FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT
Pitcher David Hess survived a cancer scare, with lots of help from his wife and some baseball friends.
BY JERRY CRASNICK
During his odyssey with cancer, David Hess became more adept at throwing around medical lingo than a baseball player has a right to be. He’s well-acquainted with PET scans, BEP chemotherapy and all the information Google can provide on the diagnosis and treatment of mediastinal germ cell tumors.
The personal moments of fear and vulnerability serve as constant reminders of worst-case scenarios. Hess, a four-year major leaguer, remembers going for a run in Greenville, S.C., in October and gasping for air, hands on knees, after just a few minutes of exertion. His body was riddled with blood clots, and doctors later told him he could have died on the spot.
The following day, Hess threw up blood in the shower. After a trip to the emergency room, he underwent tests and learned he had a mass the size of a cantaloupe in his chest.
“She’s the real champ of it all,’’ he said.
In hindsight, Hess was oblivious to the most sobering development. He was on a gurney to an ambulance bound for Greenville Memorial Hospital when his wife, Devin, received a packet with material for funeral arrangements. It wasn’t the only time in Hess’ ordeal that he was forced to come to grips with his mortality.
“It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around,’’ he said. “They kind of told me without telling me, ‘You shouldn’t be alive right now.’ ’’
As Hess reflects on his journey from the comfortable end of a long, dark tunnel, he is taking part in the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league camp with a sense of gratitude and relief. He’s especially grateful for the support of Devin, who never gave up hope or wavered through countless challenges.
He is also indebted to two big leaguers and friends --- Trey Mancini of the Orioles and Daniel Bard of the Rockies – who drew upon their life experiences to tag-team him with positive energy. They were among a slew of coaches, former teammates and other baseball acquaintances who reached out with texts, phone calls or uplifting social media posts during his ordeal.
Within the baseball fraternity, Hess has a reputation as an earnest and empathetic teammate. The baseball world repaid him for his thoughtfulness ten-fold in his time of need.
“It gives you a perspective on how many people are behind you and care about you and are rooting you on,’’ he said. “That really helped on those days when it was difficult just to keep going.’’
Hess, 28, entered professional ball as a fifth-round draft pick out of Tennessee Technological University in 2014. He kept soldiering away after going 4-20 with a 5.84 ERA in parts of three seasons in Baltimore and spent last season pitching for the Marlins, the Rays and Tampa Bay’s Triple-A farm club in Durham, N.C.
He was bothered by fatigue and a lack of energy for much of last season, and things came to a head in October when tests revealed that the germ cell tumor was pressing against his internal organs and he was operating at roughly 10-20 percent of capacity. Hess’ oncologist estimated that the mass had been growing for somewhere between 18 months and three years.
After a biopsy provided confirmation of cancer, Hess underwent nine weeks of chemotherapy, during which Devin scoured online forums, monitored his diet and continued to encourage him on days when his energy reserves were spent.
When he needed a lift from his baseball buddies, Hess received a double dose of inspiration from two former Comeback Players of the Year.
Hess and Mancini played together for Double-A Bowie and with Baltimore in 2018-2019. When Mancini returned from stage 3 colon cancer to hit 21 home runs and finish second in the All-Star Game Home Run Derby last summer, Hess looked on with a sense of admiration bordering on reverence.
“As soon as I heard what we were looking at, he was one of the first people that came to my mind,’’ Hess said. “It was and still is a big motivating factor for me just to see how he handled it and to see that it was possible. I wanted to try and follow in those footsteps and hopefully have the same type of story.’’
The dynamic was flipped in October when Mancini’s fiancée, Sara Perlman, learned of Hess’ condition from the wife of Baltimore pitcher John Means. Over the coming weeks, Mancini relayed his experiences with colon cancer and gave Hess a preview of the emotional swings he would encounter.
“I told him when he got diagnosed, ‘I know it's scary. I know this feeling that you're feeling right now. But there's no doubt in my mind that you're going to get through it,’’’ Mancini said. “He's one of the strongest people I've met.’’
Hess received a tutorial on the mental side from Bard, a reliever with the Colorado Rockies. During the Covid shutdown in 2020, Bard and Hess worked out together in Greenville in a group with several other professional ballplayers. They watched each other’s bullpen sessions, spotted each other in the weight room and developed a kinship typically befitting long-term teammates.
Bard, 36, is a baseball survivor in his own right. In 2017, after exhausting his quota of comeback attempts from an inability to throw strikes, Bard retired and took a job as a player mentor with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Undeterred, he returned to the playing field with Colorado in 2020 and served as a role model and mentor to Hess without even realizing it.
“I knew I liked him because he always had a smile on his face from the time I met him,’’ Bard said. “It was almost to the point where you're like, ‘This guy can't be that happy.’ And it just never ends. He chose to take a positive outlook on this because he knew it was going to give him the best chance.’’
In late January, Hess visited his oncologist for an update on the state of his tumor post-chemotherapy. His spirits sank when he saw a large blue mass dominating the PET scan. Then he learned it was his heart, which had been so compressed by the tumor it wasn’t even visible on the previous image.
“Are you ready to get back to work?’’’ the oncologist asked, before telling Hess the tumor was 99 percent gone. As the doctors had predicted, it had “melted like butter’’ during chemotherapy.
“It was just a rush of excitement, and there was a little bit of nervousness,’’ Hess said. “I’m sitting there wondering, ‘Am I going to be able to bounce back? What’s it going to look like in terms of working out now?’ More than anything, it was just pure joy and pure happiness.’’
After receiving his scan results, Hess texted Bard and his other workout buddies in Greensboro. They were overjoyed by the news.
“He said, ‘I got a clean scan,’ and he didn’t have to say any more than that,’’ Bard said. “I went straight over to the other guys and everyone was smiling ear to ear. We were all pumped knowing he’s going to be back and we can work out again and kind of get things back to normal.’’
For now, Hess is keeping expectations in check and listening to the medical professionals. He’ll have another scan in March and go in for periodic follow-ups, while letting his progression on the mound run its natural course.
Wherever he’s pitching this season – and regardless of the timetable – he will do so with a sense of purpose. Throughout his playing career, Hess has had a tendency to internalize stress and be hard on himself when things aren’t going well. Now he’s ready to take a deep breath and enjoy the game, whatever setbacks come his way.
“I could have died a few months ago, and here I am,’’ he said. “It really shifts things into a good light. You want to go out and just enjoy things for what they are. It’s more about making impacts as you go – not just on the field, but off the field, in the clubhouse, and with all the people you come in contact with.
“Everybody has different challenges. It’s not always cancer. Sometime it’s life. You need to keep a big-picture perspective and be as loving and caring and kind towards people as possible. I’m really excited to get back on a mound soon and put those things into practice and see where it takes us.’’