Smeltzer Helping Others Beat Odds After Battle With Cancer

Twins Caravan Pensacola guest using career to impact others

Devin Smeltzer pitched for Chattanooga, then the Twins Double-A affiliate, after being acquired at the trade deadline.

By Bill Vilona / Pensacola Blue Wahoos | January 30, 2019 11:29 AM

Underneath the bill of his baseball cap, pitcher Devin Smeltzer writes names indelibly sealed in his heart.

They were kids just like him. They were kids with cancer just like him.

They were ones he met in 2005 when he was 9-years-old, undergoing pediatric cancer treatment at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

The difference? They never left the hospital. They never got to pursue their own dreams.

This is why Smeltzer, 23, who is set to begin this season with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and continue his new career with the Minnesota Twins organization, always keeps baseball in perspective with life.

"The game is important to me," Smeltzer said. "Because I know there may not be a tomorrow."

Smeltzer is visiting Pensacola on Thursday as part of the Twins Winter Caravan event, which is open to the public at the Studer Community Institute.

Along with fellow pitcher Tyler Wells, who has dealt with the cruelties of cancer in his family, he is an inspiration and so willing to share his story.

"Every day I step between those lines, I look at it like it could be my last," said Smeltzer, who recently married his high school sweetheart from New Jersey and is living in Fort Myers, where the Twins will soon begin Spring Training.

"Because you don't what's going to happen and it's a blessing to step out there at the level I am at…and the level I am going," Smeltzer said. "I leave every bit of heart and soul on the field and do everything I can for my team and the city I am in and the organization."

Smeltzer and Wells will be part of Thursday's full evening of events along with Twins vice president/general manager Thad Levine, new Blue Wahoos manager Ramon Borrego, and Jeremy Zoll, the Twins director of minor league operations.

Smeltzer was one of two prospects the Twins acquired at the 2018 trade deadline in a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers for veteran major league second baseman Brian Dozier.

"To be honest, that day was one of craziest days of my life," he said. "No one saw it coming. It was a roller coaster (emotionally), but I knew it was part of the game."

As stressful as being traded, switching teams, and going from National League to American League can be, Smeltzer knows it pales in comparison to his baseball childhood.

While playing in youth league, he suddenly found he constantly needed to go to the bathroom. After numerous doctor visits and test, it was believed he had a urinary tract infection.

But the condition continued to get worse. He was admitted to St. Christopher's Hospital where it was discovered he had a grapefruit size tumor pressing against his bladder.

The rare condition is called pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma.

"The biggest thing in diagnosing me is that it doesn't happen with kids that young, so it never even crossed (physicians) minds to even check it," Smeltzer said.

"It sounds crazy no one thought to give an MRI, but it was so rare that it never occurred to do it."

What followed was an agonizing year of constant chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It left Smeltzer so frail, he lost all his hair and his weight dipped to almost 50 pounds.

"The treatments were gruesome," he said. "They wanted me to keep eating, but every time I tasted food I got nauseated or it had no taste to me.

"Finally, the nurses and doctors said, 'Look, this is your bottom weight. And if you go below, you'll need a feeding tube and you won't be able to play ball.' So that's when I really started making sure I ate."

His meals were "three-cheese croutons, Slim Jims, and Doritos."

He stuffed himself on those items, along with protein shakes. A year into treatment, he went into remission. Five years later, as a young teenager, he was declared cancer free.

'Baseball is not just a game to me. It is what got me through my tough times," Smeltzer said. "The doctors today still don't know how I played through it, how I am doing what I am doing today with the treatments I have been through. But again, God has a plan and I played through it."

During his treatments, he met Chicago Cubs pitcher Cole Hamels, then a star with the Phillies. He also spent time with his boyhood hero, former star infielder Chase Utley.

There were pictures of both players with Smeltzer as he was going through treatments. Smeltzer and Utley met again in a surprise visit a year ago while Smeltzer was with the Dodgers.

"We just talked about baseball," he said. "He didn't look at me different. He didn't look at me (then) like a sick kid. He treated me like a baseball player and that was a huge impact on me."

As Smeltzer got past the treatments, got stronger, began growing taller, baseball became his passion.

He spent nights at an indoor baseball training facility near his home of Voorhees Township, New Jersey. While peers were going out on weekend nights, Smeltzer was working out.

"I really started to catch stride my sophomore year of high school," he said. "I was always a good ballplayer, but I was always a kid that had to work super hard and it really started paying off.

"From the time I was sick… from everything I went through, I had my sights set. God has a plan and His plan for me was to keep growing and give me the platform to give back.

"Baseball is literally just that. And I love it. And it's my whole life. I love competing and all."

He met his future wife, a star softball player, while the two were at Bishop Eustace Prep School in New Jersey. Both got scholarships at Florida Gulf Coast University near Fort Myers.

After one season, Smeltzer left for junior college in order to make a quicker leap back into the MLB draft.

On their wedding day, November 17 in Fort Myers, Smeltzer came out to the church altar for the ceremony. His main nurse who treated him was there.

All of a sudden, he was stunned to see his doctor, Greg Halligan, who essentially helped save his life.

Halligan had told Smeltzer he couldn't make the wedding due to his physician commitments. But he caught a plane to Fort Myers, then traveled back the same day.

"I scanned over the church pews and saw his face and I just lost it. I was bawling," Smeltzer said. "He literally flew in, an hour or two before the wedding.

"When the ceremony was over, he snuck around the back gave me a big hug and said, "I love you bud, I'm on call, I have to get back.'

"He is amazing. We are his family, we are his kids."

The staff at St. Christopher's who know Smeltzer have stayed in touch.

"I always have my phone number with the nurses," he said. "They will call and say we have a new kid, he is struggling a little bit. Can we give him your number?

"My answer is always yes. It is usually talking about things with the kids. My biggest thing is not being treated like a sick kid. You are just a kid going through a tough time."

It's something Smeltzer will forever relate.

 

Twins Winter Caravan Pensacola

WHEN: Thursday, 5 p.m.-7 p.m.

WHERE: Studer Community Institute on 220 Garden Street.

WHO: Twins general manager Thad Levine, Twins director of minor league operations Jeremy Zoll, new Blue Wahoos manager Ramon Borrego, plus pitching prospects Devin Smeltzer and Tyler Wells. Also attending will be Pensacola authors Scott Brown and John Appleyard, presenting the city's unique and historical legacy in baseball.

ADMISSION: Free, RSVP required

FORMAT: Autographs with Twins personnel, question-answer sessions, concession samples provided, special announcements from Blue Wahoos.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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