August 30, 2011
Mo Vaughn honored for role as "Leader" in cancer battle
Mo Vaughn walks onto the field with Jason Leader. The two became very close during Vaughn's time with the Red Sox.
Mo Vaughn hit 230 home runs for the Boston Red Sox from 1991-1998, but only one will likely be on his mind when he takes the field at Fenway Park tomorrow night.
Vaughn is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch with his former teammate John Valentin before Wednesday’s Red Sox-Yankees game, which falls on the second day of the 10th annual WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon.
The pair earned the honor for their dedication to Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund during their playing careers in Boston, and Vaughn has never forgotten the young patient to whom he vowed a birthday home run, and delivered his promise.
It was April 24, 1993, and the Red Sox were in California to play the Angels. When a Jimmy Fund representative met Jason Leader on his 11th birthday that afternoon and learned Vaughn was his favorite player, he contacted Red Sox broadcaster Joe Castiglione and arranged for Vaughn to call the young cancer patient in his hospital room.
Vaughn told Jason he would try to get a hit that night for the boy, "maybe even a home run," and then came through in the seventh inning – long after his young fan back east had fallen asleep.
Castiglione told radio listeners the story as Vaughn rounded the bases, and other media outlets picked it up. The next day Jason awoke to find flowers from strangers in his room and print and TV reporters seeking his feelings about what had happened. When the Red Sox returned from their road trip, Jason and Vaughn threw out the first pitch together before a game at Fenway, and a powerful friendship developed between the two families that lasted long after Jason’s August 1994 death from cancer.
"You meet these young kids, they take to you, and before you know it you fall in love with them," says Vaughn, whose visit this week is his first to Fenway since being inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2008. "The trials and tribulations you and I go through every day are minuscule compared to what these kids are going through every day. If you're 0-for-18 or 0-for-22, is it really that important? I think all of us players learned as much from Jason as he did from us."
Inspiring stories like this will be heard throughout the WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon, which will be broadcast live from Fenway on WEEI-850 AM and the New England Sports Network (NESN) from 6 a.m. to midnight on both Tuesday and Wednesday – including during two Red Sox-Yankees games. The event, which has become a staple on the New England summer calendar, has raised more than $25 million for research and care at Dana-Farber since its 2002 inception.
Doctors, nurses, scientists, and others who are working to strike out cancer will be interviewed live, as will patients and families who are waiting for a cure. On hand at Fenway Wednesday will be Jason's mother, Susan, siblings Jamie, Jesse, Justin, and Jenna, and Vaughn’s own family – mom Shirley, father Leroy, and daughter Grace.
"Jason's doctor Tim Browder, his primary nurse Cynthia Reed, and everybody at Dana-Farber were just so wonderful to all of us, and Mo and his family made us feel like they had known us for years," says Susan Leader, who will take to the airwaves along with her family and the Vaughns before Wednesday’s ceremony. "We were from New York and we were Mets fans, but we soon came to love the Red Sox."
When Jason died at age 12, Vaughn came to the funeral. And in the years since, the two families have kept their bond alive by forming a "Jason and Mo Friendship Fund" team that participates each fall in the Boston Marathon® Jimmy Fund Walk. The team has raised approximately $150,000 for Dana-Farber.
"You always want to make the reasons why you come back important and impactful, and this is for a great cause and in remembrance of a great young man," says Vaughn. "To get back on the field with my parents, who were very instrumental in my life as an athlete, and Jason’s family, and my daughter, will just be terrific."
— Saul Wisnia