The Orioles kicked off Spring Training on Friday, but it never felt quite like camp without the presence of longtime P.R. director Monica Barlow, who passed away from lung cancer earlier this morning. Barlow had been with the organization since 2001, and was as much a part of the fabric of the organization as the players and on-field staff. MLB.com joins the Orioles family in grieving her loss.
When I first met Monica Barlow, after taking over the Orioles beat in February 2010, I had to be told she was sick. I still remember sitting next to her at the now-annual dinner in the city of Sarasota, and her telling me she had lung cancer in the same manner you would use to ask someone to pass the bread basket. That was Monica: stoic, unflappable and someone who had absolutely no use for anyone's pity.
I didn't know how bad it was -- Stage IV diagnosed the previous September -- until my former colleague, the Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec, filled me in.
"How many guys in here," Zrebiec said gesturing around the Orioles' clubhouse that spring day, "do you think even know how sick she is?"
They weren't alone. Since news of Monica's passing on Friday morning, I've gotten countless emails, messages on Twitter and Facebook telling me they didn't know she was that sick, that it had gotten so bad she had to undergo another round of chemotherapy, missing the team's annual Fanfest and forced to stay north for Spring Training.
And that would have made Monica happy, having a life not defined by her cancer, even as things took a turn for the worse. Her emailed updates, a rare glimpse into her ultra-private life, always ended with a thank you for everyone's prayers, and it always struck me as strange that someone who been dealt such a cruel diagnosis was that grateful for just a few seconds of my thoughts.
But that was Monica: selfless, courageous and genuine. She never let her diagnosis prevent her from working long hours at Camden Yards and in my four years on the beat -- traveling around the country in the day-to-day grind of a Major League season -- I never once heard her complain. Monica rarely spoke about her diagnosis in general, unless prompted, and only became comfortable talking about it on the record when she realized it could help others. She was an ambassador of MLB's Stand Up to Cancer and a spokesperson for the LUNGevity Foundation, the nation's largest lung cancer-focused nonprofit.
Most of my conversations with Monica revolved around me. When my father had a heart transplant this May, she was more concerned with asking about him -- which she did on a daily basis for months -- than anything going on in her own life. She made it possible for my dad and another heart transplant survivor to attend batting practice when the team visited San Diego last August. She asked about him again the last time I saw her in person, at the Winter Meetings, while I was writing a story about her fight against cancer. My dad is also a Stage IV cancer survivor, and his heart transplant -- from years of chemo -- had had some complications that put him back in the emergency room.
"Wow," she said, deftly deflecting the spotlight yet again, "He's quite a fighter."
It was high praise coming from the strongest person I've ever known. Monica was an inspiration, and her four-year battle was nothing short of extraordinary. She was never big on public shows and certainly wouldn't like a column about her, but she deserved it and so much more. She will be missed.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli.