Matt Tosoni never thought a piece of cloth could ever mean so much to him.
“It’s something I’ll cherish the rest of my life,” said the St. John’s baseball team’s left-handed pitcher. “The Shirt will never leave me.”
But it isn’t the polyester-cotton blend that gets the 6-foot-4 junior from Canada all misty eyed. It’s what the black shirt stands for: an uncanny toughness and perseverence.
One year ago, as his team was on its way to a school-record 41 wins and a trip to the NCAA Regional, Matt Tosoni was in a hospital bed in downtown Toronto.
Tosoni was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when he was 16, and it’s incredible how candid he is in talking about it.
Uclerative colitis is a disease that causes inflammation and sores (ulcers) in the lining of the rectum and colon. Ulcers form where inflammation has killed the cells that usually line the colon. They then bleed and produce pus.
Reading it is hard enough – try experiencing it.
His entire freshman year he played with what he calls “flare ups” and still managed to be the Red Storm’s best left-handed starter.
What’s a “flare up,” you ask?
“For a month I just bled,” Tosoni said. “I couldn’t go to the bathroom. I couldn’t eat. I had trouble sleeping.”
Sorry you asked, huh?
And still, incredibly, he was 5-2 with a 2.91 earned run average and pitched 6.1 innings, giving up only one earned run in the Big East Tournament against then-No. 7 Notre Dame.
“When I look back, I don’t know (how I played),” he said. “Even my doctors are like, ‘What the hell? How did you do that?’ I’m very anemic and I was anemic to the point of getting blood transfusions. But I was playing.”
So, after coming to school healthy in September 2004, it was no surprise that doctors listened when he actually complained of an uncommonly bad flare up that October.
He was flown back to his native Whitby, Ontario and rushed to the hospital. And good thing he was.
“They did a test and they found that my large intestine was just done,” Tosoni said. “Just shot.”
He had his first of three surgeries at the end of that month. The initial procedure’s purpose was to attach external bags outside his stomach to collect waste. And, of course, remove the now-useless large intestine.
The second surgery was to create something inside his digestive system called a J-pouch. The small intestine is stretched into a pouch-like shape and a hole is cut into it, to act in a similar manner as the large intestine. The external bags stayed.
Through all this, Tosoni was in and out of the hospital, sometimes for a month or so straight through.
“It was hell,” Tosoni said. “I’ll tell you that right now.”
He dropped in weight from the 210 he played at his freshman year to a ravaged 148. On a 6-foot-4 man, that’s more Mary-Kate Olsen than former major-league pitcher Gregg Olson.
Meanwhile, back in Queens, the St. John’s baseball team was mowing down conference contenders on its way to a Big East regular-season title.
“The hardest part was being apart from the guys,” he said. “They’re doing so well. I wanted to be there for them. I couldn’t even watch TV. It was quite horrible. All that was in my mind was what I could be doing. – I have a love for those guys from last year and the returnees from this year that the bond will never be broken.”
And that’s where The Shirt came in. Assistant coaches Mike Hampton and Scott Brown came up with a brilliant idea: the two players who worked the hardest in practice would get to wear a black St. John’s baseball shirt – with Tosoni’s initials and his No. 38 adorned on the left arm – to warm-ups and practice the next day.
All in honor of Tosoni, who was working hard almost 1,000 miles away at something more crucial than just baseball, wearing his own version of The Shirt.
“We just wanted to remember him,” coach Ed Blankmeyer said. “We wanted him to be part of it.”
“They wanted something that would keep him in our memories every day – something everyone could look at and say, ‘that’s Matt Tosoni,'” said Tosoni’s roommate and Red Storm catcher Brendan Monaghan. “It turned out to be a competition every week between the pitchers and position players: Who could get it and who wanted it the most.”
Of course, not many people want “it” more than Tosoni. He had his final surgery last June that connected the J-pouch and allows him to use the bathroom somewhat normally.
Now, you would think the happy ending of this story would be Tosoni living peacefully in Canada, a clicker flipping between TV hockey games, while wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat. But no. He’s back here, wearing a cap with the interlocking STJ. Where he belongs.
After spending more time lying in a hospital bed the past year and a half than just about anything else, Matt Tosoni is back pitching for St. John’s only 18 months after having his large intestine removed.
“Some people can’t even do anything anymore for the rest of their lives,” Monaghan said. “To be able to come back and actually pitch is phenomenal.”
Tosoni doesn’t feel the same way. He’s too busy breathing the spring air at the ballpark, enjoying his return to a normal life and doing what he thought about almost every moment during eight months of staring at gray walls, eating inedible food and being bed-ridden: playing baseball.
For a guy who spent so much time suffering with the ulcerative colitis he’s now beaten, only one thing makes him ill these days.
“I’m sick of hospitals,” he says. “I stay away from those.”