What Ryan O'Rourke saw during his first Spring Training with the Mets in February was nothing out of the ordinary. Meeting new teammates, coaches and their families comes with the territory.
But at the time, the 31-year-old had no way of knowing about the battle waiting right around the corner for one of those families. When he found out about it, there was never a question he would try to help however he could. It was just a matter of what exactly that would entail, and how much it would involve his teammates.
It wound up involving his whole organization.
'Fight like a girl'
Cancer plays no favorites, but when it hits close to home -- and a child, no less -- the cuts run that much deeper. Such was the case in the spring, when Mets roving pitching coach Jeremy Accardo's 8-year-old daughter, Leighton, was diagnosed with Stage IV germ cell cancer. For anyone who has a personal or professional connection to the Accardos, it was a gut-punch.
"This is my first year with the Mets, but I had known about Jeremy during his playing days," O'Rourke said. "I got to know him and his family in Spring Training. His children were always running around and doing crazy things kids that age do. When we got word that she had Stage IV cancer, it really knocked us for a loop."
There is reason for hope. Even the advanced stages of germ cell cancer are often treatable. There is an 82 percent cure rate, according to the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.
Accardo, who appeared in 262 games over eight Major League seasons, had been a roving pitching instructor in the Mets' Minor League system for the past three years. The ordeal has forced Accardo to take periodic leaves of absence to be with his family, although he continued to work with the club's Minor League pitchers until mid-June. A coaching shakeup at the Major League level elevated the 37-year-old into the newly created role of pitching strategist in the bigs.
The Accardos' plight was of deep importance to O'Rourke and his Triple-A Syracuse teammates, who wanted to express their support for the family in a unique way.
"[Syracuse players] had some different ideas on what we could do to help out," O'Rourke said. "So, we came up with the 'Fight like a girl' T-shirts."
There's nothing complicated about the shirts themselves. A plain, black tee with 'Fight like a girl' and '#PlayingForLeighton' says all it needs to. O'Rourke collected $25 apiece for the shirts, with all the money going to Leighton's fight.
"It's really caught on. The shirts are all over the organization now," O'Rourke said.
"She's going through so much stuff. They all are. When Jeremy was around [earlier in the season] doing his thing with the pitchers, he was the same guy he always is. You wouldn't even know he was dealing with something so serious. For him to have to deal with that and at the same time continue with his job is something else. We're going to do anything we can to throw support behind Leighton and help her fight and get through this."
Double-A Rumble Ponies show #PlayingForLeighton T-shirts. (Binghamton Rumble Ponies)
'It's a cold reality'
Although not directly connected to Leighton's health issues, Syracuse has long been committed to philanthropic work related to cancer in the local community. Beads of Courage, a national program focused on children's cancer, is one of the organizations that benefits from the team's efforts. It began at the Phoenix Children's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, where Leighton is undergoing treatment. Each child is given a bead to add to a necklace when they complete a treatment. It's a reminder of the courage, strength and determination the children display in their fight against cancer.
"[Syracuse general manager Jason Smorol] is a big proponent of the Beads of Courage program," O'Rourke said. "I've had some kids come up to me with really long beads. Some have hundreds from all the treatments they've received over the years. Along with the beads, we send an accompanying note. It's nothing crazy, but just some words of encouragement to keep fighting. It's a great thing, and I know it means a lot to these kids."
Smorol, who has been the Syracuse general manager since 2013, was more than impressed when his players came to him with their ideas on how to support Leighton.
"It's great, because it was something organic from the team," Smorol said. "So often we'll tell the players we're supporting this initiative or that and they get on board, but to have it come from the other direction -- from the players themselves -- really gives me that feeling like we're all in this together. We're one team. It's not a front office or a players' deal. We're doing it as one.
"We've been doing Beads of Courage for a few years. The players are very receptive to it, and it gives a face to the kids and adds a little more meaning to it. When Jeremy's daughter was diagnosed and the players came up with the 'Fight like a girl' shirts, we figured it would be a great idea to tie that in with Beads of Courage."
O'Rourke's venture also caught the eye of his manager, Tony DeFrancesco. As a cancer survivor himself, the 56-year-old knows the good, the bad and the helplessness that somebody living with and fighting the disease can experience.
