BOSTON — This story begins with a swollen lymph node in Lesley Breslow's neck when she was only 14 and, for her brother Craig, the story does not end until every kid goes home from the hospital free of cancer, free of fear.
The Red Sox relief pitcher, enjoying the great autumn of his baseball life, does not particularly enjoy his nickname "The Smartest Man in Baseball." A Yale degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry aside, the title carries a distinct scent of the pompous and vainglorious. He is neither.
"I will say I'm not so stupid as to sit here and tell you I'm the smartest man in Major League Baseball," Breslow said Tuesday.
Still, Breslow, who grew up in Trumbull, is smart enough to have counted his blessings in life and decide that they added up to a calling beyond getting a couple of Cardinals out in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday night at Fenway Park. Leave it to him to explain it all in one paragraph.
"When I founded the Strike 3 Foundation in 2008," Breslow wrote in his opening message on the foundation's website, "I did so with a compelling inspiration to reciprocate my good fortune. Privileged by a healthy and prosperous upbringing, yet forever touched by the childhood cancer of my sister, I now seek to raise awareness and support for this devastating disease."
The pediatrician kept a close eye on the lump in Lesley's neck for a couple of months in 1992. Antibiotics did not help. The protrusion did not get any smaller. A biopsy was taken in December. It was malignant. The holidays in 1992 were not a good time for the Breslow family.
"When you are that age, there are certain buzzwords like cancer that are so incredibly influential on the way you think about things," Breslow said. "Every kid, 10, 11, 12, thinks they are invincible, have no vulnerability. Suddenly, you hear someone is sick and you hear cancer and the first question is, 'Are they going to die?'"
When a shaken Abe Breslow picked up Craig at a friend's house, he told his son that Lesley had thyroid cancer. With tears in his eyes, Craig, 12, asked that first question. Is Lesley going to die? He remembered how, later, his sister would be in her room, come downstairs, and ask, "Why are you guys crying?"
"Obviously at the time I didn't know how much it affected Craig," Lesley said. "Being a 14-year-old teenager, I was completely involved in myself, wanting to get started with [Trumbull] high school, try out for sports and all that stuff. I did not stop to think how my parents were handling this or how my brother was handling this. It seemed to go on for a lifetime …"
Lesley stopped for a second, as if to count her great blessing.
"My whole process," she said, "was very short compared to most people with cancer."
Three weeks after the biopsy confirmed the worst, she had a total thyroidectomy. A second surgery came next. Radiation was to follow. Yet the day before she was to have a scan done to determine what dosage she would receive, "I was told the surgeon had gotten everything they needed." She never had radiation. She never had chemo. Lesley returned to school within a couple of months and got on with the rest of her life.
Twenty years later, married, Lesley Palange and her husband, Paul, live in Stamford with two young sons, Jagger and Ryder. She remains cancer-free.
"It's rare for that to happen," said Lesley, a guidance counselor at Greenwich Central Middle School. "I do take [the drug] Synthroid every single day. I'm still monitored by doctors at Sloan-Kettering. I've been through two healthy, easy pregnancies."
"I also know through all the work Craig has done, he wants all children to experience the success that I have, beating this disease."
Lesley's older boy, Jagger, 4, has been in the Red Sox clubhouse, has sat atop the Green Monster. Breslow smiled at that thought Tuesday at Fenway. They are the generation that lives because Lesley lives and that is the joy that powers his cause. He is to be married to Kelly Shaffer on Nov. 9 and looks forward to the day of bringing his own kids into the clubhouse.
"It's funny, my sister told me her kids were watching a game on television and they didn't recognize me because of the beard," said Breslow, whose whiskers are far more modest than Jonny Gomes' or Mike Napoli's. "I felt like I have finally made it."
Accepted to medical school at NYU, Breslow would have been well on his way to a career as a doctor had the Astros not drafted him in the 26th round in 2002. He gave the game a crack. Braving the minors, the constant movement, sold by an independent league to San Diego for $1 at one point, nobody said it would be easy. Breslow, 33, has pitched for the Padres, Indians, Twins, A's, Diamondbacks. This is his second stint with the Red Sox. The team actually had called him from Pawtucket on Sept. 1, 2007, to cover itself if some young guy couldn't handle his second major league start. Clay Buchholz threw a no-hitter.
"The next day I became one of the few September call-downs in the history of baseball," Breslow said. "They were kind enough to give me a World Series ring, although I don't wear it frequently because I don't feel like I really made a contribution to that team."
"I feel like I could wear it proudly," said Breslow, who hasn't allowed a run and only three hits over seven innings in seven lights-out postseason appearances.
After he had struck out four over 1 2/3 innings and picked up the win in the ALDS clincher at Tampa Bay, Breslow received a video from the patients at Tufts Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center. He and injured Red Sox reliever Andrew Bailey, who was also a teammate in Oakland and is on the board of Strike 3, visited the kids in June. The kids hadn't forgotten. The video?
"Incredibly touching and totally surprising," Breslow said. "It was a really emotional moment for me. I watched it with my fiancée and we both teared up. This is the reason we work so hard in the community."
Breslow is smart enough to know that nobody is smart enough to write life's plan. He once told a reporter about breaking a wrist when he was 10 and was mesmerized by the cast and how he healed. The trauma of Lesley's cancer cemented his interest. He would be a doctor. Only it hasn't turned out that way.
"Craig started the foundation [along with his longtime friend Joe Lizza] when he realized baseball was taking him on that path," Lesley said. "This has enabled him in one way to stay connected to the medical field."
Will he pursue medicine when he retires? On Tuesday, he said he doesn't know. Already a respected baseball mind, he could remain in the game. Or he could continue to use his influence to drive research. This is a guy who deals with the IRS for his charity, who is so hands-on in his daily involvement, others are left in awe.
The first major fundraiser was held in Woodbridge in 2009. Three in Stamford have followed. Strike 3 has raised more than $1.5 million for research and to raise awareness in the fight against pediatric cancer. The foundation has made gifts to CureSearch, Connecticut Children's Medical Center, Yale's Smilow Cancer Hospital and on and on. Breslow is one of 30 finalists for the 2013 Clemente Award, for best representing baseball through positive contributions on and off the field.
"Our biggest initiative right now is called Play It Forward," Breslow said. "Between the age of 12 and 30, before I started the charity, there was plenty I could have been doing. Kids are full of creativity. This is a campaign for kids to come up with ideas to help other kids in cancer, execute them and we'll find the most impactful and we'll honor them by bringing them to Fenway, accompanying me on a hospital visit. The prize reinforces the mission."
And the mission?
"The end game is to eradicate the disease," Breslow said. "I don't know if that's a realistic goal in my lifetime, but it's our aspiration. It would be phenomenal if there was no need to support pediatric cancer [research] because there was no pediatric cancer."
Until that day, the work does not end for the smartest man in baseball.
"We do have a good time with that one," Lesley said. "Being my little brother, that's just plain funny."