No strangers to cancer, Red Sox now offer support to John Farrell

BOSTON -- At 2:15 Friday afternoon, a publicist named Kathy Jacobson emailed a media release announcing that a new Pablo Sandoval "Panda" T-shirt was on sale at Boston-area supermarkets. All proceeds from the sales, the release said, would go to the annual NESN/WEEI Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon, in support of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. The event has raised millions in the past; Yankees owner George Steinbrenner used to call in with a generous donation, Evil Empire be damned.

Before the Red Sox's last trip, Sandoval, accompanied by Sarah Narracci, the team's director of community and player relations, visited for an hour with young patients at the cancer facility, one big kid playfully connecting with a bunch of little ones. It has been a Red Sox tradition going on now for nearly 70 years, ever since a gruff soul named Ted Williams took hold of the kids and never let go.

At 4:15 Friday afternoon, the time manager John Farrell customarily conducts his pregame session with the media covering the team, the door opened from the stairway leading from the manager's office one floor below to the interview room. But this time the manager did not walk in alone.

He was preceded by Ben Cherington, the general manager, his assistant Mike Hazen and bench coach Torey Lovullo. They took positions at the back of the room. Two veteran players, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, stood just inside the door.

Farrell arrived last. Kevin Gregg, the team publicist, leaned into the microphone and said that the manager had something to say.

"I know we usually start out with the injury report,'' Farrell said. "I'll start out with myself on this one. Monday's surgery for the hernia revealed that I have lymphoma."

The Dana Farber Cancer Institute is no more than a mile from Fenway Park. Cancer has a way of narrowing the distance.

"Your heart stops,'' Pedroia would say.

In the same room nine years earlier, another Red Sox manager, Terry Francona, had announced that a 22-year-old Red Sox left-hander named Jon Lester had a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Just as in Farrell's case, Lester's cancer was discovered while he was being examined for something else. Farrell had gone in for hernia surgery in Detroit. Lester had been rear-ended on his way to Fenway Park, aggravating some lower-back pain he'd been experiencing. That's when his cancer was discovered.

Farrell, like Lester, was told his cancer was treatable.

Lester returned the following summer and that October was the winning pitcher in the clinching game of the World Series, a moment he celebrated on the field with his emotional manager, his beaming mother and father and a pitching coach named John Farrell.

"Obviously, we go pretty far back,'' Lester, who now pitches for the Cubs, told reporters in Chicago. "I talked to him a little bit already. That's good. Seems pretty positive. He's in good hands. I know those doctors pretty well.''

Farrell said his blood cancer was Stage 1, the earliest stage, and was "highly curable.''

Before he came upstairs, Farrell had spoken with Larry Lucchino, the outgoing CEO of the Red Sox. Back in 1985, Lucchino had gone motorcycling through the south of France with his close friend, Jay Emmett, choosing to ignore the persistent cough he could not shake. A doctor had told him he had walking pneumonia and to take it easy. When he returned to the States with the cough intact, his girlfriend at the time, a pathologist, insisted he go for an X-ray. The pictures came back, and Lucchino was told he had stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The prognosis? A 1-in-3 chance to live.

"I tried to tell John how fortunate he was, that it was almost an accident they found it, and that they caught it at such an early stage,'' Lucchino said. "It's not going to be a walk on the beach, but he's strong, a tough guy.''

A bone marrow transplant, an experimental treatment at the time, saved Lucchino's life. Farrell already had surgery to remove a cancerous mass; that took place Monday in Detroit when his hernia was repaired. By the next day, Dr. Larry Ronan, the Red Sox's medical director, was at Farrell's side in Miami for the start of a two-game set against the Marlins.

"I welcomed John into the family today,'' Luchhino said. "Comes a time, he'll talk to somebody else down the road facing the same thing as somebody who has come through to the other side.''

This Tuesday, Farrell will begin chemotherapy treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is expected to follow a protocol of 21 days of chemo, then a week off -- a cycle that is to be repeated three times.

Farrell is no stranger to the hospital. Six years ago, his youngest son, Luke, underwent two highly risky surgeries there to remove a golf ball-size tumor from his neck. That tumor proved benign. Luke Farrell, now 24, is pitching for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Double-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.

On Friday, John Farrell announced that while he would not be managing the team for the rest of the season, he planned to be back for spring training next year.

On Wednesday afternoon in Miami, while standing in the visitors' dugout of Marlins Park, a visitor was musing on what a miserable season this had been and asked Farrell if he was sure he wanted to be back.

Farrell did not hesitate. "Of course I want to be back,'' he said. "Who wouldn't want this job? There's no better place to be.''

Scott Barboza and Jesse Rogers contributed to this story.