After a year of 'hell,' South Jersey star thankful to be part of the Dodgers

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Devin Smeltzer (center) with his family: Father Tim, mother Christina, and brother Brandon.

WE LIKE to think about things in finite terms. We like for there to be an ending, a finish, so we can move away and get on with it.

When the Dodgers drafted Devin Smeltzer in the fifth round in June and paid him a $500,000 bonus, 33 percent above his recommended slot value, his story from pediatric cancer survivor to Bishop Eustace star to professional baseball pitcher seemed happily completed.

It is foolish to think that Devin has finally won his battle. That's not how cancer works. It looms and it lingers, like a threatening mist. It leaves you worried and anxious and thinned and stiffened, and it doesn't always leave you for good.

"I think about it all the time," said Christina Smeltzer, his mother. "It's scary. It's 11 years out and there are still issues. The side effects of chemotherapy and radiation."

It was late summer, and she sat in the living room of her trim ranch house in Voorhees, N.J., and she wiped away a small tear.

"Sometimes when you have cancer, years later you can develop another cancer," she said. "There's always that specter."

She shot a look to the other end of the couch at Tim, her husband.

"I know. I'm the worrier."

Tim wore a fishing shirt and a smile. "Me? I think about where he's at and how he got to the levels he's at," he said. "The cancer helped him mature. He has an appreciation for life."

That's what cancer can do, especially for a fourth-grader: It can make the grass smell sweeter and make the sky look bluer and make baseball a salvation.

"That year was hell, and miserable," Devin said, "but it put life into perspective."

He was talking on the phone from Arizona, where he was playing fall ball with the Dodgers' Arizona League team. Like most of the players, he was worried about making a good impression. Unlike most of the players, it was not a do-or-die mindset. Phrases like that are absurd for a kid who met Mickey Mouse with a malignant tumor the size of a grapefruit in his bladder.

"Most 9-year-olds, or even kids my age now, have not been faced with death," Devin said. "Because of it, I've always been very straightlaced. I know one day I could be playing Little League ball and the next day I could be in the hospital for 2 months battling cancer. I don't take one minute between those lines from granted."

Clearly.

Drafted in the 33rd round by the Padres out of Eustace, Devin opted for a four-year college, where he would be eligible for the draft as a junior. He chose Florida Gulf Coast over South Carolina, Clemson and Vanderbilt. He struggled at first, but finished his freshman season strong, burned through the Cape Cod League and, with an eye toward being drafted sooner than later, transferred to San Jacinto College in Houston (junior college players can be drafted at any time).

His plan worked. He went 9-3 with a 1.18 earned-run average. He threw a midseason no-hitter. In 91 2/3 innings, he struck out 128 batters, 20 of them in his last college game, in which he threw 140 pitches. Like his idol, Cole Hamels, the lefthander relies on a modest fastball that sometimes hits 90 mph but almost always goes where he throws it, as well as a deceptive changeup.

He lacked overpowering velocity when he was a 15-year-old mowing down 19-year-olds in American Legion ball, so precision has always been his hallmark. Nothing comes easy for Devin and that's OK:

"I am the person I am today because of what I went through."

He still goes through it.

After nine months of treatment, his cancer was in remission, but he has endured checkups every six months since. For years, he has undergone routine EKGs, because chemotherapy affects the elasticity of the heart.

Three months ago, he found blood in his urine.

The radiation therapy had thinned the walls of his bladder, so dehydration is his enemy. This means no caffeine, no soda, no lemonade, and, of course, no tobacco or alcohol.

He gets diluted Gatorade and water. For a 21-year-old baseball player. Maybe for life.

"It's frustrating, but it's a blessing in disguise. It cuts out a lot of other things from my diet. Lots of sugars," he said; then acknowledged, "It gets old."

It gets old for everybody.

"Cancer is brutal on the person going through it, but it hits everybody in the family just as hard," Devin said.

His brother Brandon was 3 when Devin was diagnosed and admitted to the hospital. Every night, one parent went to see Devin and the other stayed with Brandon, unless, of course, Devin was undergoing a major procedure, in which case Brandon had to stay with his grandmother or his aunt.

Brandon is 15 now, a slim, smart kid with thick, black hair. He tried track and crew but now he settled on cheerleading at Eustace, and he's in the drama club, too; fitting, maybe, for a kid whose life has been filled with somebody else's drama. He resisted his parents' request to sit for the interview:

"What am I supposed to tell him? That I was like a foster kid, and I was tossed around all over the family?"

