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The last battle

By late summer in 2002, Dave was fighting the hardest battle of his life. He turned 58 that year, and it had been more than two decades since he exchanged pitching mounds in Baltimore and Montreal for the comfort of his suburban home in Billings, complete with regular–at least weekly and sometimes more often–golf games at nearby Yellowstone Country Club.

No longer did Dave have to try to outsmart the likes of this longtime nemesis, Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard. Or how to contain the murderers' row of hitters that the Pittsburgh Pirates presented to the Orioles in the 1971 world series. Now Dave was engaged in the fight that topped all: he was trying to conquer, or at least hold off, the lung cancer he had been diagnosed with a few years earlier.

A lifetime smoker, Dave had given up cigarettes in hopes of bettering his odds of conquering the disease. Still, fighting cancer was a slog. Fortunately, Billings, on its way to becoming the top medical center in a 500-mile radius, provided treatment options almost equal to big cities. For example, the Rocky Mountain Cancer had started offering stem-cell transplants to cancer patients in 1997, and Dave had undergone the procedure,

Now, in September that year, he could look back at his experience and offer wisdom to another former American League pitching standout preparing to have the same operation Dave had in 1999. That was Mel Stottlemyre, a right-hander who won 164 games for the Bronx. Bombers from 1964 to 1974 — the same period in which Dave had become a household name in Baltimore. Dave was expecting a phone call from Stottlemyre, who been diagnosed with bone-marrow cancer. Like McNally, Stottlemyre was a product of the West, a native of Yakima, Washington. McNally hadn’t yet heard from Stottlemyre when the Billings man recalled the misery he had experienced.

“It was tough,” he told a reporter for New York's Newsday in a telephone interview (sept. 14, 2000). “They told me it was going to be darn tough. I prepared myself for it. I was laid up in the hospital for 10 to 12 days. They took me down to the bare bones and I started coming back."

He continued:

“They just take you down as far as they can take you while keeping you alive. It was tough, but it was worth it and I would do it again. “

The Newsday account said Stottlemyre planned to call several people before the operation, including McNally, one of his top AL rivals for more than a decade. Dave said he would be glad to talk to Stottlemyre, another of the many people he had shared his cancer journey with recently.

“We’re a pretty small town, 100,000 people. The hospital will ask me to talk to someone who is maybe hesitating a little bit. I just tell them what I went through and what I did and how I would do it again. I say, ‘Just prepare yourself for a hard time, but know that every day, you’re getting closer to a better time,’ ”

McNally, however, detailed his treatment in a manner that left no doubt it was an ordeal. He said the operation made him sick to his stomach about ten times in ten days and left him without energy for a week. Dave said the effects of the treatment were toughest on his family, his wife, Jean, and their five adult children, Jeff, Pam, Susan, Ann, and Dan.

When he was in the hospital, “I was out of it” for a couple of days, a fuzzy period when he couldn't remember half the people who visited him.

He returned to his job as a car dealer within two months, but it took three months before he regained the strength to play 18 holes of golf. McNally had been a 5-handicap golfer before the operation. His play ballooned to a 16-handicap, but he got his game down to an 11-handicap before his tumor came back.

In June 2000, Dave went to his doctor, complaining that he was having trouble breathing. Tests showed two quarts of liquid in one of his lungs, along with a previously undiscovered tumor.

A first round of chemotherapy failed to shrink the tumor, but Dave’s fighter spirit prodded him to continue the battle. His doctors found the right chemical mix and were able to shrink the tumor by 78 percent.

“It's all on the plus side. I feel great,” Dave said. "They said I was a stubborn mule the way I handled it. I just didn't let it get to me.”

The stubborn mule held off death for two more years. Finally, in early December 2002, Dave lost the last and toughest battle of his life and died in his Billings home.

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Jamie Larson