Oilers pitcher beats cancer to resume baseball career

Oilers pitcher beats cancer to resume baseball career

Part of being an inspiration is viewing the extraordinary as ordinary.

Oilers right-handed pitcher David Diaz, who has overcome Hodgkin’s lymphoma to resume his baseball career, does not view himself as an inspiration because he does not think he’s done anything out of the ordinary.

“People tell me they are so inspired by my story,” Diaz said recently outside the Oilers clubhouse. “I tell them, ‘Don’t be.’

“I’m still learning and figuring it out myself. Anybody would have fought it like I did. You don’t have a choice.”

Brent Levallee, who grew close to Diaz in the past two years in Levallee’s role as an assistant baseball coach at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, begs to differ.

“He’s motivating to me,” Levallee said Friday via cellphone. “My life ain’t that bad when I think I’m tired because that kid beat cancer on his own.”

Diaz doesn’t just say his story is ordinary. He acts like it.

When Oilers head coach Kevin Griffin and Oilers pitching coach Brian Daly were told Friday that Diaz had beaten cancer, they both said that was news to them.

But having gotten to know Diaz since the beginning of June, Daly said he wasn’t surprised. He said Diaz has a work ethic second to none and wants to earn everything he gets.

“He wouldn’t want there to be any possibility that something was being given to him due to sympathy,” Daly said.

Diaz said only two or three of his teammates knew the story as of Friday. He said they learned after asking about the scar on his chest the size of a quarter — a scar left over from chemotherapy treatments.

It’s not that Diaz feels the need to hide the story. He was quite comfortable relating the tale outside the Oilers clubhouse Friday.

It’s just that, well, Diaz is busy. His host parents, Dan and Kathy Gensel, tell of a recent day where he worked at a construction site in the morning, drove the van to pick teammates up for weightlifting and practice, then came home and went back to work on the construction site.

“It’s a long story. There’s a lot that happened in the past six years. When I tell it, well, it goes like this,” Diaz said as the interview with a reporter cruised past the 30-minute mark.

So in the interest of carving out a few more 30-minute blocks of time for Diaz, and maybe, just maybe, inspiration, here is his story.

 

All this from a few innings?

Diaz grew up in the Fort Worth, Texas, area and did baseball, football and track in high school, but was not recruited for anything.

“My only offer out of high school came from a tryout,” he said.

Diaz went to Vernon College, a junior college in Wichita Falls, Texas. He thought he was going to the Chaparrals to be a shortstop, but ended up playing center field instead.

Then, at the end of freshman year, Diaz convinced the coach to give him a few innings of pitching.

His arm started hurting after that, so Diaz naturally assumed the pain was from pitching. When he started waking up in the middle of the night with his heart racing, he saw a doctor.

“They told me they thought I had some separation anxiety from being away from home,” Diaz said.

Diaz wanted to get closer to home, so he enrolled at Cedar Valley College in Dallas County as a sophomore for the 2010-11 school year.

But being closer to home didn’t make the pain go away. Diaz said he pitched 88 or 89 innings that year, and played in the outfield in every game in which he did not pitch.

“The arm injury lasted the entire year,” Diaz said. “I took care of my arm as much as I could. I iced it a lot.”

A trainer thought Diaz could have thoracic outlet syndrome, which is when blood vessels and/or nerves in the upper chest and lower neck get compressed, injured or irritated, but an X-ray helped rule that out.

 

The cancer diagnosis

After his sophomore season, Diaz signed a scholarship with Tarleton State University, a Division II school in Stephensville, Texas.

“I was all signed and ready to go,” Diaz said. “I’d always wanted to go there.”

That summer, when Diaz was just 20, a doctor finally got fed up with Diaz’s mysterious arm injury, took a biopsy and discovered Stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

According to mayoclinic.org, Stage II means the cancer is in two lymph node regions, or the cancer has invaded one organ and the nearby lymph nodes, but the cancer is still limited to an area of the body above or below the diaphragm.

“All of it is serious,” Diaz said of the types of lymphatic cancer. “None of it is not serious.

“But if you could pick the one to have, this is the one to have.”

The American Cancer Society estimates there will be 9,050 new cases of Hodgkin’s lymphoma this year, and 1,150 deaths from the cancer.

Looking at 8,000 diagnoses from 1988 to 2001, the American Cancer Society puts the five-year survival rate for Stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 90 percent.

