Miami Marlins

30 years later, cancer survivor re-unites with Don Mattingly

A 9-year-old boy diagnosed with cancer will reunite with his hero 30 years later

He was given less than a 50 percent chance of survival and requested a visit with then Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly. That boy, Jim Handy survived and before today's game in Philadelphia will meet with Mattingly again.
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He was given less than a 50 percent chance of survival and requested a visit with then Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly. That boy, Jim Handy survived and before today's game in Philadelphia will meet with Mattingly again.

It was late in the summer of 1988 when a young Vermont boy battling a rare and deadly form of cancer was granted his one wish -- to meet childhood hero and Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly.

The meeting was arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and a grainy family video taken at the time shows the mustachioed Mattingly sitting down next to the boy inside the visitor’s dugout at Boston’s Fenway Park.

There is Mattingly autographing a poster of himself and handing it to the boy, who is wearing a Yankees cap, and the boy sorting through a stack of baseball cards in search of one of Mattingly to show the All-Star player.

And then, just before the video ends, Mattingly stands up and leaves to prepare for a game. And there sat Jay Handy not knowing what his future would bring, a 9-year-old boy given a 50-50 chance of surviving Burkitt’s lymphoma.

That was 30 years ago.

On Friday, as Handy stood inside the Miami Marlins’ dugout at Citizens Bank Park after speaking with Mattingly for the first time in three decades, those memories came flooding back.

“It was the day of a lifetime,” Handy said of that day in 1988. “When you see days like today, you realize you’re super lucky.”

Handy on Friday was with his wife and two children, including a 9-year-old daughter they named “Mattingly” in honor of the manager and former player who had meant to him so much so many years ago.

The visit with Mattingly was arranged by Handy’s friends back in early August when they saw the Marlins would be in Philadelphia on the anniversary and contacted team officials to arrange the reunion. They kept it as a a surprise for Handy until Friday.

It was a much happier occasion than their get-together in ’88.

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From left: Don Mattingly; Mattingly Handy and Jay Handy Clark Spencer Miami Herald

Back then, Handy was very sick, unsure if he would live.

“It was the type of cancer that they don’t see a lot of cases of,” said Handy, who had been admitted to Boston Children’s Hospital for extensive treatment.

He wasn’t the only child with the disease being treated at the hospital.

“There was there was another little boy -- his name was Patrick -- that came in probably close to the same time did, that ultimately didn’t make it,” Handy said. “We were all given 50-50 chances and I won the coin toss.”

Given the circumstances, Handy met with the folks at Make-A-Wish, who promised to grant him a wish.

His first choice was to meet Vanna White of the “Wheel of Fortune” TV game show. That idea never got very far after Handy was convinced he should set his sights closer to home.

With the Yankees coming to Boston to face the Red Sox in a mid-September showdown at Fenway, arrangements were made for Handy to meet Mattingly.

“The first thing that struck me was how disgusting and dirty the dugout was,” Handy said with a laugh.

Ultimately, Handy got to sit down and talk with Mattingly, who was happy to help out.

“If someone really wants to meet you like that, it’s probably the least we can do,” Mattingly said.

Mattingly had agreed to many such requests over the years.

“Sometimes it was phone calls,” Mattingly said. “It always amazed me when you call someone in the hospital that’s in a bad spot to hear later on from parents of a sibling what an impact it (the call) had, even if was for a short period of time.”

Mattingly never found out what became of Handy until only recently.

But what he learned warmed his heart.

Handy had beaten cancer, married and fathered two children.

Mattingly, the daughter, also met the manager on Friday. Handy said the poster Don Mattingly signed for him 30 years ago now hangs in her bedroom.

“It means the world,” Handy said of his first visit with Mattingly, “and to be able to come back and do it 30 years later, as a 40-year-old, it means that much more. I think it’s still registering.”

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The Marlins are expected to begin their pursuit of Cuban outfielder and top international prospect Victor Victor Mesa, who has been declared a free agent and is now eligible to sign with any major league team. Mesa’s younger brother, Victor Mesa Jr., was also declared a free agent by MLB, according to MLB.com

The Marlins have $4.3 million in bonus pool money to spend on international free agents, the second-highest figure behind only the Baltimore Orioles’ $6.5 million.

Victor Victor Mesa, 22, is considered an elite talent and the top international prospect. The Mesa brothers left Cuba in May in order to become eligible for free agency by first establishing citizenship in another country.

The brothers are expected to hold a workout for all 30 major league teams at some point in the near future.

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