ST. LOUIS — It was a day that had been planned for months and one those in attendance will never forget. But it almost didn’t happen.
Just two weeks before the Cardinals and third baseman David Freese were set to host a benefit concert to help raise money for Johnny Venus as he battles leukemia, the St. Louis native had to be re-admitted to the hospital due to a high fever.
But Venus — drummer in the band Greek Fire and a longtime friend of Freese — wasn’t about to miss a night that he used as motivation for several months.
“I told the nurses, ‘I’m leaving. Sept. 18,'” Venus said. “‘I got a ballgame, I’m throwing out the first pitch at the Cardinals game, there’s a show and I’m going to try and play it so I’m leaving. I’ll disappear for five hours and come back.”
As if it were a movie script written by the man above, Venus was released from the hospital on Sunday — two days before the event. And there he sat in front of a large crowd inside the Ford Plaza at Busch Stadium on Tuesday evening, showing no signs of someone undergoing rigorous chemotherapy treatments.
Fans held signs that encouraged him to stay strong as Venus picked up his drumsticks and took a seat. In an ever-changing world that has brought him plenty of uncertain moments the past several months, Venus looked right at home.
The music began, the crowd roared and Venus began to hit the drums.
And for many of those in attendance, the tears began to flow.
“I can’t find the words,” Venus explained later, holding back tears himself. “It’s amazing. I’m still shaking.
“It is very overwhelming, after we got done with the first song. I just felt the support and the love coming from the crowd. I did let tears go, yes.”
Planning for the event began back in February, when Justin Meyer of the Cardinals’ ticket office contacted a friend at 105.7 The Point to see if they would be interested. Freese, a close friend of many members of the band including Venus and lead singer Phil Sneed, jumped on board in whatever way he could help.
The Cardinals offered special $20 tickets for Johnny Venus day, where $10 from each ticket sold would go directly to helping pay for his medical bills and those of others diagnosed with Leukemia. A pair of other popular bands in St. Louis, Story of the Year and Cavo, also performed during the 75-minute show.
More than 1,000 tickets were sold for the event, meaning more than $10,000 had been raised for Venus. In addition, raffle tickets were sold during the concert for items that included an autographed Freese jersey.
“He’s a buddy first and foremost and when you can do something to help, why not?” Freese said. “Just to put effort into something like this, it means a lot to not only Johnny and his friend and family but everybody else involved. It’s just a great thing that the Cardinals were aware of and became a part of. A lot of people doing a lot of good things for it.
“He’s going through a tough time right now and I became a pretty good friends with them a while back and just helping out Johnny and getting the awareness out for people with cancer, it’s a great thing.”
Venus was without insurance at the time of his diagnosis, leaving him with medical bills that have reached into six figures. He continues to undergo chemotherapy treatments but hopes to be able to rejoin the band fulltime in the near future.
Asked what other goals he wanted to accomplish in the future, Venus said the next item on his agenda is to give a good best man’s speech at his brother’s wedding next weekend.
Standing nearby, Sneed joked that he plans to bench press 400 pounds.
And it was Sneed who also had a hard time processing the events of the evening.
“I’m usually one that’s not short for words but I don’t know, this whole thing has been so surreal,” said Sneed, who graduated with Venus from Lindbergh High School in 1999. “We’re from St. Louis, massive Cardinals fans and always have been. We’ve known Freese since before he was David Freese but the dude is the most generous dude and just to have him use his platform and not only that, but the Cardinals and The Point doing what they’ve done.
“We’ve had so many people saying they know somebody going through Leukemia and they want to support this anyway they can. The whole experience has been perfect and being a musician that’s been touring for ten years, there’s never been a perfect situation. It’s not something you run into in this business but this has been absolute perfect.”
After completing the concert, Venus was rushed to home plate where he was introduced to the crowd prior to the game against the Houston Astros. He then went to the mound and tossed out a ceremonial first pitch.
And of course it was Freese who served as the catcher.
“That was incredible,” Venus said. “I’m still kind of processing it. I kind of got thrown into the fire but it was awesome. It was amazing.”
Many people who saw him at Busch Stadium on Tuesday said the same thing.