Brandon does sit, and he is patient, the way a kid learns to be when he gets dragged to an endless parade of his big brother's baseball games. Cancer scars everyone.

"I wish he'd played ball, because he was really good at it," Devin said. "I never cared what he did, as long as he loves to do something."

When Tim and Christina look at Brandon, you can tell they are everlastingly grateful that he didn't get sick, too. Their year from hell was more than a decade ago. They remember the most chilling details as if it were yesterday.

In March 2005, the Smeltzers took their first trip to Walt Disney World. They splurged on the FastPass, which meant smaller, faster lines . . . but not fast enough for Devin.

"Dad, I gotta go!"

"Bud, really? Again?"

"Yeah."

After two days at Disney, Devin was pale and in pain. He constantly had to pee, but he couldn't. They visited a clinic in Orlando and got medicine for a urinary tract infection and the symptoms subsided. This cycle repeated for weeks until, one evening at a springtime baseball game, Devin called his mom to the bathroom.

"Look what I peed out!" he said, with that boyish pride in all things gross.

It was a blood clot.

The episode alleviated the issue for the moment. Devin was fine until one night in July, when Christina noticed he kept racing off the field after every inning and disappearing into the bathroom.

"Devin," she asked, "are you having trouble again?"

"No, no," he lied, with that boyish bravado for all things painful. "I'm just drinking a lot."

They had an appointment for two weeks later at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, but Devin had played ball that spring with Robert Steckler's son, and Robert Steckler is a pediatric urologist at St. Christopher's Hospital in Philly. They called on a Wednesday night. Devin was supposed to pitch a championship game Friday night. Steckler saw Devin on Friday morning.

After a couple of tests, baseball became insignificant.

All that mattered was the pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma. This was not catastrophic news. The survival rate for this condition was about 75 percent, slightly less in kids under 10. Devin was 9.

Doctors installed a port in his chest that Friday night. By Monday, Devin had begun chemotherapy, in the care of Dr. Gregory Halligan, a pediatric oncologist. And, so began their education.

Doctors took Tim and Christina to Devin's floor Monday. When she got off the elevator she saw this strange sign.

"Oncology. What's that?" she thought.

As she walked along, she saw bald kids in the hall, bald kids lying in beds in rooms. "Hmm. Bald kids. That's usually cancer." She didn't allow the connection to be made.

"I was so naïve, I guess. Shocked. Clueless," she said.

"You saw the families and the kids, but I couldn't admit to myself that that's what we were really in there for," Tim said.

Within a week, they joined a world of anguish and sputtering lives and desperation. Parents and siblings sometimes slept in empty beds just to be close.

"We came across everything," Christina said. "All ages. Infants. Three-months-old. Seventeen, 18-year-old kids."

They came. And they went.

Devin's cancer responded ... perhaps because his doctors allowed him to play fall baseball. His first tournament back he played rightfield ... and dived for a flyball. The pitcher came in tight ... and Devin leaned into it, Chase Utley style, and trotted to first base with stitch marks on his ribs. He stroked a double ... and, on the way home, told Tim, "Dad, I'd have had a triple easy if it wasn't for all the pins and needles in my legs."

Playing was exhausting, and exhilarating. Doctors were stunned at how Devin's dour demeanor improved.

"It was like magic," said Peg Mulhern, his nurse since Day One.

Always a skinny kid, Devin went from 80 pounds in the summer of 2005 to 54 in the spring of 2006.

Devin's team won that Little League game he was supposed to pitch in and they brought the trophy to the hospital.

Then one of them asked how long it would take for Devin to lose his hair. Devin didn't know he was going to lose his hair. Everybody cried.

That passed, too. He got dozens of hats as gifts. He wore an Eagles do-rag for school pictures that year. Chemotherapy took his hair, but left his eyebrows, so he looked a little strange. Chrissy went to the fields with a thermometer in her handbag because Devin constantly spiked fevers. A trip to a pizza parlor after a game was an invitation to infection.

More aggressive chemo came in the spring, and that finally took his eyebrows and his body hair, and nearly half of his body weight, because his taste buds were ruined. He withered from 80 pounds to 54 pounds and choked down cases of garlic croutons and Doritos, of all things, because that's all he could stomach, and inserting a feeding tube meant no more baseball. His eyes sunk into his head. He missed all but the last two weeks of fourth grade: He went for the first day and for class pictures.

