Commentary

Cliff Lee's hard-won perspective

Updated: October 3, 2011, 5:44 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Dr. Robert Saylors had been on call all weekend and was working on three days of no rest at Arkansas Children's Hospital on a Monday last November when nurse Catherine Redinger told him a family needed a few minutes with him. They didn't have an appointment.

Saylors, a pediatric oncologist and hematologist who treats kids with grave illnesses like leukemia and hemophilia, was seeing three new patients that morning and wasn't inclined to disrupt his schedule. He sent Redinger away. She came back a half-hour later. She insisted. She wouldn't tell him who it was. He finally relented and followed Redinger to a waiting room that she had mysteriously locked from the outside.

The door opened and Saylors saw four familiar faces: Cliff Lee, the pitcher from nearby Benton, Ark., who'd just helped the Texas Rangers reach their first World Series, his wife, Kristen, their son Jaxon and younger daughter Maci.

When Saylors first met the Lees 10 years ago, Cliff was a 23-year-old minor leaguer with a promising but still uncharted future. Kristen was 21. Jaxon was 4 months old, and he'd just been diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia that rarely strikes infants that young. Statistically, his odds of survival were a coin flip.

[+] EnlargeJaxon Lee
Kelley CooperJaxon Lee and Dr. Robert L. Saylors III at Arkansas Children's Hospital last November when the Lees' $1 million donation was announced. The endowed chair in pediatric hematology/oncology will be in both their names.

Cliff Lee, who will start Game 2 of the National League Division Series for the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday, has since become a Cy Young winner, one of the most respected pitchers in baseball and the object of an intense free agent bidding sweepstakes last fall. But Jaxon Lee is the bigger success story. He endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy and survived a dangerous relapse thanks to a then-experimental stem cell transplant from an umbilical cord. He has been cancer-free since and officially in remission for several years.

Saylors was pleased enough to see the Lees, but puzzled about why they were there. He recalled the ensuing conversation this way:

Jaxon, who was 9 at the time, towheaded and winsome, piped up. "We got you a chair,'' he said.

Saylors wondered if the boy was talking about office furniture for the new pediatric hematology/oncology unit set to open next year. "I hope it's a recliner, because I'm dog-tired,'' the doctor joked.

"It's a new chair,'' Jaxon offered.

Uncomprehending, Saylors looked at Cliff and Kristen. Cliff was wearing his usual poker face. Kristen, a petite, vivacious blonde, was not. She told Saylors that the family had made a $1 million donation to endow a chair in the doctor's specialty, diseases of the blood, jointly named for him and Jaxon. As is customary, the full amount of the gift would be invested and Saylors would have the freedom to channel the resulting income wherever he felt it would do the most good: research, education, training.

Stunned and a little weak-kneed, Saylors sat down. Endowed chairs are the seats around the conference table in medicine's Valhalla, and he'd never envisioned himself in that company. Later, Saylors would begin to imagine how many kids and families could benefit from that money and the pain and suffering it might someday help alleviate. But in that moment, he was speechless.

"I didn't cry, but I felt like it,'' he said. "It never occurred to me that what I did every day had that level of meaning and impact for people. It just couldn't sink in, that little nerdy Bob Saylors from Bossier City, Louisiana, someone gave a million dollars to me'' -- his voice cracked on the word -- "for really just doing my job.''

Cliff and Kristen don't like hoopla. They asked the hospital to keep the family's exposure to a minimum. The Jaxon C. Lee-Robert L. Saylors III, MD endowed chair in pediatric hematology/oncology was announced in a low-key press release Thanksgiving week that got some local publicity but didn't ripple any farther.

That was the way the Lees wanted it. Still do, especially Cliff. He loves being the fulcrum of a ballgame. He loathes being the center of attention anywhere else. He was reluctant to be interviewed for this story.

