"I think I'd remember that," Lowell answered.
The next day, Lowell went to a hospital in Fort Lauderdale. He was told he had testicular cancer. He drove himself home, crying all the way. He knew nothing about the disease, except that John Kruk, the former Phillies first baseman, had survived it. He didn't know if he would play ball again. He didn't know if he would be able to father a child. He didn't know if he would live or die. On Feb. 21 his cancerous testicle was removed.
All cancer is evil; testicular cancer is less evil than most other forms. In the U.S. about 7,500 new cases are reported a year. The survival rate is better than 90%. After surgery, Lowell began three weeks of intensive radiation treatments. He is 6'3" and 220 pounds, a big, strong man. After his treatments he would come home, crawl into bed and vomit violently after every sip of water and nibble of food. His wife of four months cleaned up after him. Thirty-seven days after surgery he played his first game as a cancer survivor, an exhibition for Calgary, the Marlins' Triple A team. He had two doubles and a home run.
Lowell has been getting better and stronger ever since. He is a righthanded pull hitter who stands close to the plate. Last year was his best thus far: .283,18 home runs, 100 RBIs. This year has begun even better. Through Sunday, to complement his gaudy batting average, he had slammed seven homers and driven in 30 runs, tied for seventh in the league.
Lowell is his team's unassuming, bilingual leader. One of Florida's strengths is its infield defense, which Lowell's deft glovework typifies. At week's end he had made two errors in 113 chances. He's a rock at the hot corner: good to his left, excellent to his right, a little slow charging on bunts but solid on his throws, with a chest that blocks hot smashes and turns them into outs. At bat he rips numerous doubles, many of them liners past third. He already had 20 doubles, tops in the majors. "There's nobody I've worked with less," says Bill Robinson, the Marlins' hitting coach. "He has a perfect, compact, fast swing, a tremendous work ethic and a pregame routine he follows religiously. His head is in the game."
At home there's one major change for Lowell from this time last year. Turns out his surviving testicle is doing its job. Last Sept. 3 Mike and Bertha welcomed Alexis Ileana Lowell into this strange, sorrowful, joyful world. Bertha and Mike know how Bertha's father suffered for plotting against a government he believed to be corrupt. On May 9 Jose Lopez, now an electrician living in Miami, swelled with pride when three Cuban defectors—Hansel Izquierdo, Michael Tejera and Vladimir Nunez—pitched for his son-in-law's club in a 1-0 win over the Padres.
In the Florida clubhouse Mike Lowell and outfielders Cliff Floyd and Kevin Millar share a row. When Lowell's not around, the other two speak of him respectfully. "He's alive; he could have died," Millar says. "He's got a baby; he didn't know if he ever would. He's got perspective; that can only help you in this game."
But this is still a baseball clubhouse and these are still ballplayers. A mono-testicled teammate batting .337 for a contending club, that's open season. A while back Floyd, Lowell and Millar were watching a game on the clubhouse TV. A pitcher was trying to work inside, but the batter wasn't giving him an inch. "Damn," Floyd said. "That guy's got balls."
The next voice belonged to Lowell, never one to back off an inside pitch himself. "What about me?" he asked. "What do I got?"
"You, Mikey?" Millar said. "You got ball."