All American Game | Story | 8/9/2013

'It gives you hope'

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

SAN DIEGO -- If there was an award given for the "Most Appreciative PG All-American" following the annual visit to the pediatric cancer center at Rady Children's Hospital Friday morning, there would have been a unanimous, runaway winner. In fact, there would have been only one nominee.

Devin Smeltzer, a remarkable 17-year-old who calls Voorhees, N.J., home, is a lot of things to a lot of people. He is a 6-foot-2, 170-pound left-hander who will go to work for the East Team at Sunday's 11th annual Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings. He will enter the game as the No. 49-ranked national prospect in the high school class of 2014, and the No. 6-ranked left-hander (Nos. 2 and 1 in New Jersey).

But Smeltzer is much more than statistics and rankings. In the eyes of his family and friends, the most important title he carries is that of "Cancer Survivor". And it is that title that made Smeltzer so appreciative of the visit to Rady, even more so than his PG All-American counterparts, who were all deeply touched by the visit.

"When I was little, I was the kid in there," Smeltzer said shortly after the team bus arrived back at the Marriott Mission Valley Hotel from Rady Children's Hospital. "I know what it's like to have people you look up to come in, and how great it makes you feel. It just brightens your day and it gives you hope.

"When I was in (the hospital) and I wasn't a survivor yet, I was talking to survivors; it just gives you hope that no one else can really give you," he continued. "I do it all the time back home at my hospital when I can, and I enjoy doing that and I enjoy giving the kids hope."

In the summer of 2005, according to several published reports, then 9-year-old Devin began to experience constant urges to urinate, which over time became painful urges. His parents, Tim and Chris Smeltzer, were concerned and young Devin was submitted to several tests.

Those tests failed to turn up anything until Smeltzer's parents got him admitted to St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. Doctors there discovered a grapefruit-sized mass attached to his prostate and Smeltzer was diagnosed with pelvic rhabdomysosarcoma. He was a little more than a month short of his 10th birthday.

During his treatment, Smeltzer lost between 30 and 35 pounds off his 80-pound frame simply because he was unable to hold food down, which didn't taste good to him anyway. He faced the threat of doctors inserting feeding tubes and if that happened his days of playing baseball were over.

"They started forcing me with food and I started eating," he told PG Friday. "I just forced myself to maintain eating so I could keep playing because that was my only real escape from the hospital world. I couldn't go to school because my immune system was so low, so playing baseball really got me through it."

His parents agreed. In an story published on the Philadelphia Enquirer website philly.com, Tim Smeltzer was quoted as saying, "Baseball was his only normalcy. It let him go outside and be a normal kid."

Smeltzer remained hospitalized for the first two months after his cancer diagnosis, but soon he was itching to get back at it, even while continuing  with his treatments after he was released.

"It really didn't take much (to compete)," he said. "Just being able to get out (of the hospital) gave me the energy to be able to do it."

Smeltzer's rebound from a life-threatening illness to a top-50 national prospect has been nothing short of remarkable. While attending the Perfect Game National Showcase in Minneapolis in mid-June, he received the highest 10.0 PG grade after a performance where his fastball sat 85-88 mph (it was up to 91 mph a week later) with a 77 mph slider.

His scouting report from the event noted that Smeltzer showed "present pitchability and deception and (is) very projectable; just a matter of time before he gets stronger and blossoms."

He has played in four PG WWBA tournaments with Bob Barth and the New Jersey-based Tri-State Arsenal and will likely play in at least one more -- the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. in October -- before the fall gives way to winter.

"I've been with Bobby (Barth) for a lot of years now, and he's always been faithful and has given me some great opportunities," Smeltzer said.

He is certainly familiar with the success being enjoyed by fellow New Jersey left-hander Robert Kaminsky, a first round pick (28th overall) of the St. Louis Cardinals in June's amateur draft who signed with the Cards for a reported $1.78 million.

Smeltzer said he learned of Kaminsky's "Strikeouts for Cancer" campaign -- a fund-raising effort Kaminsky created after visiting Rady Children's Hospital last year -- and spoke with him about it because Smeltzer hopes to do something similar this spring.

"I've been talking to him here and there; he's a good kid," Smeltzer said of Kaminsky. "He's on the path that everybody wants to take and he's never let his head get big and he's really given back; I appreciate that a lot."

Smeltzer was afforded the opportunity to "give back" Friday morning thanks to his invitation to the Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings. He was truly at a loss for words when asked what his inclusion on the East Team All-American roster meant to him.

"It still hasn't really hit me, this honor," Smeltzer said. "Especially after being (at Rady) -- it feels like just yesterday that I was in (the hospital). So having this honor of being an All-American," he said, his voice trailing off, "there's really no words to describe it."

His mother, Chris, certainly wouldn't be surprised at the impact the Rady visit had on her son. He continues to the do the same thing at St. Christopher's, making visits whenever he has the time.

"Even though he was a kid himself, he wanted to help other kids," Chris Smeltzer told philly.com in the same article in which Tim was quoted.

Smeltzer has been totally cancer free for seven years now. He said he's feeling great -- "Couldn't be better" were his exact words -- and looks forward to continuing his baseball career at higher and higher levels; he has committed to Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla.

"I've always wanted to get out of the north ever since I was little; no one wants to play baseball in the north," Smeltzer said. "I went down there and I had a good relationship with the coaches and fell in love with the campus and everything they had to offer."

Devin Smeltzer's courage and will were tested at a young age, when he was a youngster who only wanted to go to school and play ball with his pals. By his own admission, he was forced to grow up early and face challenges no 10-year-old should have to face. He feels like it only made him stronger.

"It really set my perspective straight," Smeltzer said. "It made me aware of my priorities and made me realize what's worth it and what's not. As much I love baseball and all, I understand that it's just a game and I'm lucky to be where I'm at today. I couldn't be happier, but I have a long road ahead of me. I have a lot more to do before I'm finished.

"I want to keep playing baseball for as long as I possibly can," he concluded. "Depending on if it's the college route or the professional route, I just want to play as long as I can. As long as I keep playing  the game, I'm going to be happy."

The game, after all, may very well have saved him once already in his young lifetime.

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