A season of healing

By Jim McElhatton (Courtesy photo)

Even in the snowy days of early March, Pat Malone can’t help but think about watching baseball on muggy summer nights.

As co-founder of the Alexandria Aces — an 8-year-old franchise in the wooden bat Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League — the 56-year-old* is busy lining up sponsorships, host families for his players and finding volunteers, just as he does this time every year.

But he’s also coming off an offseason like no other.

Changing the light bulb of a lamp sitting atop a bureau in mid-December, Malone felt a pain in his upper right chest. He figured it was just a hematoma, but the pain and inflammation grew worse.

Two weeks later, the Air Force veteran was meeting with doctors at the hospital in Fort Belvoir, who sent him to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for an ultrasound and biopsy. Eventually, doctors determined Malone had a rare and often misdiagnosed nerve sheath tumor — a malignant cancer.

At first, he didn’t tell anybody except for family. A popular and well-liked figure at the ballpark, Malone is quick to sit and chat and offer advice. But he didn’t want to alarm anyone with his troubles. As the date of his surgery approached, Malone tried to delay it for a few weeks to squeeze in a visit with family.

His doctors wouldn’t hear of it.

On February 11, in Malone’s first surgery since having his tonsils removed at age 6, surgeons took a tumor the size of a hockey puck from his chest. The operation lasted seven hours. With diet, radiation and exercise, Malone said the doctors tell him he ought to live a good, long life.

Springtime, which is on the horizon despite this week’s snowstorm, is all about hope, and Malone has more of it than usual after what he’s been through lately. He considers himself lucky after running through the endless list of possibilities.

What if the bulb hadn’t gone out when it did? What if he didn’t yank that big, old bureau just right, causing the tumor to bleed into itself and send off the pain signals that set into motion the chain of events that led to his surgery?

“I’ve been given a second chance,” said Malone, who always has baseball on the mind. “I’m like an old ballplayer sent down the minors who is getting called up again to get one more shot.”

As private as he was just a few months ago about the cancer diagnosis, Malone is quick to share his story nowadays. He hopes his experience will convince others to get regular checkups with their doctors.

“I look at this season as something much more special,” he said. “I look at life itself as more special. Now I just want to go connect with as many people as I can and be an advocate to go out and get a physical and catch something before it gets too big. I want to be an advocate for having fun.”

Though the son of golf pro, Malone fell in love with baseball as a boy, going to RFK Park to watch Frank Howard belt homers for the Washington Senators. As a father, he watched his son play little league. Later, he helped bring baseball back to Alexandria.

“When you get the news I did, you think about family and friends,” Malone said. “You think about life itself. You wonder, wow, what’s going to happen to me?”

Malone also thought about all those summer nights at Frank Mann Field watching the Aces. He remembers walking out of the press box one evening shortly after the franchise launched. He overheard children cheering, “Let’s go Aces!”

They yelled it over and over again.

“I got kind of emotional about that,” Malone said. “They were having fun and cheering for the Aces, and I thought that’s just about perfect. That’s poetry in the air.”

*Because of a reporting error, Pat Malone’s age was erroneously listed as 58.

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