Monbouquette gains edge against a tough opponent

Former Red Sox ace pitcher is battling leukemia

By Maureen Mullen
Globe Correspondent / October 4, 2009

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Bill Monbouquette turned 73 in August. But the former Boston Red Sox pitcher and Medford native celebrated his first “second birthday’’ yesterday.

A year ago, a stem cell transplant benched his acute myelogenous leukemia. So Oct. 3, 2008, would be memorialized. It’s the day he was given a new chance.

“Oh, for sure, we’re going to have a birthday cake,’’ his wife Josephine said earlier last week. “I’ll put one candle on.’’

In his Medford home, Monbo is surrounded by memorabilia, including a plaque commemorating his induction into the Red Sox Hall of Fame, a personalized cartoon poking fun at his relationship with umpires, and a picture of him wearing a surgical mask surrounded by last year’s Medford High hockey team, which dedicated its season to him. Wearing a 2004 World Series championship ring given to him by the Red Sox, Monbo talked about the cancer he’s been battling since 2007.

“This stem cell, if this doesn’t take, which it has, if it didn’t, that would be the end,’’ he said. “There’s no going back. You can’t do it again.’’

The leukemia diagnosis initiated a scary time for the family.

“I seriously in the beginning thought that was it,’’ said Josephine. “It just hits you. And then after it sinks in you just say, ‘OK, let’s go. We got to do something about this.’ You just do what you have to do.’’

Monbo, who threw a no-hitter against the White Sox in Chicago on Aug. 1, 1962, and was the staff ace on some weak Red Sox teams of the early 1960s, doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He never has. Not when he was knocking batters off the plate with inside fastballs while winning 114 games and striking out 1,122 during his 11-year Major League career. Not when he was setting young players straight as a pitching coach in the majors and minors.

“I remember my first game [July 18, 1958] against the Tigers,’’ Monbo said. “Billy Martin stole home on me. And the next time up. I unloaded on him. I flipped him. No helmets in those days. Then he popped out. I knew his reputation, so my glove was just dangling and this [right fist] was cocked. And he came like he was coming right towards me on the mound.

“I’m thinking, ‘We’re gonna go.’ And he went by me and he said, ‘You owed me that, rook.’ And then I became his pitching coach [when Martin managed the Yankees in 1985].’’

If he wasn’t shy with his pitches as a rookie, he’s not going to start now.

“I said to my doctor, ‘Look, I have no choice in this. What else am I going to do?’ ’’ he recalled matter-of-factly.

The original plan to treat the cancer was a bone marrow transplant. But a suitable donor couldn’t be found through drives or in registries. His doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute turned to a stem cell transplant from an unknown donor, a procedure that replenishes a body’s supply of healthy blood-forming cells.

“He’s been being cared for by a team of doctors, and his approach has been that he’s been wanting to be very aggressive about meeting his disease head-on,’’ said Dr. Robert Soiffer, chief of Dana-Farber’s Division Of Hematologic Malignancies. “He considered his options very carefully, took some time and mulled it over, and then we determined that the stem cell transplant would be the best course of action. And, he never wavered from that.

“I don’t think there’s any finish line in this. He’s taking it one day at a time, to borrow a baseball cliché. And thus far, everything is going as well as we had hoped.’’

Monbo’s fighting, and he figures that attitude will help him in this battle.

Johnny Pesky of Swampscott, also a Red Sox Hall of Fame member, managed Monbouquette in 1963 and 1964. “He was one of the best pitchers we ever had, and he was the best pitcher on our staff then,’’ Pesky said. “He was very competitive, very strong, a very good athlete. He was a tough kid. I pitched him every fourth day and he was always ready to go. If you challenged him, he accepted the challenge. He never backed down. He was a fighter. He stood up for what he believed in. . . . He was always very competitive and I think that’ll help him now.’’

Former Red Sox second baseman Mike Andrews was with Monbo for one spring training, and faced him after the right-hander left Boston. As the longtime chairman of the Jimmy Fund, Andrews knows more about cancer battles than most.

“I am so much of a believer that the mentality of the patient can - can - have an effect on the outcome, just by the way they approach it,’’ Andrews said. “Those that have the Billy Monbouquette makeup of ‘nothing’s going to beat me,’ they somehow make the best effort possible, whereas some people have that ‘oh, my God, I have cancer and this is the end’ type attitude and they don’t do very well. That’s not scientific by any means. But I’ve talked to enough doctors who believe that, boy, those who apply themselves properly have a much better chance.

“And certainly Bill’s case was not an easy case. Whenever you go through a [stem cell] transplant, you’re really giving up most of your defenses at some point. He was down pretty good for a while, but never quit. And, I wouldn’t expect anything less from him.’’

In the summer of 2008, before his transplant, Monbouquette helped organize a drive for bone marrow donors at Tufts University. While a donor for him was not identified, one was found for someone else. He has spoken at the State House, explaining the need for more donors and the ease of being tested.

“They just swab your mouth out and check it out,’’ he said. “And if they feel there’s a chance you could be [a donor], they call you.’’

Monbo has the highest praise for the people at Dana-Farber, from the doctors and nurses to the cleaning staff. He said he actually enjoys going there every couple of weeks for checkups.

“There’s no negativity there,’’ he said. “The doctors always have a smile; everything is positive. When the day is through and you’re leaving, I’m like, ‘Am I walking on the ground or walking on air?’ It’s amazing, and I don’t think all hospitals are like that.’’

He’s had hats and T-shirts he has wanted to bring to the children there. But, because of his health, he hasn’t been able to visit them.

But he vows he’ll get there. Sometime during the second year of his second birthday.

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