A 20-year-old Yankees farmhand named Derek Jeter, far from home while playing in the Arizona Fall League in 1994, drifts off to dreamland on sheets his mother gave him. Cardinal Mark McGwire gives son Matthew, 10, a noogie 11 days before hitting his record-breaking 62nd home run, in '98. Photographer V.J. Lovero was diagnosed with cancer 15 months ago, and since then McGwire has called periodically. "He always says he's thinking of me and praying for me," says Lovero, "and that's a powerful thing. Baseball is such a huge love in my life. Now it's also my therapy. How blessed am I?"
Padres cutup Doug Bochtler performs sleight-of-tongue in 1997 That same year, two-year-old Kacy Clemens spars with old man Roger, then a Blue Jay, at home in Houston. Dad Jay and son Chase, 2, grab a bite before bedtime at the Buhner house in Seattle in '96. "Buhner is the most fun-loving guy I've ever worked with," says Lovero, himself a father of two boys. "We were in his weight room when Chase wandered in after a bath." When Buhner, a Mariner, put a bat in his own mouth, the boy aped his father, and the image became a cover.
A baseball summits a biceps of Dante Bichette, then a Rockie. "Dante brought that little ball with him," says Lovero, recalling the 1998 photo session. "I got the feeling he'd practiced that pose in front of his mirror." Randy Johnson frightened neighbors in Seattle when he was with the Mariners in '92. "Here was this giant man in a tiny apartment, with this giant drum set," Lovero says. "He plays well. Also loudly. It was 11 in the morning."
Angels (from left) Jim Abbott, Chuck Finley and Mark Langston hang out in 1995; flatmates (from left) Eric Karros and Mike Piazza feed their Dodgers skipper breakfast in Manhattan Beach, Calif., in '93; Will Clark (with McGwire) goes 0 for 7 in a 14-inning spring training game in '88 and still has a belly laugh, so contagious is Lovero's joie de vivre. "Actually," demurs Lovero, "a 12-pack of Bud was involved." It was the first SI cover shoot for Lovero, who shot his most recent one—of the As Jason Giambi last summer—between radiation treatments. "Those of us with cancer don't just stop our lives," he explains. "It's important to be around what inspires us, whether it's work or family or friends. I'm blessed to have all three."