Diaz said he was told the recovery rate is 80 to 95 percent for those 18 to 25.

“I cried,” he said. “I cried a lot. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

“The doctors helped me a lot. They told me I was more likely to die in a car accident than I was to die from this cancer. They were really optimistic and that made me optimistic.”

Diaz leaned on more than his doctors. He said his mother, Stephanie Martinez of Fort Worth, was a huge supporter, as was his current fiancee and then-girlfriend, Kristin Castillo.

“I don’t know that I would have been able to do it without them,” he said. “There were lots of ‘Whys?’ I sat back and asked myself, like, ‘Why did this have to happen to me?’

“The whole time, they were there for me.”

Diaz said he didn’t grow up with much financially, and that he didn’t have health insurance through the whole ordeal. He said he was fortunate enough to get a number of grants to pay for the treatment.

Kathy Gensel is the foundation director for the Central Peninsula Health Foundation. One of the things the foundation does is give Kenai Peninsula residents battling cancer up to $1,000 a year.

While the foundation obviously didn’t help Diaz out, Gensel said her host son is another example of how important that money can be.

“When you’re battling cancer, a thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket, but it does help even if it’s to pay for gas to Anchorage,” Gensel said.

 

Play ball?

After four months of chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer was gone. Even better, with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Diaz said the cancer is considered gone and not just in remission.

There was a baseball season to play for Tarleton.

“I did everything I was supposed to do and tried to convince myself that I could play, that I could do this,” he said.

His first game back was March 18, 2012. Diaz pitched a scoreless and hitless inning of relief while striking out one.

But Diaz wasn’t even close to being ready to compete consistently at that level because of what the chemotherapy and radiation did to his body. He said recoveries that would normally take him three days were taking him over a week.

Diaz also said he became a hypochondriac.

“I would think everything that came up was the worst-case scenario because what I had just been through was a worst-case scenario,” he said.

So Diaz really only had one choice.

“I didn’t feel right and I ended up quitting,” he said. “I went in and told the coach it wasn’t about the program. I just felt like I couldn’t do it anymore.”

 

He had a dream

Diaz didn’t even attempt to play baseball the next season. He was a part-time student at a junior college, worked at an after-school program for 10-year-olds, and also coached a select baseball program for 10-year-olds.

“I was surrounded by kids 24/7,” he said.

And eventually, those kids, with their bubbling enthusiasm, would want Diaz to play catch or throw some batting practice.

“It rekindled my fire,” Diaz said. “I started throwing kids BP and I wasn’t sore the next day.

“I started long-tossing into nets. I didn’t have anybody to do it with. All of my friends were at school.”

And then, one night in the spring of 2013, the 22-year-old cancer survivor had the dream that changed his life.

“It was a vivid dream,” Diaz said. “An old coach told me I didn’t get to play baseball anymore. I quit. And once you quit, you can’t play anymore.”

Diaz woke up frantic. He said he knew a Division I school would never give him a shot, but he emailed what felt like every other college baseball program in the country looking for a tryout.

“The next morning, there was one response,” Diaz said. “Even later in the week, there was only that one response.”

 

Bring the radar gun

Lavallee, the LSU-Shreveport assistant, makes a habit of answering every email and phone call. When he got the email from Diaz, he didn’t think much of it. Sure, Diaz wrote that he could throw in the upper 80s or mid-90s and play every position, but a lot of players asking for tryouts said that.

“He showed up wearing a softball shirt, and he’s not huge in stature,” said Levallee of Diaz, listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, by the Oilers. “I thought, ‘Another one of these.’”

Levallee and another coach retreated to their office while Diaz warmed up. From the window, they watched him throw, and it didn’t look promising at first. That wasn’t surprising because Diaz said he woke up at 5 a.m. and drove three straight hours to make the tryout. Levallee even wondered if this would be one of those tryouts where it wasn’t worth bringing the radar gun down to the field.

“Some kids wait to turn that switch and never have it,” Levallee said. “He can flick that switch and he becomes another kid with an extra gear. I saw him do that with the last couple of throws.”

The coaches would be bringing the radar gun.

Even though it had been nearly a year since he had been on the mound, Diaz was in the upper 80s and low 90s, just as he wrote, topping out at 91.

