When Yankees scout Matt Hyde, who covers the Northeast, received his questionnaire from lefthander Devin Smeltzer, he read a unique response to the question, “What are your personal goals outside of baseball?”
“We get so many of these back from kids every year and the fact that Devin responded that he wanted to give back to the people, that helped him resonated with me,” Hyde said. “I don’t normally get that. His questionnaire provided the motivation for doing something bigger than all of us.”
Smeltzer, who attends Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken, N.J., has emerged as one of the top lefthanded pitching prospects for the 2014 draft.
Smeltzer is also a cancer survivor.
Hyde contacted Rays Northeast scout Tim Alexander, who helps Hyde run the Yankees Northeast squad for the Area Code Games, and they developed an idea to help Smeltzer achieve his goal.
Alexander and Hyde mobilized the Major League scouts from the Northeast to host a fundraiser, the first annual Swing For The Cure Camp and Home Run Hitting Contest.
The proceeds went to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, the hospital that treated Smeltzer, by way of Katie’s Krusaders and The Iacocca Family Foundation for diabetes research.
“One of my good friend’s child has Type I diabetes and I wanted to raise money for that cause,” Alexander said. “Then when Matt Hyde told me about Devin’s questionnaire. He and I looked at it and said, ‘Why don’t we do it for both?'”
Owner Dick Woodridge, the friend of Alexander whose child has diabetes, enabled the event by donating his Syracuse Sports Zone indoor facility to be used for the day, forgoing earnings at one of the busiest baseball facilities in the Northeast.
More than 100 players from the 2014 and 2015 classes attended the event, which featured hitting, pitching and defense taught by 18 major league scouts. The prospects received valuable feedback and training from these sharp evaluators.
Alexander, who laid the groundwork for the event and spearheaded the logistics, said he tried to pay the scouts for attending, but the scouts agreed to donate their time.
Most of the top prospects in the Northeast participated, including righthanders Scott Blewett and Austin DeCarr, middle infielder Isan Diaz, outfielder Zach Sullivan and catcher Drew Lugbauer. They all played with Smeltzer on the Phillies East Coast Pro Showcase team and the Yankees Area Code Games team, and the group developed a strong bond.
Before the home run derby commenced, everyone gathered to hear Smeltzer tell his story.
Experiencing intense abdominal pain and constantly having to use the bathroom as a nine-year old, Smeltzer was diagnosed with pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma, as the doctors at St. Christopher’s found a softball-sized tumor connected to his prostate that was pressing against his bladder.
After weighing more than 80 pounds before treatment, Smeltzer weight dropped to as little as 50 pounds during the two months he was hospitalized following his diagnosis. But his passion for the game drove him to return to the field during his treatment.
“I played baseball all the way through it,” Smeltzer said. “I got threatened with feeding tubes but if I kept eating I didn’t have to get the feeding tube. And if I didn’t get the feeding tube, it meant I was able to keep playing baseball. Baseball kept me being a kid through all of this because I couldn’t go to school or church or anything social. Without the normalcy of playing baseball, I honestly believe that I wouldn’t be where I am today.
“There were a few games that I can pick out where my immune system was down. Should I have been playing? No, but the doctors said if you are up to it, go ahead. I went (hard). The doctors said don’t get hit by pitches, but I got hit by pitches. They said don’t dive, but I would dive. I wanted to play hard for the team and for myself. I always felt strong on the field because I knew that someone was watching over me on the field. It seems like someone didn’t hold me back. No matter how sick I was before or after, I always felt my best on the field. When we played double headers I slept on the bench between games to gain strength. Anything for the game I love.”
All in attendance were moved by Smeltzer’s story.
“To hear Devin speak in front of that group of players and parents was an inspiration and true testament to his tremendous character,” Hyde said. “Listening to him speak made the whole day worthwhile. I will never forget it.”
“It is hard for anybody to get in front of a group to speak, let alone an 18-year old, and there must have been 300 people in front of him,” Alexander said. “I was so proud of him. It was emotional and inspirational.”
When Smeltzer returned to the field, he began writing names of a select few on his hat that he wore during games.
“When I was younger and I was in remission, I had a buddy pass away who I was in there almost every day with me and he fought his whole life,” Smeltzer said. “Once he lost the battle, I wrote his name on my hat. There are not a lot of names up there but the ones I was close with are up there. I play for them because I know they are looking over me. They are my guardians.”
In December 2012, Smeltzer was told that he is cancer-free.
“It felt really good,” Smeltzer said. “Even though the day before and day after were exactly the same, it felt very reassuring getting those official words.”
His story fueled the fundraising efforts, which were aided by scouts reaching out to get more than 60 items for the auction. Hyde reached out to Roger Clemens, who donated his glove and a ball from his 300th win to be auctioned. Alexander, who coached Diamondbacks lefthander Patrick Corbin as an amateur, received a bundle of items from the 2013 All-Star Game. The list of memorabilia also included items from Felix Hernandez and Matt Harvey, among others.
Alexander’s goal was to raise $5,000 for both Katie’s Krusaders and The Iacocca Foundation; Nearly $20,000 was raised. Then Smeltzer received surprising news following the event.
“On my way back to the hotel, I got a call from Tim Alexander saying that he had an anonymous friend call in and matched the money we raised dollar for dollar,” Smeltzer said. “We had estimated bringing in a maximum of $10,000. I was speechless when I heard someone matched it.”
Smeltzer returned to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children for his annual checkup on Monday, and to bring the hospital a check for nearly $20,000.
“I want to thank Matt Hyde and Tim Alexander for everything they did to make this event happen,” Smeltzer said. “Without them this never could have happened.”
He often returns to St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children to speak with the children.
“I am a walking success story who is able to lighten up their faces by being a role model for those who need one,” Smeltzer said.
The lefthander is preparing for his senior season after a strong showing on the showcase circuit last summer and fall. Smeltzer, a Florida Gulf Coast commit, touched 91 mph with his fastball at Tournament of Stars and was named a Perfect Game All-American. His sweeping slider shows the potential to be a wipeout pitch. The wiry-built 6-foot-1 Smeltzer weighed around 165-170 pounds throughout the summer but a dedicated offseason of strength training has added more than 10 pounds to his frame.
Smeltzer is planning on following in the fundraising footsteps of another New Jersey lefthander Rob Kaminsky, who participated in “Strikeouts For Cancer” last year. The Cardinals first-round pick raised more than $15,000 by collecting pledges for every strikeout during his spring season.
Smeltzer’s life experiences have altered the way he views and plays the game, and who he plays it for.
“My background really puts life into perspective because every day is a gift,” Smeltzer said. “Even if I get frustrated with the game I look back and say there are 50 kids I was in the hospital with who could never play the game again. So I play every game like it is my last. I really appreciate the people that love me and support me. I play for them and for myself. I play for the people who are there for me and helped support me.”