"I hope they figure out how to cure cancer, and it's a non-issue in the future,'' Lee said in Philadelphia last week. "That's what I hope happens. Save other kids' lives. It's really that simple. We're not going to tell them what to spend it on. They know a lot more about that than we do.''

The reason he and his wife made this gesture is self-evident to him, and as purposeful and straightforward as a brushback.

Jaxon's early days

Jaxon was born the spring of his father's first full season of professional baseball. Cliff and Kristen were from working-class families in Benton. He was as reserved as she was outgoing, but they were both pragmatic and self-reliant, well-suited to the nomadic life they'd just embarked upon.

[+] EnlargeJaxon Lee
Courtesy the Lee familyJaxon Lee, age 10 months, on Valentine's Day 2002 in San Antonio, two weeks after undergoing a then-rare stem cell transplant from a donated umbilical cord.

Cliff was drafted by the Florida Marlins as a high school senior and again by the Baltimore Orioles a year later, but he opted to go to junior college in Mississippi and then to the University of Arkansas. The Montreal Expos chose him in the fourth round in 2000 and the following spring assigned him to the Class A Jupiter Hammerheads of the Florida State League, where he spent the entire summer.

Then, as now, Lee worked quickly and didn't want to give up the ball. "He literally took offense if another team did something good against him,'' said manager Tim Leiper, currently the Marlins' minor league infield coordinator, who called Lee the most driven player he's ever seen.

Once, Lee's arm felt fatigued and he asked out of a game. Pitching coach Ace Adams shut him down for several weeks. Lee smoldered through the layoff and told Adams he'd never make that mistake again.

"I had to fight him every time I went out there,'' said Adams, now the pitching coach for the short-season Class A Batavia (N.Y.) Muckdogs, a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate. "He wanted to pitch every inning of every game, all nine. He is not going to lose in his mind.'' Adams sized up the headstrong left-hander and rode Lee about putting in more off-day work. He also taught Lee the cut fastball that has bedeviled hitters in both leagues for much of the past decade.

The Hammerheads were still fighting for a playoff spot in the last series of the season against Daytona Beach in early September. Kristen made the trip up the coast, but soon became preoccupied with Jaxon, who was spiking a scarily high fever. She took him to a local emergency room. Doctors ran tests and told her to summon her husband from the ballpark. Their tentative diagnosis was confirmed the next day at Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando: Acute myelogenous leukemia.

Cliff asked Leiper to let him start the last game. The manager understood what was left unspoken. Pitching would be a respite, a couple of hours where Lee could take control even as real life spun unpredictably out of his hands. "What was I going to do, say no?" Leiper said. "I thought it was courageous. I think he knew what was ahead.''

The Hammerheads lost, but Leiper recalls nothing about the game. Instead, he remembers seeing Cliff sleeping on his back with the tiny baby snuggled on his chest; he remembers coaches and players and wives helping the Lees pack up their apartment as fast as possible so they could get back to Arkansas. It was hard not to worry about what awaited the fledgling pitcher and his family.

At the hospital

When the Lees walked into Arkansas Children's Hospital, they were already resolute.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter last season, Cliff Lee was the subject of intense free-agent bidding.

"We looked at it from the very beginning as, there were no other options -- we're going to fix it, it's going to be fixed,'' Kristen said. "I don't know if we ever realized how bad it was.''

The doctor in whom they would place their faith is so introverted outside of work that he lets his wife handle even the most benign public transactions. "If there's something wrong with a film we rent, she deals with it,'' said Saylors, who grew up in an Air Force family. His idea of paradise is a week of fly-fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains with no cell phone reception.

That all changes at the hospital, where Saylors is blunt, compassionate and authoritative. His commitment is rooted in his childhood, when he saw a friend with leukemia -- the same virulent form that Jaxon had -- die within months of his diagnosis. "The first time I saw a child with cancer, when I was a resident, I said, 'That's it,'" Saylors said, snapping his fingers. "'That's what I want to do.'"

