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Softball strengthens Monroe family

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Dick Monroe lay down to rest after an exhausting day in August 2009.

On the surface, it was the end of what he would consider a perfect day. He watched his daughter Abby play in the Can Am Softball Shootout as a member of the Renegades, one of the area’s elite travel teams.

Then he hosted one of his signature chicken barbecues at his home on Reasoner Road with all of the team members and their families.

But when Monroe’s head hit the pillow, his mind drifted to his impending departure to New York City for surgery to remove oral cancer.

Abby then sat by her dad, and he turned to her and said, “This was our magic season.”

Monroe thought at the time that summer might be his last.

Doctors told him there was a greater than 50 percent chance that it could indeed be his last.

But four years later, the Monroe family is at work on softball and baseball fields around the northeast, preparing for their next magic season.

“I think (softball) probably helped save his life,” said Robin Monroe, Dick’s wife. “It gave him something to live for, it gave him something to focus on other than his illness, and it gave him a lot of strength. And, it gave us an outlet so that we didn’t have to think about the cancer all the time. It gave us all something to look forward to. It was a way to get away from here and a way to escape from the cancer for the whole game because you’re really into that particular game. I think it probably saved his life and probably kept our sanity.”

DIAMOND CONNECTION

As a child, baseball was Monroe’s way of fitting in as he moved from town to town. By the time he got to Saranac Lake as a 9-year-old in the early 1970s, his family had already relocated 11 times.

After joining the U.S. Army on a full-ride ROTC scholarship right out of Cornell University, Monroe found himself stationed at Fort Drum. At the age of 28, he decided to get out of the military and start a family with Robin. He also started to pitch for the Watertown Athletics semipro baseball team.

His three children — daughters Chelsea and Abby along with son Richard Jameson, RJ for short — were born, raised and still reside in the Dexter area. But the game was just as big a part of their childhood.

Within three years of his A’s career, Monroe had essentially become the team’s general manager, taking care of day-to-day operations and even dipping deep into his own pocket to help finance the organization. He and Robin also gave birth to their two daughters, who both remember growing up around the A’s at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds.

RJ was born near the end of his father’s eight-year tenure with the A’s.

“Whenever I would hang out with my dad, that’s what we do. Play catch or whatever, when I was younger, I grew up on the baseball field basically,” Chelsea Monroe said.

“We spent a lot of time watching him play baseball over at the Fairgrounds, sitting in the dugout, playing in the gravel, looking for baseballs under the bleachers,” Abby added.

Chelsea and Abby started playing T-ball soon after and were coached by their father. Chelsea’s first memory was getting her face bloodied by a ball, and Abby was so upset about grounding out in her first at-bat that she spent the rest of the season sitting on her dad’s shoulders in the dugout.

All three kids ventured into other sports like tae kwon do, gymnastics, basketball and football.

But it always came back to baseball. By the time the girls were old enough, travel softball would come to dominate the Monroe family summers.

And they wouldn’t have it any other way, especially in 2009.

THE MAGIC SEASON

Near the end of summer in 2008, Dick Monroe began to notice a canker sore on his tongue. Having already been diagnosed with testicular cancer and multiple sclerosis within the last decade, Monroe hoped it was harmless and would eventually go away.

“I remember feeling scared, backed up against a wall. Part of me was in denial,” Monroe said. “I did not want to say anything to anyone, because the moment I did that, it all became real. So I hoped and prayed that it was just a bad canker sore, but that hope was fading fast.”

After telling his wife Robin, a registered nurse, he went to urgent care and after a plethora of tests and visits to specialists, was diagnosed again with cancer — stage two, maybe stage three squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue.

Monroe attributed the mouth cancer to a lifelong habit of chewing tobacco, which he picked up on the ball field.

Doctors told Monroe that his situation was deadly serious and he was in a fight for his life.

His options were surgery, which would involve Monroe losing his tongue and never being able to eat or speak again. The success rate of the procedure, he was told, is less than 50 percent.

He opted instead to seek radiation treatments and chemotherapy.

That fall, Dick and Robin informed their kids of what was to come, and continued to support their softball schedule. The girls played fall travel ball, which included four tournaments and weekly practices on Sundays. They were each taking private lessons at this point, too, which their father would take them to when he was able.

“It was what kept me going, kept us going, gave us a focus and an outlet outside of cancer and all of our darkest fears,” Dick Monroe said.

By February 2009, Monroe finished chemo and radiation. He began to gain weight and went back to work for Jefferson County’s Dept. of Social Services.

But the cancer returned that spring and Monroe’s only option was to have the surgery that he so dreaded.

Monroe said three things drove him to give in to the surgery. The first was a long talk with his wife in which they shared their fears. The second came in the form of a plea from RJ.

Monroe said that when he asked his son — 10 years old at the time — how he was adjusting to the illness, his reply struck a chord.

“Dad, I don’t want to adjust to it. I just want it out of you,” RJ said.

