Steinbrenner grad Sammy May’s battle with leukemia
By Jeff Odom
Former Steinbrenner baseball player Sammy May stood by the mound Feb. 12 inside a stadium he had played in countless times.
It was like being home again, but this time was different.
His old pinstriped jersey and blue cap were replaced by a pair of jeans and a polo shirt. His blonde hair, short from months of painstaking chemotherapy, shined brightly under the lights.
For once, his thoughts weren’t on battling cancer or upcoming procedures at the hospital.
They were on one simple pitch.
With the spotlight on him, time seemed to stand still.
“Just throw a strike,” May told himself.
And he did — right down the middle.
May was diagnosed with adult T-cell lymphoblastic leukemia last July while attending the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York. He had earned a congressional appointment to attend the college, along with a baseball scholarship to continue his career.
After dealing with a persistent cough during boot camp, he visited a clinic on campus for a checkup and was told to immediately go to the hospital.
That’s when his life changed forever.
Doctors found a large mass in his chest and diagnosed him with cancer days later.
His best friend and current Steinbrenner infielder Brad Miller remembers getting the phone call that broke the news.
“I don’t know if everything happens for a reason, or some things are better to come, but it was heartbreaking for that to happen,” Miller said. “He was following his brother (Davey) to the Merchant Marines, and just to have that dream stopped was heartbreaking.”
May soon began treatment and was forced to stay at North Shore University Hospital in New York for more than month. At his side were his parents Dave and Debra and his brothers Davey and Jeff, who is an assistant on the Land O’ Lakes baseball team.
Miller said he stayed in contact with his friend as much as possible to let him know people were praying for him.
“I would call him or Skype him every night just to make sure he was in good spirits and to make sure he knew someone was there for him when he needed them to be,” Miller said.
Back home, family friends began to organize fundraisers and sell rubber bracelets to pay his medical bills.
Former teammates, coaches, friends and even complete strangers came by the dozens to support May at various events.
His favorite country music artist Brantley Gilbert gave him a call and sent him autographs and albums to keep his spirits up.
Fourth-year Warriors baseball coach John Crumbley came up with an idea of wearing special camouflage jerseys to honor his former outfielder’s love of the outdoors.
May, whose No. 20 uniform was not issued this season in honor of his battle, got one too.
“We had an opportunity in the summer leagues to try and honor him with a set of jerseys to wear with his typical camo lettering, and now we’re trying to get approval to wear them throughout the season,” Crumbley said. “Our parents and coaches have been heavily involved in different types of fundraising that people in the community have put on. … All of that shows the connection and support from us to the May family and Sammy.”
Crumbley, the longtime Jesuit coach, had Dave on staff as an assistant the past three years and coached Davey while at the helm of the Tigers. His main priority was making sure he was at the families’ side as much as possible.
“I’ve known them way farther than just at school or as a parent,” Crumbley said. “We’ve been on many baseball trips together to the College World Series, and that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to help people, and hopefully we’ve all done a pretty good job, and hopefully we can continue to be there for him.”
May was amazed when he found out how much Steinbrenner was doing for him.
“It makes me feel honored to know that I have so many people behind me and supporting me,” May said. “It gave me a lot of strength, and I was astonished at how many people contacted me from Steinbrenner. They talked to me for hours on end just if I ever needed to talk to somebody, and they really comforted me when I was in a time of need.”
After months of radiation therapy, his strength has begun to return, and he’s back to his usual routine of bass fishing, hunting and, of course, watching baseball.
Crumbley surprised him before the home opener against King and asked if he would like to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Of course, his answer was yes.
A smile flashed across May’s face after the ball hit the glove of Steinbrenner catcher Jesse Haney.
All around him, fans were cheering as his former teammates mobbed him on the mound.
He hugged his brothers, his mother and his father and took one last look before leaving the field.
“When I was at Steinbrenner, I never knew how many people were actually there for me,” May said. “I’ve been so inspired by everyone and I’m honored. I really am.”
—Follow Jeff Odom on Twitter: @JOdomLaker
What a wonderful story about this young man’s plight. Big fan of your work, Mr. Odom. Sports Illustrated doesn’t even have writers of this caliber.
Lynn Moran says
I had the pleasure of having sammy in my 4th grade class when I was first starting my teaching career at Mckitrick elementary. He was the quietest kid I ever taught in 10 years but I remember him fondly as a hard worker and a young man of great character from a nice family. Even though he rarely spoke in school he was so well liked by others and was a silent leader. All the other kids loved Sammy because he was always the best on the field, which is how I got to know him when I played football with my students on Friday afternoons. Sammy continues to lead other with his strength, courage, and positive attitude. He is in my prayers. I wish I would have known about him throwing out the first pitch. I would have loved too see him shine again.