Eli Marrero wasn't sure what to expect. Radioactive iodine didn't sound like something he would want to be in the same room with, let alone ingest. But two weeks after having his thyroid gland removed because a cancerous mass had been discovered there, Marrero, the Cardinals' rookie catcher, found himself face-to-face with a tumbler of the stuff—and doctor's orders to drain it because the poisonous concoction would kill any remaining cancer cells. "I was thinking, Is it going to make my hair fall out," he says. "Is it going to make me nauseous? I didn't know what to expect."
As it turned out, the iodine wasn't nearly as bad as he feared, though there was one side effect. "I had to stay away from my wife for about two days because of the radioactivity," he says. "I mean, I wasn't going to grow another hand or anything, but I couldn't kiss her or have much contact with her."
The growth at the base of Marrero's neck was discovered during a routine physical at the start of spring training, which Marrero, 24, had approached with the hope of landing at least a part-time job with St. Louis. Tests showed there were malignant cells, and so his thyroid was removed in St. Louis on March 6. It didn't take long for Marrero to collect his thoughts afterward, however. Lying in his hospital bed, he told his wife, Marisol, to get ready to return to Florida. "I told her I didn't belong here," he says. Two days later he was at the Cards' spring training complex in Jupiter, playing catch with the St. Louis farmhands.
The Cardinals planned to bring Marrero back slowly. Without a thyroid gland, his metabolism was knocked off kilter, leaving him tired and moody at times. Daily medication now takes care of that, but he couldn't begin taking the thyroid pills until the iodine treatment was completed. Once he began to feel normal again, in late March, he was sent to extended spring training—although that didn't last long.
Cardinals catcher Tom Pagnozzi went on the disabled list with a shoulder injury on April 13, and St. Louis had no choice but to call up Marrero. In his first game, with all of one spring training game and three extended-spring-training at bats under his belt, he legged out a triple and homered against the Giants. Marrero's adrenaline carried him through his at bats, but nothing could ease the discomfort he felt behind the plate because of his lack of conditioning. "When I was catching, I felt really bad," he says. "My legs weren't there, and balls I should have caught real easily I couldn't get to. I felt like I had a big ol' tank butt."
Marrero slowly played himself back into shape. He was sent to Triple A Memphis on May 14, a couple of weeks after Pagnozzi returned from the disabled list, but the Cards recalled him on July 1. After going 3 for 6 with a home run against the Cubs last Saturday, he was hitting .260 with three homers and 11 RBIs in 40 games, and he has been outstanding behind the plate. St. Louis's ERA is 3.75 with him catching, 4.74 when he's not. "People lose perspective," says first baseman Mark McGwire. "They get all hyped up about other things about the game of baseball, but they don't get hyped up about great stories like Eli Marrero's. I wish people would reflect on that."