Ex-cancer patient forever loyal to Ventura

The friendship between Robin Ventura and Ryan Reithel began in 1991 at Children's Memorial Hospital when Ventura met Reithel, then a 13-year-old cancer patient. Courtesy of Ryan Reithel

CHICAGO -- Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura’s visit to Lurie Children's Hospital was partly for the cameras as it was for the patients this week.

The recently-opened hospital commemorated a play area created with a large donation from the White Sox, and Ventura and a few of his players were on hand to cut a ribbon and meet with children cancer patients.

Ventura’s smiles, laughs and kind gestures were well documented by the cameras which followed him around the 18th floor of the hospital as he made it from room to room.

Ryan Reithel, 35, was once one of those children Ventura met during a ceremonial visit from the White Sox. Ventura went as part of a team function to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago as a player in 1991, and Reithel was a 13-year-old patient who had Burkitt’s lymphoma, a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And just as Ventura did during his recent visit to Lurie Children's Hospital, he showed compassion, was full of joy, signed autographs and took pictures with Reithel.

Reithel thought the world of Ventura that day, and that appreciation only grew with time. What Reithel soon discovered was when the cameras were turned off, Ventura was that same person.

Their relationship started with that initial visit and developed as Ventura stopped by the hospital on his own time. It continues more than two decades later for Ventura, now the White Sox’s manager, and Reithel as a cancer survivor and union electrician in Merrillville, Ind. Over the years, their families have exchanged Christmas cards, Reithel received a wedding present from Ventura and Reithel has even done electrical work for Ventura.

“It’s extremely unique,” Reithel said of his relationship with Ventura. “It just shows the caliber of person and his demeanor on the field and off the field. You know what he’s all about. It’s not lip service.”

Reithel joined Ventura during that recent visit to Lurie Children's Hospital. Reithel had the unique perspective of understanding what it was like to be one of those sick children and knowing the sort of impact a visit from someone like Ventura could have on them.

Reithel can still remember that first meeting with Ventura in the hospital like it was yesterday.

“It can get very depressing,” said Reithel, who grew up a Chicago Cubs’ fan, but switched his allegiance because of Ventura. “It’s hard to watch your family go through it just from all aspects of it. I know what it means because I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Someone like a professional sports’ player comes in there and spends some time and shows some courtesy, it changes everything.

“It was great because I was a little bit older than most of the kids in there. I already knew baseball and sports and the White Sox and of course who Robin was when he came up there. It was refreshing going through that time, the positivity to see that.”

Ventura never thought about the sort of lasting impact he could have on someone like Reithel.

“I don’t think you do,” Ventura said. “You’d be foolish if you thought you could, especially the situations they find themselves facing. This stuff (of baseball) is minimal really when you think about life and everything else what they’re going through. You go just to maybe take their mind off something for a day or 15 minutes. That’s all you can really do.”

Ventura has felt fortunate not only to see Reithel grow up, but do so without any signs of the cancer. There were times Ventura visited Reithel at the hospital, and Reithel couldn’t leave his room because he was so sick.

“I think for me now he’s healthy, he’s living a healthy life, that’s something you can’t really put a price on,” Ventura said. “They can kind of live out their dreams or do those things. When they’re 12 years old, they can’t think that way.

“I think now for him going back (to the hospital) I think he has a greater impact on some of these kids and the parents for the hope that they can get from him going there and showing a picture and seeing him when he was bald and hooked up to the IV and everything else. It’s a refreshing thing to see that kind of hope. He was in the same situation as them, and they see they can make it out, and there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ventura’s wife Stephanie has also gotten to know Reithel over the years. She was present when Ventura first met him in 1991, and she’s also been amazed how the two have remained in contact.

“They just forged a bond that lasted pretty much all of their life,” Stephanie said. “It’s uplifting. It’s a great story. More important, he’s a friend.”

Reithel was sad to see Ventura leave Chicago when he became a free agent and joined the New York Mets in 1998. Reithel remained a Ventura fan while he finished out his playing career elsewhere, but Reithel did begin leaning again toward the Cubs.

That changed when Ventura was named the White Sox’s manager on Oct. 6, 2011.

“People say bandwagon jumper,” Reithel said. “I guess I’m loyal to Robin Ventura.”