“Then he throws just a hammer of a breaking ball,” Levallee said. “All right, this kid needs money. I got cranking with David, and signed him a couple weeks later with money to come to school.”

The signing ceremony was held at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in Fort Worth, and sealed a special bond between Diaz and Levallee.

“I owe everything to him, he even got me up here to Alaska,” Diaz said of Levallee. “We were always on the same page. He always knew what to say.”

A former catcher, the 28-year-old Levallee said Diaz, 24, is the type of pitcher he always loved to catch.

“He is the reason I answer every phone call and return every email,” Levallee said. “If it takes me 100 workouts to find one more like him, I’d do 200 to find one more kid that is like him.”

 

Success in Shreveport

In the 2013-14 season, Diaz did it all for the Pilots. He got 98 at-bats and hit .357. He also started 11 games and appeared in 12, pitching 50 2-3 innings and amassing a 4-3 record with a 3.20 ERA.

But the end of the season left a sour taste in his mouth. In the opening round of the 2014 NAIA National Championship, Diaz got the start against MidAmerica Nazarene University, lasted just one-third of an inning and gave up eight runs.

At the time, Diaz didn’t know if that would be his last game. He still had not been granted redshirt status for the season in which he appeared in a few games for Tarleton.

Right before this season, Diaz was granted another year of eligibility. He was solely a pitcher in his senior year, and he finished 9-3 with a 1.74 ERA. Again, Diaz got the ball in the opening round of the NAIA tourney for the Pilots. This time, he went 8 2-3 innings before giving up a walk-off single to lose a 1-0 heartbreaker to Sterling (Kansas).

“The kid conquered the fear of how poorly he did last year,” Levallee said. “He had a bad start, but he absolutely dominated in his second time at the regional. It was good to see.”

But Levallee said it was even better to see Diaz walk at graduation and pick up a general studies degree with a focus on physical activity and kinesiology. Levallee said Diaz had to work at a gas station in order to make ends meet to get the degree.

“It’s one thing to give a kid with a troubling past a tryout and have that kid win you some games,” Levallee said. “But it’s another thing to see that kid get a degree.

“That’s the most rewarding part for me. The kid beat cancer, went to a new school and got a degree.”

 

Last shot in the Last Frontier

Diaz was not drafted by a Major League Baseball team, so after college he was faced with quitting baseball again. His one opportunity was to come to the Alaska Baseball League and pitch for the Peninsula Oilers, using the audition to try and catch on with a pro team.

At first, Diaz was skeptical about what Alaska could do for him. But the opportunity to play in the Last Frontier grew on him.

“The worst case is I can say I played baseball for a summer in Alaska,” said Diaz, who got in some salmon fishing last week. “I’ll always be able to say I did it. When else am I going to get to return here?”

Dan Gensel said part of the reason Diaz is working so hard at construction sites is that he wants to have money to take advantage of sightseeing opportunities when his fiancee arrives in a few weeks.

“He’s very grounded,” Gensel said of Diaz. “It’s a remarkable story. It hit him when most kids are at the peak of their baseball and looking to go into the draft at 21 years of age.”

Daly, the Oilers assistant, said he thinks that pro opportunity could still come.

“I think it’s a strong possibility,” he said. “We already used our contacts to make calls on him, and we’ve gotten a couple of calls back in. We want to win, but we also want to set each one of these guys up to succeed in the future.”

Diaz, who is 1-1 with a 1.54 ERA for the Oilers thus far and will get the start tonight at 7 p.m. against the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks, isn’t getting his hopes up about a pro career. No matter what happens, he would like to go into coaching one day.

He still must get a checkup every six months, but so far he has a clean bill of health. Just to make sure, he says he’s “a young person living like an older person,” avoiding red meat and sugary foods.

“I know I’m a different and better person,” Diaz said. “It’s forced me to be a more humble person.

“I used to be loud and obnoxious in the dugout, but I’m not like that anymore. Now, I just try and figure out how I can help.”

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Kenai Peninsula Oilers player David Diaz stands in the dugout Thursday, June 25, 2015, at Coral Seymour Park in Kenai, Alaska.

Photo by Kelly Sullivan/ Peninsula Clarion Kenai Peninsula Oilers player David Diaz stands in the dugout Thursday, June 25, 2015, at Coral Seymour Park in Kenai, Alaska.

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