By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) —There’s not much you can read anymore with all the sweat stained smudges, but the names remain there scrawled underneath the bill of his cap.
Whether they’re legible to anyone else doesn’t matter.
It only matters to Devin Smeltzer. He can make them out. He knows their names. They’re indelible. Standing in the outfield, or on the mound, his eyes need only to rise up and see who they are, and what they represent — and remember who he’s playing for.
The 6-foot-3, 170-pound junior lefthanded pitcher from Bishop Eustace Prep (Pennsauken, N.J.) will sporadically go back and channel the 9-year-old. He’ll return to what it was like those nights, lying there in a hospital bed staring up at the ceiling wondering things a 9-year-old shouldn’t have to wonder about; like if he’d ever throw a baseball again, or if he’d live.
The names Smeltzer carries with him on the field, underneath the bill of his cap, are forever locked in his heart. They’re the ones that didn’t make it. Frankie never reached 9. Little Lea didn’t make it to 3. And there’s Mr. Love, the father of a friend, remembered, too.
It’s why throwing a baseball is a little more visceral for him than compiling stats.
Smeltzer, 17, is a star pitcher on the Crusaders. He’s thrown a no-hitter this year and has a 7-2 record, and an ERA below 1.40. He throws in the upper 80s to low 90s, with 87 strikeouts over 45 innings. In his no-hitter against Seneca, he helped himself by hitting a three-run homer.
When he’s not pitching, he’s the Crusaders’ centerfielder.
And when he’s not playing baseball, or studying for Eustace’s demanding academic course load, or tweeting or texting, or playing video games or the million other things teenagers do, he often remembers the time when he had cancer — at the age of 9 — and beat it.
“It’s why there are a lot of people that I play for,” said Smeltzer, a leading reason the Crusaders could go deep into the NJSIAA South Jersey Parochial A playoffs. “It’s more than just about me. It’s about every kid that has cancer. There are a lot of people under my hat who I play for, cancer-related, and not cancer-related. It’s all the people I lost and who were close to me. People that have touched my life.
“My story isn’t about me anymore. 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.”
Starting with Tim and Chrissy Smeltzer, Devin’s parents. They began noticing something unusual with Devin, when he was 9, in March 2005. He was experiencing abdominal pain and had the urge to constantly go to the bathroom.
During a family trip to Florida, the urges to constantly urinate began to get painful. He took medication for it. Devin saw a urologist. He underwent a battery of tests. Still, no answers.
The urge left for a time. By August 2005, Devin was flying off the field between innings, running to the bathroom as soon as he got the chance, though he was initially afraid to say anything to his parents that it was back.
Finally, after some local hospitals couldn’t admit Devin immediately, the Smeltzers got him into St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.
He thought it would be a quick stay. It wasn’t.
Doctors found a mass the size of a large grapefruit pressing against Devin’s bladder and connected to his prostate. The night he was diagnosed Devin was supposed to start for his summer club team in the championship game of the Magnolia Tournament.
Instead, he received a phone call from his team that they had won. They announced his name with the rest of his teammates during the postgame medal presentation. But that night, only air stood where Devin was supposed to be.
“More than anything I remember I was really, really angry; the doctor said they were pretty sure I had cancer and the first thing that came to mind was that I was never going to play baseball again,” Devin recalled. “At first, I’ll admit, I was angry at the world, just so frustrated why this could happen to me. I was 9. You’re a kid and you have so many things run through your head.
“After the first month or so, I started getting accustomed to the cancer. I realized I had something very beatable and I had to stop feeling sorry for myself, man up and make the best out of it. It made me grow and mature and look at life a lot differently. It made me realize what life was and is. It made my priorities very set in cement. They still are.
“It made me realize that playing baseball is a privilege to play. I saw so many kids go through chemo that weren’t able to play or walk again. Once I got over the negatives about it, I turned it into as positive a situation as I could, if you could turn being 9 and having cancer into something positive.”
Throughout five-and-a-half weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, Devin continued to play baseball. The Smeltzers wanted Devin to lead as close to a normal life as possible. But there were obstacles. Plenty of them. For one, he was brittle. Chemo and radiation had shaved 30 pounds off his lanky, clothes-hanging 80-pound frame.
He had no taste buds. Everything tasted like copper to him. But he had to regain some weight to continue playing, or go on a feeding tube, which would have prevented him from playing altogether.
“It still brings tears to my eyes,” said Chrissy, Devin’s mother. “You remember all of the things that he went through, and then you see him today, a young man who’s 6-3 and can throw the way he does. It brings you back to when he was restricted from even going to school, because the chemo had weakened his immune system. He lost all of his hair.”
Said Devin, “The hardest part were the treatments. Your body, like every cell inside you, is burning up. Some chemos I would have hot flashes. Being able to still play baseball kept me going. It’s the leverage my parents had and the reason I used to drink these nasty protein shakes to keep the weight on.”
By December 2012, Devin’s cancer was in complete remission. He’s had a few scares along the way, like when blood was found in his urine in January 2013, though the Smeltzers were relieved when tests showed it was caused by dehydration.
On May 18, Devin pitched Eustace to a 6-1 victory over Eastern, one of South Jersey’s better teams, in the quarterfinals of the South Jersey Diamond Classic. The kid who was once too sickly to go to school, with sunken eyes and pasty skin, tossed a two-hitter, striking out nine and walking two.
Devin, who carries a 3.0 GPA, is receiving attention from South Carolina, Florida Gulf Coast, Florida State and Clemson. He has a great repertoire of pitches that includes a plus-fastball, slider, changeup and knuckleball.
Above everything, Devin carries a perspective that’s beyond his age, reaching beyond the scope of most high school athletes. He’s ruled by an overriding force that whispers it’s more than him that’s walking to the mound. He’s taking those names scrawled under the bill of his cap with him.
“Every six months I go over to St. Christopher’s to see kids,” Devin said. “When I was sick, there was a kid who came to me and talked to me like nothing was wrong. That’s what made me feel good. So when I go in there, I make it seem like there is nothing wrong and talk to them like they’re a regular kid. I want to pitch in the majors one day. That’s the goal. But I have no problem saying I’m the ‘cancer kid.’ I have no problem sharing my story and telling it to other kids.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.