When you’ve battled cancer, as Devin Smeltzer did as a 9-year-old, an infectious disease like the coronavirus brings a whole different kind of perspective.
But the past five months during the COVID-19 pandemic have not changed the way he lives.
“For the most part, I’m not really a public place person anyways,” said Smeltzer, 24, who rose a year ago from the Pensacola Blue Wahoos into his major league pitching debut weeks later with the Minnesota Twins to complete one of the most improbable and inspirational journeys of any professional athlete.
“If it were up to me, I’d be out in the woods or out on the boat anyways, so my life is not altered too much. I can take my boat out and there’s no better social distancing. Like, if you’re that close to my boat that I can get COVID from you, we’re gonna be having a different type of issue!”
He recently visited with Blue Wahoos fans on a Zoom video conference to talk about last season and how he’s been preparing for this abbreviated MLB season while also adjusting to life during the pandemic.
“I take care of myself really well. The cancer treatments I had, we didn’t know what it was going to do 10 years out. And I have gone through the side effects of that, so I’ve learned not to get too wrapped up in the unknowns because it will just drive you crazy. I’m being smart.”
Before a decision was reached on a 60-game season, which starts for the Twins on July 24 against the Chicago White Sox, Smeltzer kept a workout and relaxation routine at his home in Fort Myers. He has lived with his wife, along with their two German Shorthaired Pointer dogs, in Fort Myers since being acquired by the Twins in a July 2018 trade with the Dodgers.
“I was lucky enough to have my trainer down here,” he said before departing for Minneapolis to prepare for the season in “Summer Camp” with the Twins. “His gym is closed, but he’s allowed me to keep coming in and get my work in. He’s got a turf mound. So, I’ve been throwing four to six simulated innings a week. When there’s no stress pitches, it’s not that hard on your body, but I’m keeping the [inning] up-downs going and trying to keep it as realistic as possible. It keeps me in a competitive mode and keeps my mind right.”
Blue Wahoos fans remember Smeltzer fondly both for his dominance on the mound—he held a 0.60 ERA in 30.0 innings in Pensacola—and his high energy, fiery competitive spirit.
“I’m very high energy. I’m very fired up. I feed off the fans,” Smeltzer said about his pitching style.
To get more realistic reps while waiting for baseball to return and to get the competition he craves, Smeltzer pitched against a local high school travel ball team in Fort Myers.
“It’s been a lot of fun. They’re helping me out way more than I could be possibly helping them,” Smeltzer said. “I need this competing. I don’t care what level you are, if you come up there and have confidence and you’re taking hacks at me, it’s gonna fire me up to keep going.
“It’s been really cool because I leave and they’re all thanking me, and I’m like ‘you guys have no idea what you’re doing for me! I’ve been finding my competitive itch in, like, pickleball with my wife!’”
As a pitcher who feeds off the energy of the fans at games, Smeltzer sees a challenge for players this season playing without fans in the stands.
“I think we’re going to have to find it within ourselves. I think it would be difficult to get hyped up for. But, we’ve been deprived of this game for so long, we don’t really care how many people are in the stands at this point. Like, I would love to go play a sandlot game right now with nobody around, stick ball, tennis ball, whatever, just to compete.
“I know it’s hard for me to say as a rookie because every day in these stadiums is an absolute dream whether there’s fans or not, but I think a lot of us are kids at heart. If you put us back in a competitive atmosphere, you’re going to see a lot of really good baseball, fans or no fans.”
Even without fans, Smeltzer expects the abbreviated season to deliver action and excitement every night.
“It’s going to be kind of a cool spin on the sport,” he said of the 60-game format. “It’s always been a marathon. In a 60-game season, we are going to be all-hands-on-deck all 60 games. You have to come out hot, you have to stay hot, and you have to finish hot. Every game is going to matter. It’s going to be heated.”
Without fans, however, Smeltzer will miss one of his favorite parts of being a professional athlete: giving back to fans by signing autographs and being generous with his time.
“I was that kid. I was the kid who looked up to the big leaguer, the Double-A player. We don’t have jobs without the fans. I know there’s a small handful of guys out there in the baseball world that don’t like [signing autographs and interacting with fans], but we aren’t anything without the fans. I love it.
“I talk to my wife about it all the time. I was in a hotel somewhere, a guy got on the elevator and was like ‘Are you Devin Smeltzer?’ and he’s like ‘Oh man, it’s been fun to watch you play!’ Stupid stuff like that, the little kid in me is like ‘I’m here!’ I hope it never goes away. It’s so cool.”
Although fans likely won’t be in stadium for most of or the entirety of the upcoming season, Smeltzer has found other ways to give back, releasing a line of t-shirts to raise money for families affected by pediatric cancer.
“The t-shirts are for sale on 500Level.com. The money goes to Catch Cancer Looking, directly to the families and kids who are going through it.”
Money raised by the sale of the shirts is used in numerous ways to help families affected by cancer.
“If the insurance company stops covering numbing cream, we cut a check. If the parents are behind on mortgage checks, we can cut a check. Gas payments. My parents had to go over the Ben Franklin Bridge [from his home in New Jersey to a hospital in Philadelphia] God knows how many times. Just things like that to help things better. We’ll pay for trips for families and siblings.”
Smeltzer, who beat pancreatic cancer as a 9-year old, knows the stress and costs his family endured during his treatments.
“I want to help the kids that I was in their shoes. It helped my family. To me, that’s what my career is about. That’s what my purpose is about.
“They talk a lot about the integrity of the game and leaving it better than when you found it…if I can impact one kid’s life, I’ve had a good career.”
Want to help?
Catch Cancer Looking t-shirts are available for sale in the Bait & Tackle Shop at Blue Wahoos Stadium. 100% of the proceeds from shirts purchased at the stadium will be donated to charity. Limited supplies and sizes are available. Fans looking to purchase and donate online can view the 500Level charity shop at this link.