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His fourth cancer treatment behind him, NESN's Jerry Remy looks ahead

by: John Tomase on Thu, 03/09/2017 - 9:24pm

Jerry Remy is in good spirits after returning to JetBlue Park. (photo courtesy Ian Browne/MLB.com)FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Most of life gets easier with repetition. SATs jump from junior year to senior. The roast chicken that once required constant cookbook consultation practically crisps itself. Buying a second house isn't fraught with anxiety.

Cancer works differently.

Survive it once, and it forever lurks just out of sight but never out of mind. Each doctor's visit becomes an exercise in fatalism. Is my luck about to expire? Will the doctors catch it again? Can I endure the treatment?

Jerry Remy knows every step of this dance. He was diagnosed over the winter with lung cancer for the fourth time. At age 64, the fight promised to be particularly brutal, especially after doctors feared the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.

"The worst time was not knowing if it had spread," Remy said on Thursday after arriving at JetBlue Park. "That was the worst time of all."

Doctors burned the cancer out of his lungs with a needle. Follow-ups showed the disease hadn't spread. He was finally cleared to fly at Friday's checkup, and he boarded a flight to the Fort four days later.

And so now here's Remy, looking weary but remarkably strong, all things considered. He returns to NESN's broadcast booth for his 30th season with a new contract that will expand his role to 115 games this season. He'll broadcast his first spring game in a couple of weeks.

Given everything he has been through, he treated the ballpark like a sanctuary.

"I didn't feel so good about two months ago, but now I'm feeling really good," Remy told a small group of reporters. "I'm glad to be down here and put that stuff behind me in an atmosphere where I'm comfortable, change my mindset from what I've been going through the last four months and now doing what I love to do and that's being around baseball."

Before he could arrive in the Grapefruit League, he spent the winter receiving treatment that could've broken his spirit. The fourth time is no charm.

"Once you've had it the first time, especially where I've had it, it's always on my mind," Remy said. "It's a month before I've got to go for my checkup, and I start to get scared. It's not something you get used to at all. Every time you go and get diagnosed with it, you kind of collapse a little bit. But you've got two options. One option is to move forward and do all you can do. The other option isn't very good."

Remy doesn't need to think very hard about why he keeps fighting this fight. He has only himself to blame.

Remy remembers raising hell around Somerset and Fall River in the late-1960s. He picked up smoking because, hey, you've got to look the part.

When the Angels drafted him in the seventh round of the 1971 draft, he figured he'd kick the habit out of a sense of professionalism. Then he entered his first pro clubhouse.

"Everyone was smoking," Remy said. "The coaches, the manager, the players, everybody."

So much for his body being his temple. Remy smoked right through his playing career and into retirement. He smoked after his first three cancer diagnoses. He makes no promises after No. 4, when asked by WBZ's Jonny Miller, because he knows better.

"I haven't had a smoke in a while," he said. "It's like an alcoholic. You never say never. You take it one day at a time. I've been a good boy, Jonny, for you. I'm well aware. This is the fourth time I've had lung cancer. I joke about it, but this is no joke. I picked up a terrible habit when I was 16 years old and was never able to stop. I'm sure that's why I have lung cancer. There are a lot of people who are not smokers that have lung cancer, but I'm quite sure that's the reason I have it."

Remy's diagnosis waylaid him during a professional renaissance. He was as insightful and entertaining as ever last season, perhaps inspired by those who saw his career prematurely winding to a close.

He still can't believe it, especially since he still doesn't know how he survived his first two seasons in the booth. He expected to coach and then manage after knee injuries forced him to retire in 1984.

But when the Red Sox split their broadcasts between NESN and Ch. 38 in the late-80s, they need an analyst. They chose Remy because he was local and fans recognized the name.

"The first couple of years, I was absolutely terrible. I hated it. I said, 'I made a major mistake. I should've stayed with the coaching and managing part of it,'" Remy said. "But as I grew to understand television, I think that made the job like 80 percent easier, and then the baseball started to come out. I was so focused on the TV end of it, which I knew nothing about. I didn't know how to do a replay. I didn't know how to communicate with the people. I remember games in spring training my first year with Ned Martin, and I didn't know what the score was. I was horrible. I used to pray for days off, for rainouts.

"Then all of a sudden it clicked for me. There wasn't a magic moment, but somehow I remember hearing from the truck, now that's how you analyze, and I kind of built on that. But for the first two years, not good."

Thirty years later, Remy is a local institution. 

"To be able to do this for 30 years is just mind-boggling," he said. "I didn't start thinking about it until midway through this offseason when I was going through this stuff and I thought, 'Man, you're going into your 30th year of broadcasting?' Almost half my life I've been doing this, and more than half my life I've been in the organization. I'm a very lucky guy, as far as that goes. I still enjoy the game and broadcasting the game."

And in his mind, he's not going to anywhere.

"They're probably going to have to tell me, hey Remy, enough's enough," he said. "We've had enough of your act. I don't see myself telling them anytime soon."