NEW YORK -- Sunday was a normal day at Yankee Stadium in only one respect -- those who entered the gates bared the names of their heroes on their backs.
But instead of the usual T-shirts with "Jeter," "Cano" and "Rodriguez" on the back, names like "Grandma Margaret," "My Dad" and "The Greatest Mom" were safety-pinned to the shirts of several runners, as many of the 4,000 participants in the fourth annual Damon Runyon 5K at Yankee Stadium carried with every stride the memories of friends and family members who had fought cancer.
"It means an awful lot, because I think everybody knows people that have unfortunately passed away [due] to cancer," said former Yankee Ron Blomberg, who was on hand with ex-teammate Mickey Rivers as the race's official starters. "These are the heroes. I'm a player. These are the real heroes, and to be able to be a part of this is the best."
The race was open to anyone willing to give. Patients, survivors, supporters and baseball fans filled the tunnels and ran around the warning track at Yankee Stadium, raising more than $680,000 in pledges and donations to advance cancer research, while also celebrating what the human spirit can accomplish with a healthy body.
Blomberg made a brief speech before the race, proclaiming his affection for former Yankees pitcher Catfish Hunter, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, in 1999. He said Hunter's disease inspired he and Rivers to work with those suffering from all kinds of diseases, which is why the two felt it was important to attend Sunday's event for support.
"This event is great. We keep working," Rivers said. "We keep trying to find a cure for these kinds of situations. It'll get better. I know it'll get better."
After Rivers sounded the blow horn to start the race and Blomberg cheered on the passing herd, the runners looped around the first concourse twice and then headed into the bowels of the stadium. The runners cycled for another two loops in the basement, passing the home and visiting clubhouses before continuing the race around the warning track on the field. Then came the steps. The course extended up into the third concourse before lowering down for another circle around the second concourse, and then finally finishing in the grand concourse on the first floor.
"I'm a slow runner, but I was slower today, not only because of the stairs, but because I savored it as I went around that field," said U.S. Congressman Jose Serrano, a native of the Bronx who ran in the race. "Let's face it -- with my baseball talent, that's the closest I'm going to get to the field."
Serrano wasn't the only one who appreciated his trip around the diamond. After playing baseball his senior season for Wayne Hills High School in Wayne, N.J., last year, Justin Ferrarella was diagnosed with testicular cancer the day after he graduated and had to have surgery that summer.
Now a student at Coastal Carolina University, Ferrarella doesn't often participate in 5K runs. He's given up baseball and his dreams of one day becoming a professional player. Still, Sunday was an opportunity he couldn't pass up. It was the chance to realize a part of that dream by taking the field at Yankee Stadium, and also to help a cause close to his heart.
"It's incredible, you're just happy to be here," said Ferrarella's brother John, who was also a participant in the Damon Runyon 5k a year earlier.
"The first emotion you have when you get the [cancer diagnosis] is just shock. You know cancer is out there, but you don't think it'll happen to someone so close to you. Then to go through the entire ordeal, and to be here a year later is pretty special."
The foundation was formed in 1946, when journalist Walter Winchell wanted to honor his friend Damon Runyon, a sports writer who had covered the Yankees and passed away from cancer. When the new Yankee Stadium was finished, the team saw the Damon Runyon Foundation as a natural fit for a partnership and loved the idea of hosting a race inside the ballpark.
"Yankee Stadium is an iconic stadium, and to be in the new stadium and be able to celebrate it is so much fun," said Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation president and CEO Lorraine Egan. "We're so grateful for the Yankees allowing us to do this important race for cancer research."
Over the four years the foundation has partnered with the Yankees, the foundation has raised over $2 million for cancer research. That money has been passed on to some of the nation's brightest scientists.
"The Yankees are so generous to be supporting this event," Egan said. "They've been terrific partners."
Ethan Asofsky is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.