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April 10, 2008
Patient helps Red Sox, Jimmy Fund "ring in" 55 years together

Molly tries on Big Papi's ring

Molly tries on Big Papi's ring. (O'Neill family photo)

When David Ortiz of the Red Sox proudly showed off his new 2008 World Series ring during Tuesday's Opening Day ceremonies at Fenway Park, a gaggle of photographers jockeyed to get a closer look at Big Papi's bling. Eleven-year-old fan Molly O'Neill, however, had already seen it up close — and even got to try it on before Ortiz.

O'Neill, an acute lymphocytic leukemia patient in the Jimmy Fund Clinic, was one of four young guests invited by the ball team to help "deliver" its World Series rings to Red Sox Principal Owner Tom Werner and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino earlier that same day. She and her parents then took in the ceremony and the Red Sox win that followed from the Fenway bleachers, courtesy of the team.

It was a perfect way for O'Neill to celebrate the opener, and a perfect example of the unique relationship the Red Sox and the Jimmy Fund of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have enjoyed during the past 55 years. Supporting the Jimmy Fund as one of its official charities since 1953, the baseball franchise has helped raise countless millions for cancer research and patient care at Dana-Farber.

Molly and her parents enjoy the game, warmed by a Red Sox jacket given her by the team

Molly and her parents enjoy the game, warmed by a Red Sox jacket given her by the team. (Saul Wisnia photo)

In addition, youngsters like O'Neill undergoing treatment in the Jimmy Fund Clinic — as well as Dana-Farber's adult patients — have gotten a boost during difficult times through visits with Red Sox players, management, and even mascot Wally the Green Monster. This winter, for instance, teenage patients took a trip to spring training in Florida, where they took in the action with their caregivers and met several members of the 2008 Sox team.

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And while the O'Neills were enjoying their day at the ballpark, Molly's classmates at Lincoln Elementary School and thousands of other area residents taking part in "The Rally Against Cancer" wore their favorite Bosox garb to work or school and pledged a gift to the Jimmy Fund — raising $380,000 so far. Such efforts continue the tradition started when Ted Williams routinely made the one-mile trip from Fenway to Dana-Farber back in the 1950s, after the Sox and owner Tom Yawkey took over stewardship of the Jimmy Fund from Lou Perini and his Boston Braves baseball team upon its move to Milwaukee.

"The Jimmy Fund and Red Sox provide this outrageously wonderful distraction from what we're going through," says Steve O'Neill, Molly's dad. "Seeing Molly at the ballpark with the other kids was just terrific — and takes being a fan of the team to a whole new level."

Molly watches on with the media as Mayor Menino inspects the rings

Molly (at right) watches on with the media as Mayor Menino inspects the rings. (O'Neill family photo)

Feeling special

Molly was so excited about the prospect of helping out with the rings that she didn't even mind that she had to be at the ballpark at 5:45 a.m. in order to do so. The big yellow DHL delivery trucks arrived shortly thereafter, and she was soon handing over a big cardboard box of goodies to Menino. The mayor opened it up, pulled out the first wooden box, and sure enough, there was Oritz's diamond-studded ring just a few inches away from Molly. A few moments later, it was on her finger.

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"When we got to try it on, it made me feel special," she reflected while watching the game from her sun-drenched seats. "We each got a keychain with a replica World Series ring attached, and mine fit my finger perfectly. So I took it off and will use it as my own ring."

Being at Fenway for Opening Day was a big switch for O'Neill, who spent each of the past two home openers with her parents in the emergency room at Children's Hospital Boston for problems related to her leukemia. During her nearly two years of treatment she's often been too sick to play sports or go to school, but the Red Sox have proved a welcome diversion.

Often while undergoing her nightly chemotherapy at home, she and her family would watch games. This past fall, when the Red Sox won their second World Series in four years, it was especially encouraging. Pitcher Jon Lester, who got the win in the Series-clinching victory at Colorado, is a cancer survivor treated last year at Dana-Farber, while third baseman Mike Lowell — named Most Valuable Player of the fall classic — has also beaten the disease.

Next on the family's "big dates" list is late June, when Molly's treatment is expected to end and her big brother Russ is due back from a one-year stint in Iraq as a first lieutenant with the Army National Guard.

"Being there for the ring ceremony was kind of like the culmination of all we've been through," says Steve O'Neill. "If you work hard you can become a champion. Molly has a champion's heart; now we just need to make sure she beats this opponent — cancer."

— Saul Wisnia
saul_wisnia@dfci.harvard.edu