In Saylors' estimation, taking care of parents is almost as important as curing their children. He's seen many couples split up under the stress when one partner bails emotionally or self-medicates with alcohol. Not so with the Lees. "When they got here, they were kids,'' he said. "When they left, they were adults on a mission.''

Jaxon had an enlarged liver and spleen and was ghostly pale. Saylors explained that successive rounds of chemo would make him even sicker before they made him better. He would get mouth sores and belly pain and require intravenous feedings. The treatment would strip Jaxon's immune system down to nothing. They could hold him and touch him, but it was absolutely essential that the environment be completely sterile. No one with a cold could come near him.

All that was precious in the Lees' life was about to be reduced to one room. Blessedly, it was the baseball offseason and they could be together. Cliff chopped and delivered firewood -- "It was a way to work out and make money at the same time,'' he said -- while Kristen did computer research in the parents' lounge at the hospital, staying on top of Jaxon's meds and feedings.

At night, she climbed into the high-sided metal crib and curled up with her baby boy. Cliff slept on the pull-out couch. "This can either make you or break you, but they really stuck together," said Redinger, who has worked as Saylors' specialty nurse for 11 years and spent a lot of time with the Lees. When Saylors came by on his morning rounds, he'd usually find Kristen showered and perky and Jaxon dressed in a cute outfit, while Cliff would be just stirring. When things got perilous for Jaxon a couple of times, Cliff simply got quieter and Kristen more intent on understanding what was going on. "They are clearly all they need,'' Saylors said.

[+] EnlargeMcGuyre Moore
Kelley Cooper McGuyre Moore outside Arkansas Children's Hospital on Sept. 23, the day before his 7th birthday, holding a photo of himself taken during the most intensive phase of his treatment in 2009.

Kristen said she and Cliff couldn't afford to be anything but level-headed. "We never felt sorry for ourselves,'' she said. "It was our life and we just did it.''

But in January, after a second course of chemo, Jaxon's right eye began to bulge slightly. A scan revealed an ominous yellowish-green blotch -- a chloroma, or clump of abnormal cells. The leukemia had resisted treatment and was advancing. The disease had to be attacked another way.

Saylors recommended a then-new procedure in which Jaxon would receive stem cells from a donated umbilical cord to jump-start a new immune system. The other option, a bone marrow transplant from an adult, risked killing healthy cells as well as leukemia cells, increasing Jaxon's vulnerability.

Dr. Donna Wall of the Texas Transplant Institute in San Antonio was one of few doctors doing cord transplants at the time. Saylors had trained under her earlier in his career. "If this were Mimi or Robbie, this is what I would do,'' Saylors told the Lees, referring to his own two children.

Jaxon underwent radiation to reduce the growth behind his eye. The Lees went to Texas and bunkered in for another siege. On Feb. 1, 2002, Jaxon received the stem cell transplant.

When it came time for Cliff to report to spring training, "that was easy'' by comparison, he said. He started the season in Double-A Harrisburg and got daily reports from Kristen. Jaxon began to get well. One hundred days after the transplant, a test on his bone marrow showed no signs of cancer.

In mid-summer, the Expos traded Lee and other prospects to the Cleveland Indians for starter Bartolo Colon. By September, Cliff had made his first major league appearance in Cleveland. Whatever growing up he had left, he did in a hurry. "That's when he really turned the corner on maturity,'' said his old pitching coach, Ace Adams. "He handled [Jaxon's illness] unbelievably. It really locked him in.''

For years, Kristen felt a flutter of anxiety whenever Jaxon got a cold or ran a temperature. But remarkably, he hasn't spent a single overnight in a hospital since he was discharged, right around his first birthday. "He is a spectacular poster child,'' Saylors said.

Helping others

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
Lee family Cliff and Kristen Lee.

