Who needs hair? For Arizona’s Miley, a best friend is enough
PHOENIX — Troy Tulowitzki’s home run for Colorado had barely found the Chase Field bleachers Monday night when Arizona lefty Wade Miley looked into the stands for Johnnie Santangelo III, "Lil Man," his best friend.
Lil Man has seen Miley start games in Atlanta, Philadelphia and now Phoenix, and it has never gone well. Even a change of clothes to jeans and a yellow shirt did not help Miley against the Rockies. The pair are now 0-4, and when they saw each other outside the Diamondbacks clubhouse afterward, Santangelo just threw up his hands.
"I’m never coming here again," Santangelo said.
But he can.
After all Lil Man has been through the last two months weeks, he can. Miley helped see to that.
Miley and Lil Man — never mind that he is well over 6-feet tall — grew up on opposite banks of the Tangipahoa River, which separates the rural communities of Loranger and Independence, La., an area that was hit hard by Hurricane Isaac in August of 2012.
They played baseball with and against each other from the time they were about 12. Lil Man’s father, Johnnie II, taught Miley in school, and Lil Man coached Miley on a summer-league team. They have shared tree stands while deer hunting throughout the tri-state region of the Mississippi Delta for a decade now.
When Lil Man was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor two months ago, they shared that, too. Miley was packing for the Diamondbacks’ trip to in Australia when Santangelo called on March 16. The two talk almost every day, so Miley thought nothing of it. This time it was different.
Lil Man had a tumor that specialists from New Orleans to Dallas to Duke University called inoperable. Glioblastoma multiforme Grade 4 — which had claimed the life of MLB players union chief Michael Weiner months before — was its name.
For a second, Miley thought his friend was joking around.
"I heard it in his voice," Miley said. "I hung up the phone. I didn’t know how to react, and I didn’t want him to hear me."
While Santangelo collected opinions and considered his next step, Miley immediately sought out Diamondbacks trainer Ken Crenshaw in Australia in an attempt to get more information on glioblastoma. He wondered what could be done.
Miley stopped at home on the way back and was buoyed by the strength he saw in Lil Man, who, because of the pressure caused by the tumor, had become intensely sensitive to light. (Santangelo first knew something was wrong when, while turkey hunting, his friend saw a bird and he could not.)
"It meant a lot to have your best buddy with you and to know how much he cared," Santangelo said.
Crenshaw mentioned the situation to a contact at Barrow Neurological Institute, and within a few days, Dr. Nader Sanai telephoned Santangelo in Louisiana. Santangelo had been told that surgery would cause him to lose the motion in the left side of his body, or worse, but the conversation with Sanai in his living room changed everything.
"He said, ‘I can get it. I can remove it,’ " Santangelo said.
What about the other opinions? Santangelo remembers Dr. Sanai’s exact words.
"’I remove 300 a year, and they remove three,’" the doctor told Santangelo.
"To hear the confidence in his voice … I was still scared about getting brain surgery, but to hear somebody so confident, I just knew he could do it," Santangelo said.
The procedure at Barrow coincided with Miley’s next start, on April 1, when Miley beat the Giants 5-4 despite giving up four runs in the first inning.
To be at that place at 28 years old. … Prior to that, I was having a normal life. Fast forward and you don’t know if you are gong to have that normal life again. It was a scary feeling.
Johnnie Santangelo III on diagnosis of brain tumor
"I April-fooled him," Miley laughed.
Miley gave the game ball that night to Santangelo, who was feeling so well after awakening from surgery that he had watched the game on the most difficult day of his life.
"You don’t know if you are ever going to move anything again," Santangelo said. "To be at that place at 28 years old. … Prior to that, I was having a normal life. Fast forward and you don’t know if you are going to have that normal life again.
"It was a scary feeling. I’m no Hulk Hogan, but I’ve never been scared or nothing. But I was scared. I was real scared."
Miley was at peace on the day of the surgery because of something Santangelo said as he left for the hospital at 5 a.m. Miley’s husky, Sassy, had followed Santangelo to the front door as he closed it. Santangelo then opened the door and peeked back in.
"He said, ‘Don’t worry, Sassy, I’ll be back,’ " Miley said. "That was kind of a sign. Look, he’s going to be fine. Maybe a sense of relief for me."
Santangelo and another longtime friend, Ryan "The Dirty" Wheeler, have been staying at Miley’s house as Santangelo undergoes daily follow-up chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Dr. Sanai told Santangelo that he removed the entire tumor, and Miley has the before and after MRIs on his phone to prove it. White mass in one picture. No mass in the other. The last scheduled treatment is May 23.
"My body is taking it great right now," Santangelo said. "The doctors are real surprised with it. It has not affected me whatsoever, and they seem to think if it hasn’t affected me yet, it will not. His exact words were, ‘You are going to be OK. You are going to be fine.’ "
Santangelo did not even lose his hair, at least not from the chemo. Miley agreed to shave his head in solidarity while Santangelo underwent treatment, but as Santangelo and Wheeler were clipping Miley’s long hair, Santangelo happened to mention that the doctors were not sure he would lose his. So Miley took matters — and the shears — into his own hands. All three look like first-day recruits.
"That’s why he’s bald-headed right now," Miley said. "I was going to make sure he was going to lose his hair."
Santangelo’s support group — fiancee Megan and parents Cheryl and Johnnie II — have been in Arizona since the surgery, except for a brief trip home last week. Cheryl — "the best cook in America," Miley said — has been making the meals. It was pork roast Tuesday. The guys pass the time by playing Ping-Pong and Xbox.
"We are not at home, but it is like we are at home," Santangelo said. "To have my my family here every day with me and have two of my friends with me. They walked me through it, and they don’t even know it."
Said Miley: "He hasn’t changed at all. He’s been really strong. Nothing bothered him. He pushes through everything."
Santangelo’s wedding day is Oct. 18, and Miley and "The Dirty" will be there — unless Miley’s season is still going. For the hunting buddies, that will be just the start of an eventful winter that probably will include more trips than ever. Time might seem a little more precious now.
Doctors inserted a shunt on the right side of Santangelo’s head during the surgery, and one night, Santangelo woke up and thought he heard a faint sound in his head. He shut his eyes to go back to sleep but heard it again.
He asked Megan to put her ear to his forehead to check. To his relief, she heard it, too. It was the natural drip of fluid seeping away from the repaired area.
It might have sounded a little like the Tangipahoa on a calm Louisiana night.