Chris Malec, the 499th choice in last week's Major League Baseball draft, is a born competitor with the ability to mash from both sides of the plate. Some scouts who watched him play at the University of Cal-Santa Barbara compare him as a hitter with Chicago Cubs infielder Todd Walker.
But as Malec prepares to begin his professional career as a second baseman in the New York Yankees' chain, he looks to an athlete beyond the ballpark as his role model.
"Lance Armstrong is my inspiration and my hero,'' Malec said of the six-time Tour de France champion.
Like Armstrong, Chris Malec is a survivor of testicular cancer. He is also an authority on happy endings.
Malec didn't make any national headlines when the Yankees chose him near the end of the draft's 16th round. After a morning of chemotherapy treatments, he was drifting off to sleep at his Santa Barbara apartment when he heard his name called on the MLB.com Internet broadcast. He quickly bounded off the sofa and rushed to his desktop computer to confirm the news was true. Then he hugged his parents, Tom and LuzAnna, extra hard.
For the Malecs, their friends, relatives and everyone associated with the Santa Barbara baseball program, the draft announcement made for a giddy ending to a gut-wrenching two months. Gauchos coach Bob Brontsema describes Malec's story as downright "Disneyesque.''
"I've never been a part of anything like this,'' Brontsema said. "You see stuff like this on the TV news, but to experience it firsthand has been incredible for everyone involved. For such a potentially devastating thing, it's really been an uplifting story.''
Malec, 22, is a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, even though he was born and raised in Southern California. He might have entered the draft last year as a junior if not for the latest in a series of knee problems. This year, as a senior, he shifted from second base to shortstop because of an injury to Gauchos starter Chris Valaika and hit .316 with a team-leading 13 doubles.
Two years ago, Malec's mother gave him a copy of Armstrong's best-selling book, "It's Not about the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.'' Malec, a law and society major at Santa Barbara, found the story of Armstrong's comeback from cancer so compelling that he tore through the book with head-spinning fervor.
Armstrong's life lessons hit uncomfortably close to home this year when, in late March, Malec found a lump on one of his testicles. He waited more than a week in hopes that the swelling might subside. When it didn't, he visited the campus health center for some blood tests and an ultrasound.
The diagnosis was stunning: Dr. Kevin Cook told Malec that he had testicular cancer, and the process shifted into overdrive.
On April 12, Malec met with a urologist and an oncologist. Two days later, he underwent surgery to have one of his testicles removed. Since the cancer had already entered Stage II and spread to his lymph nodes, doctors also scheduled him for an arduous, 12-week cycle of chemotherapy.
Brontsema didn't expect his shortstop to resume playing baseball until late May, but Malec beat the timetable by two weeks. In the first inning of his first start he hit a grand slam to lead the Gauchos to victory over a powerful Long Beach State team. The moment was equal parts Disneyesque and Kirk Gibsonesque.
"As I was going around third base, I knew this was one of those special moments in life where you just have to take time and smile, and thank God you have the opportunity to go through it,'' Malec said.
Bill Mahoney, Santa Barbara's sports information director, called Malec's home run perhaps the most emotional moment he has witnessed on an athletic field in 21 years at the school. "I was doing radio at the time,'' Mahoney said, "and I could hardly speak.''
Bill Mele, the Yankees' Southern California area scout, was an admirer long before he saw Malec, bald from chemotherapy, go deep against Long Beach State. Mele took note of how Malec routinely showed up early to work in the batting cage before games, and passed along that observation to his superiors.
"I don't want to take away anything from Chris in terms of being a baseball player, because we think he's a good player,'' said Damon Oppenheimer, New York's vice president of scouting. "But his makeup is through the roof on top of it. That makes him a quality pick.''
The Yankees selected Malec after receiving a thumbs-up from their own doctors, who said the cancer shouldn't factor into their decision. Although Malec has a final round of chemotherapy scheduled for late June, his test results have returned to normal and he has been told the prognosis for a full recovery is excellent.
Malec signed a contract on Sunday and expects to begin his pro career in early July. Most likely, he will regain his strength and work out the kinks at the Yankees' Tampa (Fla.) complex before heading to play for Staten Island (N.Y.) in the New York-Penn League.
While Malec lacks foot speed and has only average range in the field, the Yankees think he has a chance to move in the minors because of his bat and maturity. He has already overcome setbacks that should dwarf anything he will encounter in pro ball.
"Let's put it this way an oh-for-a-doubleheader isn't going to put this kid in the tank,'' Mele said.
Malec said the opportunity to return to the field has been "physical and emotional therapy.'' He has yet to embrace the possibility that he, like Lance Armstrong, might inspire someone else fighting to survive cancer. At the moment, he's just happy to be alive and playing ball.
"Baseball has always been my first dream and my first passion, and I want to play as long as I possibly can,'' Malec said. "To go out there and be able to do something you love every day I can't even describe how that feels.''