ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – It was a night to give thanks but also prepare for unknowns. There were many then. At the home of Melanie McCauley’s family in La Crescenta, Calif., a commitment was made, love promised.
About 30 of McCauley’s closest family and friends, including her long-time boyfriend, Tampa Bay Rays reliever Cesar Ramos, were present for an intimate dinner. This was Nov. 10, 2012, 16 days after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Ramos’ friend, a chef and caterer, had prepared some of McCauley’s favorite items for the occasion: sea bass, grilled vegetables, clam chowder in small bread bowls. Soon, her life would include chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Her family and friends offered comfort that the path ahead would not be lived alone.
In time, McCauley’s father, Larry, addressed the group. Then Ramos did the same. The pitcher became emotional, trying to find the right words for his love.
Ramos turned to Larry, who reached into his pocket. Out came the engagement ring. Ramos knelt and proposed.
“It was complete shock,” McCauley says.
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Ramos describes McCauley as happy, always positive, someone who finds the best in any situation. Their marriage is scheduled for Jan. 25, 2014, in Pasadena, Calif. Their bond has grown stronger through uncertainty.
They met as students at Long Beach State. Ramos played baseball, and McCauley was part of the softball team. They shared social circles, spending time together in the dorms and in study sessions.
They began dating as sophomores in 2004. The San Diego Padres drafted Ramos in the first round, 35th overall, a year later. The couple split for about two years, but they remained friends and eventually reunited.
“Baseball is a game of failure,” Ramos says. “It’s you versus the hitter and who’s going to fail and who’s going to succeed. There’s a lot of ups and downs, but she has always been the positive one.”
Late last year, McCauley’s neck turned sore. Larry and McCauley’s mother, Carole, thought the pain was a symptom of a severe cold. But McCauley’s problem did not disappear with early remedies.
Tests in Southern California revealed that she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that typically starts in lymph nodes in the upper-body and can spread to nearby organs. There were many questions.
“I knew at the beginning that it was going to be a long journey, obviously, because part of it was unknown,” says McCauley, 29. “The doctors say, ‘Well, this could happen, but it may not.’ Everyone’s different. You never know.”
Ramos was with McCauley during her early medical appointments in the Los Angeles area. He raced from his morning offseason workouts to be with her at chemotherapy treatments.
His presence provided comfort. He knew what to say about the condition when the time was right. Just as importantly, he knew what to say when to turn her mind to other thoughts.
Before McCauley lost her long, blond hair, Ramos shaved his head prior to her doing the same. Their struggle was shared.
“He held me, when I couldn’t really look at myself in the mirror at first,” McCauley says. “He held me and told me I was beautiful.”
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McCauley made progress in time. Still, there were challenges when Ramos traveled across the country to begin his third season with the Rays.
The couple exchanged texts and phone calls. Ramos did his best to offer encouragement, telling McCauley words such as, “Stay positive,” and “You’ll get through it.” The distance, however, was hard.
“You didn’t know how she was going to react to all the treatment,” Ramos says. “Being over here, it’s definitely not easy to have those thoughts go through your head. (You) keep your fingers crossed that everything is going to be OK. Luckily for her, she reacted well.
“It’s definitely a test on not only a relationship, but also who you are and what you’re made of. It’s definitely not easy.”
McCauley spent time with Ramos during Tampa Bay’s road trip to Chicago, Kansas City and Denver from April 25-May 5. Then she flew back to Los Angeles, where she was scheduled to undergo her last chemotherapy session May 6.
There, McCauley received a surprise. Ramos was by McCauley’s side at the beginning of the process, so he knew her routine. On May 6, the Rays were set to play against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field. But Ramos received permission to fly to Southern California and be present for McCauley’s milestone.
McCauley walked into the familiar room at the treatment center. Suddenly, she processed a sight that amazed her: Ramos sitting next to the chair where she had spent so many hours with so many unknowns.
She froze. They both cried.
“It meant so much to me that he was there,” McCauley says. “He was there at the beginning to start it, and at the end to finish it with me. That was the high, for sure. It gave me that last boost to get through the last leg of the treatment.”
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The future provides anticipation now. For the most part, McCauley’s unknowns are gone. Recently, on June 21, she flew from Los Angeles to be with Ramos during the Rays’ series in New York against the Yankees, after her oncologist cleared her following treatments. Ramos turned 29 the next day.
She arrived at Ramos’ hotel room at about 8:30 a.m. She recalls her life’s love rolling over, half-asleep, saying, “It’s about time!” She laughed.
“It goes to show that it’s the real deal,” McCauley says of her bond with Ramos. “I feel like having gone through this at such a young age, it’s so important moving forward. It puts things into such perspective. … It feels like it’s bigger than life, to get through it together, to know you have your companion there with you no matter what to lean on.”
After the New York trip, McCauley flew into the Tampa Bay region, ready to begin a new life. She lives with Ramos in St. Petersburg, Fla., and she is happy to call it home. She plans to return to Los Angeles for follow-up appointments when the Rays play the Dodgers from August 9-11, and she will do the same when the Rays play the Angels from Sept. 2-5.
“We were amazed at how he was strong and unwavering and just a total support for her for whatever she was going through,” Larry McCauley, the father, says of Ramos. “We were impressed with the character of the man.”
Others were too. Ramos’ heart was tested. Along the way, it grew stronger.
“She has had to go through a lot here these last few months and so has he,” Rays reliever Jamey Wright says. “It’s tough enough to play this game when all the stars are aligned. When you’re dealing with something else on your mind, it’s tough. He’s a hero, just like her. He’s a hero to us, and she’s a hero to him.”
Almost eight months ago, Ramos made a commitment that will carry throughout the couple’s life together. There will be more tests. Life includes turns, unexpected twists.
“She had a good support group around her,” Ramos says. “I think that was the biggest thing that helped her, having good people around.”
Loving, too. A journey behind thecouple has prepared them for the one ahead.