"We all wish Jeremy's daughter well," DeFrancesco said. "So far, it looks like our prayers are working. I first met Jeremy's family in Vegas last year. I feel for them, but at the same time, children are resilient and relentless. They fight every day. My message to them is to take the good with the bad and keep fighting. It's been great to see the guys and the organization stepping up. Any little bit helps, and they've done a good job raising money with the T-shirts. She's a fighter and so far, things are looking good."
Cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease among children in the United States, according to cancer.gov. In 2018, an estimated 15,590 American children -- from birth to 19 years old -- were diagnosed with some form of cancer.
"We don't know what these kids go through. We have no idea," O'Rourke said. "We're reminded that we're away from the procedures and treatment. We don't see the bad days these kids and families have to experience. It hits you so hard. It's a cold reality that there are so many things out of your control. But being able to help kids like Leighton, even if it's for only a few minutes, is a great feeling.
"To see kids in a bad place and then have the ability to brighten up their day means a lot. That's the part of the game that's really important. It's a funny thing. ... I'm a person just like anyone else, but when the kid sees me with that jersey on, I become something different."
Drafted by Minnesota in 2010 and having also spent time in the Baltimore system before coming to the Mets, O'Rourke has logged 56 appearances in the Majors. Long before he ever cracked a big league roster, though, he was mindful that his status as a pro ballplayer afforded him an opportunity to boost spirits.
"I think back to a time when I was with the Twins. I was a nobody -- a scrub reliever," he said. "But we visited a hospital and the kid was crying because he was so happy we came to see him. I had to turn around, because I lost it. You can't comprehend the impact we can have on these kids. It's an awesome feeling."
Professional sports teams generally devote a lot of time -- often far more than the public sees -- to philanthropic causes and community outreach initiatives. Unsurprisingly, interacting with children usually sits at the top of the list of priorities in those departments. And baseball has always spawned close relationships. Spending as much time together as they do, players, coaches and executives become a kind of family, and when one of their actual families are in trouble, it hits all of them hard.
"The respect I have for Jeremy, Leighton and the rest of the family is immense," O'Rourke said. "Before moving up to the bigs, his job was to worry about the Mets' entire system of pitchers ... and then the real fight came along. I know he has his priorities exactly where they should be and need to be. Let's just say the respect for the way he's handled all of this hasn't gone unnoticed. I think any other player who knows him would say the exact same thing."
The way O'Rourke saw it, something as simple as a T-shirt or recording a video for Leighton was the least he and his teammates could do.
"It became a big thing with the pitchers because of their relationship with Jeremy," Smorol said. "But the position players wanted to get in on it as well. It's a way to connect as a team. Guys are still wearing the T-shirts, and we continue to promote Leighton's fight on our social media platforms and at games."
DeFrancesco echoed the sentiments of the Syracuse GM. He also understands that the game is just that: a game. Life is infinitely more important, which is why he's proud to be associated with the players he leads.
"It says a lot about the character of these guys and what people don't see," DeFrancesco said. "They spend a lot of time in the community and at hospitals. It's been like that with all the organizations I've been a part of. Community service is the best way to give back, and the players are great at it. Whether you're in the Majors or not, kids look up to you when you're a pro ballplayer."
As for Leighton's fight, she recently began her second round of chemotherapy treatments at home in Chandler, Arizona. At the end of May, surrounded by her all-girls baseball team, she had a "head shaving" session. Several of her teammates joined in to show their support. The reports have been positive so far as Leighton continues her battle with a smile.
That comes as no surprise to O'Rourke, who thinks back to the little girl who was running around the Mets' Spring Training complex in Port St. Lucie, Florida, a few months ago.
"It's obviously an ongoing process, but she's dealing with it well," he said. "Knowing her father the way I do now and the support she has, I have no doubt she'll keep fighting as hard as she can. We're all rooting for her."
That includes Smorol, who won't forget the way his club has rallied around Leighton.
"Helping out was something the guys wanted to do for the family," he explained. "They don't want the recognition and they certainly didn't do it to promote themselves. We all just want to let Jeremy and his family know we're with them."
Michael Avallone is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @MavalloneMiLB.