Then Monroe’s co-worker, Laura Cerow, told him of a family member who successfully underwent the same surgery and gave him contact information for a surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Treatment in New York City.

After some meetings, a surgery date of Aug. 7, 2009 was set.

Monroe said that during that summer, he lived tournament-to-tournament, counting the days in between.

Chelsea played on the day of her father’s surgery.

“Being able to play softball while he was having his surgery was really a good escape for me,” Chelsea Monroe said. “I think it helped me get through it, being able to play travel ball and get away. That’s really how I dealt with it — playing softball. I still feel that to this day, when I play, stepping out on the field is such an escape.”

Abby was also wrapping up her travel ball season. She said that her bond with her father grew immensely that summer as they would talk softball on the many rides back and forth to Syracuse for private lessons.

“It helped keep my mind off of (the cancer), because it’s not something you want to think about all the time,” Abby Monroe said. “So with school and especially softball, I was so busy I was able to keep my mind off it.”

“I feel like it got him through it, too, because he had something to do, something to look forward to,” she added.

The Can Am Shootout in 2009 was Dick Monroe’s final tournament before the surgery. At the barbecue that followed, the Renegades presented the family with cards, gift certificates, and a softball for Dick that included every player’s signature. That ball rests on his mantle to this day.

“That was the biggest thing that helped us get through that, because they were so supportive and whenever we would go to softball, it was like for a minute, you got to put all that stuff behind, you didn’t have to think about it,” Chelsea Monroe said. “And he would go down, help with the team and talk with the parents.”

RECOVERY

Chelsea, who graduated from General Brown High School the following June, opted to stay home to play softball for Jefferson Community College and help the family during the recovery process following the successful surgery.

“She kind of took control of Abby and RJ for me and really helped out,” Robin Monroe said. “It was hard for her because she’s really my most emotional child. So she really held it together and was really there, if I needed help or if I needed a shoulder, she was always there.”

Dick has since fully recovered and although his speech and eating habits were affected by the surgery, he is still able to do both, as well as watch both daughters’ soaring softball careers.

Chelsea went on to capture JCC’s career record with 52 stolen bases, and the single-season mark with 38 in her second year. She was the Mid-State Athletic Conference Co-Player of the Year, made the NJCAA Region 3 first team and was named an NJCAA Academic All-American. She also received the Pinnacle Award for Academic Excellence by virtue of finishing with a 4.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale.

“I wouldn’t change (my decision to stay), definitely not. It helped me grow up so much and really put me exactly where I am now and I wouldn’t change it for anything,” she said.

Abby, meanwhile, was excelling at General Brown High School as a left-handed pitcher and switch hitter. She made the Times All-North second team as a junior and was on the first team as a senior in 2012.

RJ was also getting what his father calls “the itch,” at this time and was entering the early stages of his baseball career.

SPRING 2013

Chelsea and Abby both committed to Utica College to play on the same team for only the second time since T-ball.

The two left home last fall with hopes of merely getting some playing time.

They ended up having two of the best individual seasons in the history of the program, leading Utica to its first conference championship and tournament title.

Chelsea tied the school record with 10 home runs. She hit for a .362 batting average, drove in 38 runs (fourth all-time), and slugged .714 percent (fifth all-time). She was named the Empire 8 Conference Player of the Year and was a first-team ECAC Upstate All-Star. All this after switching from being a lifelong infielder to the outfield, and not cracking the starting lineup until the team was 12 games into the season.

Abby quickly became the team’s pitching ace and tied a school record with 19 wins and held opponents to a .239 batting average, ranking second in program history. She posted a 2.42 earned-run average, 94 strikeouts, 11 complete games and four shutouts in 130 innings pitched. She fired a no-hitter in the Empire 8 Tournament to lead the team to its first ever conference tournament title. She was also named to the ECAC Upstate All-Star first team.

RJ spent the spring playing junior varsity baseball as an 8th-grade call-up at General Brown.

He, like his sisters before, is now traveling to Syracuse every Sunday morning with his father to receive private lessons, talking baseball and whatever else may come up along the way.

SUMMER 2013

The Monroes are spending this summer doing what they do best — playing ball.

The family has traveled just about every weekend to Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and several other places, often times splitting up into two cars to get to different tournaments and meeting up when they can.

Chelsea has been preparing for her final collegiate season coming next spring. Her goal is to become a Division III All-American.

Abby is in her final summer of 18-and-under travel ball, and has three years of eligibility left at Utica to top her outstanding freshman campaign.

RJ is playing, too, preparing to enter high school and either another season of JV or getting called up to varsity. He will also play football and basketball for General Brown.

Robin finally has some time to just relax and enjoy the traveling, watching her kids play and socializing with other parents.

And Dick Monroe is there — cancer free — to be a part of it all.

“It’s just a different kind of feeling now,” Chelsea Monroe said. “When you play, it’s not just because you love the sport, it’s more like, I don’t really know how to put it into words, but it’s like our bond, I guess. For all of us — we play, Dad loves it and takes us there, and Mom loves watching the games.”

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