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Harper: Cancer fight hits home with Mets and MLB family

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Many Mets players write down media staffer Shannon Forde’s name in MLB’s Stand Up To Cancer moment.

TAMPA — The occasions have become as emotionally-charged as any in the baseball year. During the All-Star Game and World Series Game 3, stadiums full of fans rise as one and hold up Stand Up To Cancer cards, writing in the name of a friend or family member fighting some form of cancer.

“They’ve become very powerful moments,” Pat Courtney, MLB’s chief communication officer, was saying Saturday morning. “Everybody knows somebody who is battling cancer.”

The moment was never more poignant than last October at Citi Field, home not only to the Mets but Shannon Forde, a PR staff member and one of the most beloved women ever to work in baseball. On the field Terry Collins, Wilmer Flores, David Wright, and Matt Harvey were among the Mets who held up signs bearing Shannon’s name, and in the press box countless other did the same.

“So many people were thinking of Shannon,” PR director Jay Horwitz recalled. “She wasn’t there that night because the cancer was getting worse, but we all still had hope.”

The hope is gone now, after Shannon died Friday from breast cancer that was diagnosed in August of 2012, and it’s a terrible loss for baseball, for the husband and two young children she leaves behind, and for anyone who had the good fortune to know her.

On a bus to Kissimmee for a game with the Astros on Saturday, Horwitz was having trouble controlling his emotions over the phone but he wanted the world to know why Shannon meant so much to so many people.

“I’ve never seen anything like the outpouring of affection just in the last 12 hours,” Jay said. “I’ve gotten over 200 texts and e-mails, a lot of them from former players who loved Shannon.

“She loved her job, she was the most upbeat person I’ve ever met. She’d do anything to help you, and she just had a personality that made everyone feel as if they’d been friends with her their whole life.”

So many people in the Mets’ organization were hurting on Saturday, from the Wilpons, who saw to it that Shannon received the best of care, to GM Sandy Alderson, who spent time visiting her in the hospital in recent weeks, to everyone in the PR department.

But nobody was hurting more than Horwitz, who hired Shannon as a PR assistant in 1994, recognizing her outgoing personality and a passion for baseball as qualities that made her perfect for the job. Over the years she became like family to him.

“She was the daughter I never had,” Jay said. “I admired her so much for the way she conducted her life, and especially the way she lived it with cancer.

“Her spirit was incredible. She wouldn’t let the cancer stop her from working. She didn’t want sympathy. She just wanted to do her job. I’m convinced baseball kept her alive. Right until the end, she was talking about making it down for spring training.”

Instead Shannon’s death should shine even more light on the fight with cancer that goes on everywhere, every day for so many people — a fight that MLB has made a mission of its own by raising awareness about the Stand Up To Cancer national program.

Courtney says MLB has raised millions of dollars for the program, and in recent years the PR arm of the sport has taken a more personal involvement, in part because three of its members were stricken with cancer.

Two of them, Shannon Forde and Monica Barlow, former PR director of the Orioles, have now died. Another, Melody Yount, a member of the Cardinals’ PR staff, continues her battle.

As a result, PR staffs throughout MLB got together in 2012 and began conducting auctions at baseball’s winter meetings, with items collected from all 30 clubs. The most recent auction raised $ 200,000 for cancer research, according to MLB, raising the total since 2012 to $ 650,000.

“We’ve been directly impacted and we’ve tried to do something,” Courtney said, speaking of the baseball PR community. “As a whole, MLB is very committed to Stand Up To Cancer.

“It’s a tough day. There was so much love in baseball for Shannon, there has already been an incredible outpouring for her. We’ll remain committed to doing everything we can to raise awareness and fight cancer.”

SAFER TURN

The late Forde (l.), was a well-loved and respected member of the MLB family.

The late Forde (l.), was a well-loved and respected member of the MLB family.

Not surprisingly, middle infielders seem to be in favor of baseball’s new rule dictating that runners must start their slide in trying to break up a double play before reaching second base and outlawing the type of “rolling block” with which Chase Utley fractured Ruben Tejada’s leg last October.

On Friday Starlin Castro made a point of mentioning the new rule will make the transition from long-time shortstop to second baseman more comfortable.

“It’s tough because at shortstop you can see the runner (when turning the double play, but not at second,” Castro said. “The new rule makes it easier.”

As for former middle infielders, well, Willie Randolph doesn’t see the need for the new rule. The long-time Yankee second baseman, here in spring training as a guest instructor, says middle infielders should know how to protect themselves from hard slides.

“You can take the contact as long as you get your feet up, and roll over, flip over the guy,” Randolph says. “You can give him a little parting shot if you want when you come down, too. I used to do that. I’d be spiking guys, maybe a little shot with the elbow for coming after me.

“And if you drop down sidearm with your throw, you let them know they better get down or they’ll get one in the teeth. That’s why I’m for playing the game natural. As long as it’s clean.

“It’s such a small percentage these days when you see a really good takeout anyway, don’t make it a situation where you have to lay down before you get to the base. I know that’s the way the game is going, but to me the takeout slide is a big part of baseball.”

This coming from a guy who was on the wrong end of one of the more vicious takeout slides ever, when Hal McRae came flying into Randolph on the other side of second base in a Royals-Yankees playoff game in 1977.

“I didn’t get hurt because I knew it was coming and I got off my feet,” Randolph recalls. “That’s the way it was then, and teams took care of it themselves.

“The next day was an off-day, and we were stretching on the field as the Royals took BP. Cliff Johnson started going at McRae: ‘Hey Hal, I don’t appreciate you messing with my boy Willie. Pick on somebody your own size and don’t be messing with my (playoff) money.’

“It got tense, I thought there was going to be a fight. But to finish the story, McRae never got close to me the rest of my career. Every time he had a chance to come after me, he didn’t even slide. He peeled off into right field before he got close. He knew I was going to hit him right (in the head) with my throw. That’s how you took care of things then.”

MATEO CAN FLY

Jorge Mateo, the 20-year old shortstop who led the minors last year with 82 stolen bases, is quite an early impression in Yankee camp, and not just with his speed.

He has already tripled off the left field fence on a day the wind was blowing in, and on Saturday he homered to left off Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright. All of which recalled a comment a scout made during the off-season about Mateo’s potential.

“He’s not just a speedy slap hitter like Billy Hamilton,” the scout said, referring to the Reds’ center fielder. “He drives the ball enough to make defenses respect his power. If he can do that as he advances higher, he could be a special player.”

As for his speed, Joe Girardi was shaking his head in amazement after Mateo’s triple on Wednesday, especially since the kid didn’t run hard to first, thinking the ball was going out.

“You don’t see many triples to left,” Girardi said.

Of course, it looked as if someone mentioned to Mateo that he might want to run hard, no matter what, because on Saturday he was practically at second base by the time his home run off Wright went over the fence in left. Even then he barely broke stride, perhaps setting a record time for a home run trot.

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