From the very beginning of his diagnosis, Oklahoma City RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco was determined to stick to his daily routine of going to the gym.
He didn’t care that he had to carry a fanny pack with a catheter or was undergoing heavy doses of radiation while being treated for anal cancer.
It was at an LA Fitness that DeFrancesco noticed a small, older man riding a stationary bike and reading a newspaper. He was dressed nearly from head to toe in Houston Astros gear.
“You an Astros fan?” DeFrancesco asked.
The man turned the paper to show DeFrancesco the score from the previous game. The Astros had lost by a wide margin.
“Well, not last night,” Mark Stulberger joked.
The two haven’t stopped talking baseball with each other since, forming a friendship that would help carry DeFrancesco through his darkest times and back to baseball.
“When it comes to people, I cherish people,” Stulberger said. “In Tony’s case, I understood his need and I tried to fulfill his need. The need is to be a friend, somebody who is there, somebody he can rely on, somebody he can count on.
“You get a benefit of a guy who can talk baseball with you down to the finest thing.”
Stulberger spent 35 years in sports broadcasting and was a high school umpire. He was also a season-ticket holder for the Astros in 2013.
A baseball lifer, DeFrancesco has rarely been away from the game. After growing up in New York, he played catcher for three years at Seton Hall before being drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the ninth round of the 1984 draft. He lasted nine years behind the plate in the minors and turned to coaching, where he has won three Pacific Coast League titles and managed the Houston Astros for 41 games in 2012.
They also share a common bond of cancer. Stulberger’s wife is a survivor of breast cancer, and she now works for MD Anderson.
So it was natural to see the two together at Houston games earlier this season as their bond grew.
“Every day we would walk to the gym and he was always there,” DeFrancesco’s wife Adriene said. “Then they would talk baseball. I would go do my thing and they would just talk, talk baseball. It’s nice that Mark really befriended Tony. He didn’t have to.”
Stulberger added, “I guess he realized this guy knows what he’s talking about.”
Each morning DeFrancesco walked through the lobby of the Rotary House — a hotel on the MD Anderson campus housing many cancer patients — he grew more and more depressed.
“You’re constantly reminded every day,” he said. “I was able to walk, but there were people in wheelchairs pulling IV carts around, women with no hair. There was just constant reminder every day, ‘Is this going to be you?’ That’s what you’re fighting all the time is the what-ifs.”
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