About 1,000 kids are under treatment from six doctors in the pediatric hematology/oncology unit in any given year. McGuyre (pronounced McGuire) Moore is a veteran at 7. A sturdy, fidgety boy with an impish grin, he was more interested in playing Nintendo than talking to a grown-up on a recent visit -- until Saylors calmly told him to put the game away. He has learned to do what the doctor says, even when it hurts.

McGuyre was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in April 2009. It's a different form of the disease than AML, with a totally different protocol and a higher cure rate. But the last couple of years haven't been a cakewalk for his parents Mac, a finance manager for an auto dealership, and Jane, a high school Spanish teacher, who live in DeQueen, Ark., near the Oklahoma border.

"Nothing is ever going to be the same,'' the little boy said sadly from the back seat of the family car after their first hasty, nerve-wracking trip to ACH. And he was right.

Jane was 11 weeks pregnant with daughter Evie when McGuyre was diagnosed, complicating her contact with him. Mac took over some of the most intimate tasks -- bathing McGuyre, cleaning up when he got sick to his stomach -- just to be safe.

[+] EnlargeJane and McGuyere Moore
Courtesy the Moore Family Jane Moore and her son McGuyre in the fall of 2009 during the most intensive phase of his treatment.

McGuyre had chemo both in Little Rock and closer to home. The cycles ravaged his immune system and kept him indoors. His friends would gather outside the Moores' living room window, wave and talk to him through the glass. Even after the most intense phase of his treatment ended, there were endless pills. McGuyre will remain on oral chemo until next July. Then he's looking forward to doing one of the last things forbidden to him -- swimming in the river that flows by the family's vacation cabin.

Hearing about the Lees' gift made Jane want to thank them personally. "You don't ever want this to happen to anyone, but look what has come of it,'' she said. "Maybe there will be fewer families who have to go through what we went through.''

Little has changed about the way doctors treat kids like Jaxon and McGuyre in the past 10 years, although cure rates for AML have inched up and cord transplants have become more common. Saylors intends to target some of the endowment income toward research into the genetic changes that activate leukemia cells in children -- in Jaxon's case, changes that the doctor said likely occurred in utero.

"We want to figure out how to prevent them from happening, or find specific drugs to turn them off,'' Saylors said. His choice of words conjures an image of microscopic fires being put out, and light flickering back into a baby's eyes.

Giving to a cause

Cliff Lee sprints to the mound at the start of every inning. He works with an economy of motion, wasting no time, keeping it simple. So when his wife began talking to him about doing something that could make a difference, it's no surprise that he liked the idea of a direct donation, to be allocated for the greater good by the doctor they trusted with their son's life, with no middleman, no one to cut off the throw.

[+] EnlargeJaxon Lee
Courtesy the Lee family Jaxon Lee and his sister Maci in a recent photo.

"Cliff's success, Jaxon being alive, how amazing Dr. Saylors is, helping people forever -- this wraps it all up in one package,'' Kristen said, speaking for both of them as she often does. "It fit exactly what we wanted to do on so many levels.''

This isn't the first or only time the Lees have given money or time to the cause. Kristen talks regularly to parents of kids with leukemia. She tells them to learn as much as they can, to trust their instincts, to be assertive advocates, to stay positive.

"It kind of keeps everything fresh in my mind,'' she said. "I don't want to forget. If you forget the hard times, you don't appreciate the good times as much. I just think about, if we didn't have two happy, healthy children, how would we enjoy anything?''

Jaxon entered fourth grade this fall. His checkups have dwindled to once a year. His parents have told him about what happened to him, and he has written about that in school. He plays soccer and baseball. His father horses around and wrestles with him. Cliff witnessed first-hand how tenuous life can be, but he doesn't treat Jaxon like someone fragile who might break again.

"Once he got the transplant and everything was all right, I felt like it was good from that point forward,'' Cliff Lee said.

Nor does he dwell on what could have been. Why re-live it when he can enjoy the present? Every season his son thrives is the best season of his life.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.