TAMPA — The Sunday afternoon sun was descending behind Monica Santos as she walked to the right-handed batter's box with that barely discernible hitch in her concise strides.
Her black ponytail, practically 22 years in the making, dangled roughly halfway down her 4-foot, 10-inch frame. Time to take a few cuts at cancer.
Santos' USF softball teammate, sophomore Meredith Bissette, had been diagnosed with a rare form of it a month or so earlier. On this cloudless May afternoon, a few hundred had turned out for a home run derby to raise funds for Bissette's family. Pledges were taken for each homer hit, literal bangs for the bucks.
Santos made 'em pay, all right. The derby's smallest competitor by roughly a half-foot, she chuckled as she missed wildly on one pitch, unaccustomed to the gratuitous dip in velocity. But then she adjusted, and the bright-yellow orbs began arriving like cantaloupes. The girl known as Mo splattered one. Then another. And another.
On an observation deck high above the third-base dugout, Coco Santos beamed. For more than two decades, Coco has watched her daughter, who briefly flatlined on an operating table at 9 months old, smash the bejeezus out of softballs and spina bifida and scoliosis. But darned if it ever gets old.
"She's fearless," Coco said.
For all the pain and preconceptions Santos has been forced to conquer, she and her family realize they're hardly unique. Bissette announced Wednesday via Twitter that her body now is free of chordoma cancer, though she does have a large bone-cell tumor and aneurysmal bone cyst.
So while not totally out of the woods, a treacherous part of the proverbial forest has been navigated. In that regard, Santos can nestle to Bissette's side as a kindred spirit of sorts.
Sobering prognoses? Check. Routine hospital visits? Check. Harrowing surgeries? Check.
Santos, a senior who graduated Friday with a double major in sociology and communications, has been through it all.
"You look at her spinal cord, it looks like the letter S … to this day," said Santos' father, Manny.
"Two of her vertebrae are not completely formed around her spinal cord, so she's a little bit crooked," Coco added. "She covers it very well with clothes, and she walks with a little bit of a limp, but she disguises it very well."
Indeed, neither a plate nor rod exists in Santos' diminutive body. The only apparent steel component is her resolve.
The girl required to wear a back brace 20 hours a day all three years at Benito Middle School starts at third base for the Bulls at this weekend's American Athletic Conference tournament in Tulsa, Okla. Santos ranks second on the team in doubles (11) and is tied for fourth in homers (four). In 54 games, she has eight errors.
With three stolen bases, she has tripled her previous career total.
"She's never used (her adversities) as an excuse," Bulls coach Ken Eriksen said. "I think one of the greatest parts of it is, she wasn't the fastest person in the world coming out of high school, but man, I tell you what, she has increased her speed running-wise since she got to college because that's what she worked on to get better."
She has played for the Puerto Rican national team (Manny was born in that country) and started four seasons at Wharton High, where she pitched, caught and evolved into an all-county third baseman.
Before that, she played for nearly a decade at Temple Terrace PONY baseball, where umpires routinely checked her bat because she was too small to swing the big-barreled ones.
"She had an absolute gun behind the plate," said Scott Endris, whose son Billy often implored his dad to let Santos catch for him when he pitched.
"When we used to be in the all-stars and Billy was pitching, we'd play these other teams and they saw this little girl behind the plate and they said, 'We're going to steal on her all day.' I promise you they were all heading to the dugout."
Seems the only barrier she hasn't broken is 5 feet. Eriksen acknowledges Santos is the smallest player in his 20 seasons as Bulls coach.
"Every little girl that comes and takes a picture with me, they're like 10, and they're as big as me or bigger," Santos, who wears a size 5 shoe, said with a chuckle. "I like inspiring them because they see a little girl and they're like, 'Wow, if she can do that, then I can.' "
Initially, doctors weren't as optimistic. At one point, they questioned whether she'd ever walk.
The diagnosis of spina bifida — a birth defect in which the spinal cord doesn't close all the way — arrived before Santos' first birthday. After surgery to remove a bone spur (where her heart briefly stopped) at 9 months, she was forced to wear inserts in her shoes and braces on her legs and back.
Within a year they were gone. Shortly before her fourth birthday, Manny registered her for baseball in Temple Terrace.
"We didn't shelter her," Coco said. "She played soccer, she played basketball, she played baseball with the boys."
Less than a decade later, doctors discovered a considerable curvature of her spine — scoliosis. Coco recalls being told the curve was around 23 degrees, roughly 3 degrees shy of the threshold that would force a rod insertion and possibly the end of her playing career.
A back brace was prescribed, with strict directions to keep it on while she slept, as well as during most of her waking moments. Because dresses couldn't totally shroud its existence, Santos mainly wore shirts or sweaters.
"They wanted me to wear it 20 hours a day," she recalled. "I was like, 'That's not happening. I need to play softball.' "
So off it went for softball practice and hitting lessons, travel ball games and baseball doubleheaders in Temple Terrace. Coco's maternal instinct told her the oldest of her two kids often was wincing her way through the at-bats. The recollection elicits tears.
"We told her there's a chance if you don't wear it, you could mess up your future," said Coco, pausing to regain herself. "She took her chances and she's pretty strong-minded and, I mean, she's just Monica. I don't even know what to say. She just does her own thing."
By the time Santos turned 18, the semiannual visits to the Shriners Hospitals for Children had ended. Not her career. She already had been attending Eriksen's camps for more than a decade and knew USF was home. Eriksen had long since been bowled over by her fortitude, instinctiveness and uncanny hand-eye coordination.
"She's possessed with a lot of natural talent and ability," Eriksen said.
"And for somebody that's gone through the physical trial and tribulations that she has, she found something that she was passionate about, that she was good at, and she went with it. Some people might have just quit and said, 'That's it, I'm just not going to be able to do it.' "
Back to Sunday's home-run derby. Manny sat in a high row of bleachers, watching his daughter swing away and brandishing a proud smile. Several years back, he ran into the doctor who performed the delicate surgery on Santos during her infancy. When told she was playing competitive softball, the doctor was astounded.
"She's a special kid and she had to overcome some stuff, and that made her stronger," Manny said.
Just beyond the leftfield fence, the softballs accumulated like Easter eggs on a church lawn. All had been given an indelible aluminum stamp — marked as chordoma or confinements, scoliosis or slim odds — and sent on their way.
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.