He was coached through fourth grade, too. On days that he didn't have games, his father or a coach would put him through drills. They provided exercise and got him out in the fresh air, true, but more than this: They made the cancer kid feel like a regular kid, if only for a half-hour or 15 minutes, or whatever he could manage.

By the summer between fourth and fifth grade, it was, for the most part, over. His weight returned and his hair grew back, and he went back to school. As the years passed, the checkups grew less frequent: every few weeks to every six months to once a year. In 2012, he was declared in complete remission, or cancer-free, but anyone close to cancer will tell you that it never sets you free.

It teases you and it tortures you for the rest of your life.

Imagine the terror when, for instance, one morning in the summer before his senior year, Devin found a lump in his testicle.

They sped to St. Christopher's. Halligan ordered an ultrasound. The test was negative.

A few months later, only weeks after his biannual exam in January, Christina heard Devin talking on the phone in his room ... at 6 a.m. She opened the door and asked who it was.

"Dr. Halligan," he said, calmly. "I had blood in my urine."

He also had midterms. He went to school, took his tests, then went to see the doctor. Drink more water, he was told. He drank more water, and he waited for the next issue.

"If things pop up, they pop up," he said. "If I sat around thinking about that, I'd drive myself crazy."

Everyone needs an escape. Baseball is his obsession, but too much of it can be a bad thing. When Devin was a freshman at Eustace, he started joining Tim on fishing trips for flounder and striper and sometimes bass, if they could.

It's strange, though. Devin doesn't seem to want to escape the memory of his cancer.

When Devin goes back to St. Christopher's for checkups, he doesn't run in and out; he tries to say hello to all of the doctors and nurses who helped him. He stays for hours, visiting with sick kids. He helps run a fundraising baseball showcase in Syracuse, N.Y., called Swing for the Cure.

And he writes the names of childhood cancer victims he knows on the underside of the brim on his baseball cap. There are seven names on his Dodgers practice and game hats. Why?

"It brings me back to the fact that, just a few years ago, I wasn't able to play this game. It's just humbling. It keeps them in my memory. I know they're watching over me," he said, rambling a little. "There's many reasons why I do it. Whenever things get tough, I'm walking and breathing and able to play this game, for a living, now. Some kids will never have that opportunity. It keeps my head on straight."

This is nice, in a way, but it is not normal.

"Ah, he's weird, like me," Christina said. "He likes to keep them close."

He has done this for years. It has driven him. The family would pile out of the car on Sunday night after a weekend spent at a tournament and Devin would beg Tim: "Dad, can we play catch?" Other dads scolded Tim for pushing Devin, but Tim never had to push. That drive remains.

He's been at the Dodgers' instructional league facility in Glendale, Ariz., for the past month. He arrives at 7 a.m., lifts weights, eats breakfast - all organic for Dodgers prospects - and does team drills until lunch. He throws two bullpen sessions per week and faces hitters on Saturdays, but not this Saturday, because that's when he was coming home. He will take a few weeks off before resuming his training. He won't throw again until January.

Again: This is possible, he is convinced, by the resolve he developed fighting cancer.

There have been perks.

During his treatments, the Voorhees Township Police Department gave him a personalized glove, then sent the family to a Phillies game with premium tickets. Hamels was among the young players asked to participate in a meet-and-greet in the Diamond Club. Hamels also is a lefthander. Hamels hadn't seen a 10-year-old with a personalized glove.

"This is a sweet glove!" Hamels said, and put it on. Then he autographed it.

"That was my everyday glove," Devin said. "That signature's gone."

Tim took Devin to Phillies spring training in 2012, and Devin's story helped get him a one-day gig as a Phillies batboy.

"Jimmy Rollins kept hitting this other, younger batboy with the rosin bag," Devin said. "Then, he got the kid to throw it at Charlie Manuel. I took a lot from both of those guys."

J-Roll's antics are a pleasant memory, but Devin came away transfixed by Jim Thome's focus in the dugout, even during a spring training game. Thome was undrafted out of high school, then was taken in the 13th round out of Illinois Central College, a juco like San Jacinto. Thome hit 612 home runs and played 22 seasons, and no one appreciated his chance to play baseball more than Jim Thome.

Until, maybe, now.

"I'm a long way from where I want to be," Devin said. "Nothing's going to stop me from getting there."


hayesm@phillynews.com

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