plane and flew to Virginia for her memorial service, the number of requests so large that managing partner Peter Angelos arranged for a bigger charter to accommodate everyone.
“Geez, that’s crazy,” said shortstop J.J. Hardy. “I don’t even know what to say. I remember in spring training we all flew up there, but I didn’t realize it’s been a year. I think it should be mentioned for sure. Everyone that was here, everyone that knew her, I think should definitely know just to think about her and remember.”
“I didn’t know,” said pitcher Chris Tillman, “but I think as a group the guys that were here think about her all the time. I do every day. I still haven’t taken it off.”
Tillman rolls up his left sleeve to reveal the now plain orange band around his wrist, Monica’s name having worn off.
“It’s tough to think about,” he said. “We’ve got new (public relations) people this year and that happening makes you think about it more. She’d be happy with what we did last year.”
I’ll never forget first baseman Chris Davis calling me over to his locker the day after Monica passed away and asking how I was doing. I had never talked about my friendship with her or how much I was hurting. He knew.
“I knew we were getting close to that time,” he said yesterday. “It’s not a day that I really try to think about a lot. Obviously, anytime you lose someone the way that we lost her, it’s tough to think about.
“I know you were extremely close to her and you know how a lot of us feel probably more than anybody, how hard it is, but I think the biggest thing we can do to honor her memory is to carry ourselves with pride and dignity. She was a professional in every sense of the word and even though she’s gone, she’s not forgotten.”
Reliever Tommy Hunter pulled Monica’s husband, Ben, into the celebration at Camden Yards after the Orioles clinched the division. Cold beer poured over his head, followed by a warm embrace.
“She was a special lady,” Hunter said after finding out the significance of today’s date. “Man, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that long. No way. That’s awful.
“You would like to bring back the happy memories, but it sucks to see such a good person who’s not with us anymore. There were so many good times throughout the course, not only in my tenure but the pictures that are posted everywhere. It brings back ... Man, that’s crazy. But the more you think about it, the more you realize how much of an impact she had on our day-to-day lives, how much she was around to help, and you just hope and pray that you see more people like her. She’s missed and that legacy definitely lives on.
“She’s looking down on us and wishing us the best and she’d probably punch me in the stomach right now if she knew I was talking about her. Let’s be real. That’s the truth. And she’d probably kick you in both shins for writing something. It’s sad but it’s also something you can look back and smile on.”
Showalter called players into his office individually last spring to break the news. Davis remembers stepping inside, seeing the look on his manager’s face and asking, “Do you need me to close the door?”
“There are things you remember like time stood still and everything came to a halt,” Showalter said yesterday. “I remember exactly when I found out. It was right outside my office here. Yeah, I’ve got it on my calendar, but it’s not just that day that you remember her. You remember her, well, every time I walk in my office there’s a picture of her there.
“You never make up for a loss like that, you just try to realize the things you benefit from having her pass your way. But (today) is a special day for all of us. She impacted so many people’s lives positively. There’s not a day goes by that something happens here and we don’t think of her. I’ve used her name 50 times since I got here this spring.”
Showalter has something planned today in her honor, which I’ll write about once the team finds out. He’ll talk about her in the meeting and try not to choke up as he did that morning in Port Charlotte, when he had to turn away from reporters who didn’t want to be there, who still can’t make sense of her loss but are forced to accept it. And he’ll direct his players onto the field for the next workout, the same way he sent them out for that first exhibition game against the Rays.
“She had an impact on quite a few people’s lives,” Hunter said. “It’s pretty inspiring and it’s something where you look in the mirror and if you can affect and impact as many people as she did, then I think you lived a happy and healthy life.”