Southpaw Devin Smeltzer beats cancer to become one of nation's top pitching prospects
Underneath the brim of his baseball cap, Pennsauken (N.J.) Bishop Eustace Prep senior Devin Smeltzer writes the names of fellow cancer patients -- children like he was, survivors like he is and those who weren't as lucky as he's been -- drawing inspiration from each as he takes the mound.
"Those are the people I play for," he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
His journey is worth sharing and has been quite often in the Philadelphia area -- first by the local CBS affiliate this past spring and more recently by the Inquirer. Hall of Fame baseball columnist Peter Gammons even helped spread Smeltzer's inspiring story late last week.
At age 9, Smeltzer was diagnosed with cancer when doctors reportedly discovered a softball-sized tumor connected to his prostate that pressed against his bladder and often forced him to urinate between innnings of his youth baseball games. Since his treatment at Philadelphia's St. Christopher's Hosptial for Children in 2005 -- including surgery, chemotherapy and a feeding tube that helped him stay healthy enough to keep playing -- that frail 50-pound kid has grown into a 6-foot-3, 190-pound southpaw that ranks among the nation's top 100 baseball prospects.
As a junior last season, he produced an 8-3 record with a 1.77 ERA and 109 strikeouts, leading the Crusaders to the state semifinals, according to the Inquirer. He climbed Perfect Game USA's national prospect rankings to No. 59 -- ninth among left-handed pitchers and second in N.J.
All the while, ever since he returned to the field at age 10, he's scrawled the names of those who have inspired him on his cap -- friends and family members diagnosed with cancer and the many children he's seen pass through the doors at St. Christopher's upon volunteering each month.
“My story isn’t about me anymore," he told the CBS Philadelphia this past spring. "My story is about giving hope to other people. There was a kid almost the same age as me. He didn’t make it. The hardest thing about going through cancer is meeting all these amazing people, and those people passing away and you moving on. I remember Frankie. There was Baby Lea, and it was hard to hear when she passed away. She was under 2. That’s the hard part. I beat cancer, but the battle is still there. I’ll always have it. You have to help the people that have helped you — and there are a lot of people that have been there for me.”
It's that attitude and Smeltzer's Twitter bio -- "Things that don't kill you only make you that much stronger" -- that caught Yankees scout Matt Hyde's attention. As the story goes, Hyde sent a questionnaire to Smeltzer, including a query about his passion off the field. His response, "To give back to kids who are in the position I was once in. I want to do everything I can to help them."
Hyde had never seen such a response and immediately asked if Smeltzer would be interested in helping raise funds at an annual baseball showcase in Syracuse. The two teamed up to raise a reported $17,500 on behalf of St. Christopher's children's hosptial by way of Katie's Krusaders.
"When they get a new patient, a lot of times they'll call me and ask me to go talk with the kid and the parents," Smeltzer told the Inquirer. "That's what I want to do. I want to give back."
Meanwhile, Hyde and Smeltzer may meet again. Whle the Bishop Eustace senior has signed to play for Florida Gulf Coast University, he's projected to be drafted in this June's Major League Baseball draft, and the Yankees will surely be among the teams scouting him this spring.