Devin Smeltzer celebrated his 22nd birthday yesterday with a start in last night’s California League Division Series. Although he did not pitch long enough to qualify for the win, he saw his teammates score and score some more to get the victory and even the series.
Smeltzer has always loved playing baseball and was good at it from a young age, for example just before his tenth birthday he was to start his team’s championship game.
But he never got a chance to pitch that game because he was diagnosed with prostate and bladder cancer and had to start his treatment right away.
“Started right away with chemo and after about two months,” Smeltzer said, “we went to chemo and radiation, for the rest of that year, after the nine weeks of chemo and radiation, we just went straight chemo. “
The treatments were successful, “a couple of days after the year mark, I was considered in remission,” Smeltzer said, “and ever since then I’ve been in remission.”
After that experience, putting things in perspective became a daily exercise as Smeltzer recalled that year when he went to the hospital for his treatments.
“Early on in my sickness, I was pretty angry kid, pitiful and why me,” Smeltzer said, “you know, one day I woke up and I realized I didn’t have it as bad as some of other kids in there and from then on I’ve been just trying to help other people get through it.”
“It put life in perspective at a young age for me, I grew up very fast and being faced with death like that, I mean its life or death, you are either going to beat it or you are not. So being faced with that, its tough.”
Fortunately, Smeltzer was able to get back on the mound and become such a good pitcher that he would eventually be drafted by the Dodgers in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. But all of that success on the field just made it more important to talk about his experience with cancer.
Smeltzer believes playing a sport gives him an entry to send a positive message especially to children who he identifies with to this day.
“Baseball gives me that platform to get my story out there and inspire kids, whether I can come in contact with them or not,” Smeltzer said, “it gives them a story to read on a survivor who is playing professional sports now, it just gives them a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Drew Saylor, Quakes manager talked about the visits he and the team made to Loma Linda Hospital this season and about one patient who they got to know a little better after they first met him in the hospital.
“We had a big group that went earlier in the year,” Saylor said, ”and then Devin and myself went a few weeks ago.” They got to meet one particular patient, Johnny and he and his family made an impression on both Saylor and Smeltzer.
“We had Johnny and his family out to a ballgame and brought them in here,” Saylor said, “and really more than anything, I think that the most special thing for me, was having his dad go, man he has not smiled like this for three months because he was diagnosed before baseball season.”
Smeltzer talked about that visit and what it meant to him to connect to that young man.
“They had one particular kid they wanted me to meet with because he played baseball, had his world turned upside town, and I’ve been in his shoes,” Smeltzer said, “I was supposed to pitch in the championship game the night I was diagnosed so I know what it feels like to have your world upside down, I got to go in and hangout with him and just explain things are rough right now but things can always be worst.”
“He’s doing very well, he has a few more years of treatment because of the type cancer that he has, but he’s doing well, responding well,” Smeltzer said, “I got to hangout with him and his family and they are great people and was great to be able see them get uplifted, see his spirits lifted cause like I said, his world turned upside down and he was an angry little kid like I was, you know things are getting better, its good that I have this platform that I can reach out to kids.”
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and Smeltzer knows that when something happens, it is the entire family that is affected.
“I look back and as hard as it was for me, I can’t imagine at my age now, if I were to have a kid, just the hopeless helpless feeling of not being able to do anything and just watching your son and daughter suffer,” Smeltzer said, “I can’t even imagine what my family went through or what other families go through. It is for sure terrible for everybody when you go through it especially when you are a kid.”
Saylor has a family, so when he goes on visits like the ones to Loma Linda, he marvels at what he sees from the families there at the hospital.
“Seeing how strong some of those parents are,” Saylor said, “the kids have no hair, they’re frail and just seeing them battle and grind, it still moves me to this day, it just something you just don’t see very often.”
Smeltzer knows that sometimes people don’t know how to act when a family member or friend is suddenly faced with cancer. But he thinks that the simplest gestures can make a big difference.
“Just be there for them, if you know someone who’s going through it. When I was sick, my teammates and their families got together and they would come in and visit me in the hospital but it wasn’t even that,” Smeltzer said, “it was people cooking dinner for my family because you’re at the hospital all day, the easiest thing to do is get a quick meal, if you cook a meal for someone who’s going through it, you don’t realize how far that goes.”
Smeltzer has advanced to California League and his professional baseball career is just a little more than an year old but he knows that this is something he always wanted. He also believes that he would not be here without his fight with cancer.
“You know I’ve had my sights set on my goal,” Smeltzer said, “I may have been ten, eleven, twelve years old but my goal was to always make it as far as I possibly could in baseball.”
“If it was spending Friday nights in high school in the academy working out, that’s what it was, I never got caught up in the wrong group, I always tried to keep my head on straight, worked hard for my goal and I didn’t let anything get in the way of that.”
“I truly believe the person I am today is because of what I went through as a kid.”