Peter Gammons: The remarkable journey of Devin Smeltzer and his battle with cancer

devin smeltzer Sam Tropiano

Devin Smeltzer with Bishop Eustace Prep’s Head Coach Sam Tropiano (source: @alka_SMELTZer)

“Things that don’t kill you only make you that much stronger.”

 Devin Smeltzer’s Twitter profile page

Matt Hyde had read that. Hyde is a Yankee scout who covers the Northeast. He and Ray Fagnant run showcase teams out of New England and the tri-state area in the Northeast, and Smeltzer pitched for them last summer at events like the Area Code Games in California, the same event and team for whom Mike Trout played before his senior year in high school.

Hyde, Fagnant got to know Smeltzer and his background, how he survived cancer to become an elite lefthanded pitcher at Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken, N.J., about a half hour from Philadelphia. They knew he is committed to Florida Gulf Coast College, Chris Sale’s school. They knew at 6-foot-3, 175 pounds he is still developing, but as he crept up to the low 90’s last summer he is a projectable prospect, good enough to make Baseball America’s list of top 100 high school prospects for the 2014 draft.

“He’s someone we’re all following,” says Hyde. So Smeltzer had to fill out questionnaires for most teams. When Hyde got his in the mail, in response to the question about personal goals, Smeltzer wrote, “to give back to kids who are in the position I was once in. I want to do everything I can to help them.”

“I’d never had a response like that,” says Hyde. He called Smeltzer. They talked about a gathering of scouts in Syracuse the last weekend of January, a clinic and showcase for youngsters, including potential college or pro prospects. There had already been an intention to try to raise money for kids with Type One Diabetes, and Smeltzer and Hyde decided to try to see if they could expand it to raise money for Philadelphia’s St. Christopher’s Hospital, where Smeltzer was treated.

Scouts, coaches and minor league instructors up the East Coast volunteered. Arizona pitcher Pat Corbin, a Syracuse kid, sent all kinds of auction items. Someone reached out to Roger Clemens, who sent a signed glove and ball from his 300th win. And when the one day event was over, more than $35,000 was raised for children’s cancer and diabetes. “It was put together in just a few weeks,” says Smeltzer. “I am very proud. I am very thankful for the help I’ve had to be able to play baseball, to enjoy the gift, and know people in the game.”

That accomplished, the big, gangly kid from South Jersey can prepare for his senior high school season and see where it leads him, to Florida Gulf Coast or into professional baseball.

He will play with names scribbled on his cap, the names of some cancer-related, some not, but “people I lost and who were close to me. People who have touched my life.”

Smeltzer has dealt with cancer since he was nine. In August, 2005, on a family trip to Florida, he had abdominal pain and the constant need to go to the bathroom. In games, he had to run inside, then after examination by a urologist and several medical exams, doctors at St. Christopher’s found a large mass pressing against his bladder connected to his prostrate.

After nearly two months of chemotherapy, he continued to play baseball. But he’d gone from 80 to 50 pounds. He needed a feeding tube. The treatments burned him. “Baseball kept me going,” he has said. Baseball and protein shakes.

In December. 2012, his cancer was in complete remission. Still, he continued to St. Christopher’s for tests, and to talk to kids.

Now he’s one of the 100 best high school players in America, and hasn’t even approached what he will be physically five years from now. “Playing baseball is a privilege a lot of other kids couldn’t realize,” says Smeltzer. “It’s why there are a lot of people I play for.”

“My story isn’t about me anymore,” he told Joseph Santoliquito of CBS Sports last spring. “My story is about giving hope to other people. “It’s about every kid who had had cancer. I beat cancer, but the battle is still there.”

In two months, there will be 20 to 50 radar guns tracking every pitch Devin Smeltzer throws. College? Pro? “It’s a long road, I don’t pretend to know where it leads. I want to pitch in the big leagues, of course. But I am privileged just to play, and I hope to help every kid lying in a hospital or home recovering or fighting the burn of radiation treatment that it can be all right.

“I just want to help the way I was helped.”

Devin Smeltzer will be drafted this June. He may go to college, he may sign, but he will have hundreds or maybe millions watching him and rooting for him, because we wish we were as courageous and good as this tall, gangly lefthander from South Jersey.