PHILADELPHIA -- Jay Handy turned 40 last week, and his family wanted to celebrate with a baseball game. On Friday night, they made their way from their South Philadelphia home to Citizens Bank Park. This all seemed normal to Handy, who has been a baseball fan all his life. But on
PHILADELPHIA -- Jay Handy turned 40 last week, and his family wanted to celebrate with a baseball game. On Friday night, they made their way from their South Philadelphia home to Citizens Bank Park. This all seemed normal to Handy, who has been a baseball fan all his life.
But on the way to the game, it hit Handy that the Phillies were playing the Marlins, managed by Don Mattingly. This wasn't going to be an ordinary family trip to the ballpark: This was a reunion, 30 years later, of a Yankees first baseman and a nine-year-old from Vermont engaged in a fight for his life.
"It was, in hindsight, the greatest thing that ever happened to me," Handy said of his battle with Burkitt's Lymphoma, a rare, fast-moving form of cancer. "Going through it, something totally different."
In the fall of 1988, after a 66-day series of chemotherapy, blood transfusions and spinal taps to fight the cancer, the Make-A-Wish Foundation brought Handy from Boston Children's Hospital to Fenway Park for a game against the Yankees. Handy sat in the visitors' dugout with Mattingly. They talked ball, exchanged autographs and met with the rest of the team.
More importantly, Handy set out for the rest of his life cancer-free. He had been given a 50-50 shot to live and, as he said on Friday, won the coin toss. Meeting his hero was a bonus.
"If someone really wants to meet you like that, it's probably pretty much the least that we can do," Mattingly said on Friday before reuniting with Handy. "We've been given so much in this game and been so fortunate in lots of areas in our lives, either through parents or opportunity and having success.
"It's always a good feeling to meet someone like that. It feels like what you should be doing."
By the time Mattingly met the Handy family in the Marlins' dugout during batting practice on Friday, Handy knew full well what was going on. That didn't make it any less special. He and Mattingly hugged and caught up. He introduced his wife, Grace, and his son, Maddax. Then, he had to acquaint Mattingly with someone special.
Grace Handy is a Yankees fan, too, and when she and Handy had their first child, a daughter, they pondered some potential names. Why not Mattingly? It could be shortened to Matty or Ting, which they thought was fitting since she is half Chinese.
So 30 years after a nine-year-old Handy met his hero in the visitors' dugout at Fenway Park, nine-year-old Mattingly Handy met the man for whom she is named in the visitors' dugout at Citizens Bank Park. It was a full-circle moment for the girl who has the poster her dad had signed in 1988 hanging on her bedroom wall. A bobblehead from Mattingly's days managing the Dodgers sits not too far away.
"It's one of those things that it means something different the older you get and the more you look at this stuff," Handy said. "When you see Mattingly pop up on ESPN and you're sitting next to the nine-year-old one, it's pretty wild."
Handy, now happy and healthy working in trade show production, didn't want to downplay what meeting Mattingly then -- and now -- has meant to him. He said the whole experience is "still kind of registering" in his mind. But he gave all the credit to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and what they do for kids and families in the position the Handys were 30 years ago.
"When you see days like today," Handy said, "you realize you're super lucky."
Joe Bloss is a reporter for MLB.com based in Philadelphia.