Life’s curveballs: A writer and a righty find connection through health scares

Life’s curveballs: A writer and a righty find connection through health scares

Patients from the Children’s Hospital Colorado cancer division pose in front a billboard that represents their program, which helped them meet Colorado Rockies players during spring training. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

Patients from the Children’s Hospital Colorado cancer division pose in front a billboard that represents their program, which helped them meet Colorado Rockies players during spring training. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – In early November 2022, my life, college career and aspirations came to a screeching halt. The discovery of a mass led to a diagnosis of Stage 3 testicular cancer.

I was devastated.

The cancer, which is the most common among men 20 to 40 years old, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, required extensive chemotherapy, which greatly affected my physical and mental well-being. After doctors initially told me I would need three rounds of chemo, it soon became four. Then I learned I would need additional surgery to remove lymph nodes in my stomach, which meant 8-10 more weeks of recovery.

I was 21. It was the worst six months I have endured in my life, but sometimes a sliver of light emerges from the darkness.

For me, it was the opportunity to make a connection with Ryan Feltner, a right-handed pitcher for the Colorado Rockies – a team that I have been a fan of since my childhood.

A spontaneous weight-sled pulling competition at the Rockies’ spring training site was among the opportunities young cancer patients had at the meet-up. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

Community support

I met Feltner through the Children’s Hospital in Denver that was treating me. The cancer division flew out a group of people dealing with health challenges to tour the Rockies’ spring training facility at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale and meet their players.

The relationship between the Rockies and the hospital started more than 10 years ago, when pediatric psychologist Bob Casey moved to Denver and wanted to create an unforgettable experience for young cancer patients.

“I came to Denver from Boston, and when I was in Boston, we (at Boston Children’s Hospital) did a trip to Florida to see the Red Sox,” Casey said. “When I came to Denver, I had the chance to meet with some people and say, ‘We should really do this with the Rockies.’”

Casey said Jim Kellogg, Rockies vice president of community and retail operations, connected him with Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado’s shortstop at the time. Tulowitzki agreed to help support the trip.

“The rest has sort of been history,” Casey said.

Tulowitzki had a young family member diagnosed with cancer, Kellogg said, so when he came to Denver, he told Kellogg he wanted to do something for kids with cancer.

The author, Asher Hyre, left, found strength during his cancer treatment by connecting with Rockies pitcher Ryan Feltner, who was dealing with recovery from a fractured skull. (Photo courtesy of Asher Hyre)

About 20-30 children attend the annual event and receive a personalized, custom jersey that the players sign. The meet-up puts a smile on everyone’s face and serves as a reminder of the impact players can have in their community.

“Sometimes as players, we kind of get lost in the amount of reach and influence we have on people,” said Kris Bryant, the Rockies’ former National League MVP. “We take baseball so seriously and the wins and losses … so this just puts things in perspective of what really is important. It’s really fun to see these kids, and the nurses and doctors as well … it’s just really special.”

Veteran third baseman Ryan McMahon agreed.

“You realize how small baseball really is,” McMahon told Cronkite News during the spring training meeting with cancer patients. “Life is crazy, and when you can take a step back and get some good perspective, … I think today honestly might do more for us than it does for any of these guys here.”

Rockies’ longtime ace Kyle Freeland, and his wife, Ashley, have helped Kellogg make the event thrive since Freeland made his major league debut at the start of the 2017 season.

“A lot of us in this clubhouse, whenever we get opportunities to go visit hospitals, kids, whatever … most of us jump on those opportunities because we know what it means to people who are going through things,” Freeland said. “We get to play a kids’ game for a living, and you can fall into the mental trap of thinking nothing bad is going on in the world … so being able to do that and reach back to the community and put smiles on people’s faces is always great.”

Colorado Rockies pitcher Jalen Beeks meets a Children’s Hospital Colorado cancer patient at the Rockies’ Salt River Fields clubhouse. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

A connection made

While interacting with the Rockies, I connected with Feltner, and we exchanged phone numbers. He promised he would get me tickets to a game when the timing worked out.

The timing came with an unexpected twist of fate. I was there when Feltner was plunged into his own moment of darkness.

My treatment concluded at the start of the 2023 season, and when I felt well enough to go, Feltner offered me tickets to a May 13 game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Colorado’s 40th game of the season. I was excited to watch considering he was scheduled to start on the mound against one of the elite lineups in baseball.

However, in just the second inning, the excitement turned into gut-sinking terror.

Feltner, a power pitcher, fired a nearly 90-mph slider to Philadelphia slugger Nick Castellanos, and within a single second, a 92.7 mph Castellanos line drive came whistling back at Feltner, striking him in the side of the head.

When the author met Rockies pitcher Ryan Feltner, left, little did he know the two would soon have a shared experience. (Photo courtesy of Asher Hyre)

When the author met Rockies pitcher Ryan Feltner, left, little did he know the two would soon have a shared experience. (Photo courtesy of Asher Hyre)

The crowd gasped as the ball ricocheted straight up into the air and Feltner collapsed to the ground. Though clearly dazed, he appeared to remain conscious through the ordeal and walked off the diamond under his own power.

But just as it had only a couple of months earlier to me, life suddenly seemed more precious than it had only seconds earlier.

Feltner, it would turn out, had suffered a fractured skull.

Early in his career, Freeland had also been struck by a baseball, so he knows what it feels like seeing a projectile flying straight at one’s face.

“It’s definitely jarring,” Freeland said. “I got hit in the face my rookie year. … J.D. Martinez hit a comebacker that went right off my jaw. It takes some time getting rid of that feeling and that timidness and fear of throwing a pitch.

“I kind of carried (those feelings) into spring training the following year where I caught myself a few times. … I would let a pitch go in a game, and I would feel myself flinch thinking that it was going to get hit back at me. So it’s one of those things that just takes time to get over that fear aspect of it.”

The relationship between the Colorado Rockies and Children’s Hospital Colorado began more than 10 years ago and they continue to work together. (Photo by Spencer Barnes/Cronkite News)

A ‘difficult’ recovery

My cancer recovery has taken unexpected turns, such as the additional surgery. Recovery from head injuries like the one Feltner suffered can be even more unpredictable. Basic activities such as eating, showering and sleeping become difficult and miserable.

For pitchers, injuries most commonly occur in the elbow or shoulder. Rehab for a head injury was new territory for Feltner.

“It was very different,” he said. “I kind of started from Square One as far as relearning everyday activities like walking, making breakfast and little things like that. Then we started to work into little arm-care baseball exercises after three months or so.”

Similarly, I had to relearn how to find the energy and courage to complete basic tasks such as making breakfast or going for a walk.

Perhaps the most difficult part about going through a long recovery process is the mental toll. Anxiety and emotions are virtually uncontrollable. And for athletes, the confidence required to return to the field and face down the same scenario in which they suffered an injury, can take a hit.

Feltner’s teammate and fellow starting pitcher, Noah Davis, was close with Feltner through it all and saw his confidence slowly rise as his health improved.

“Any injury that you’ve suffered, it’s tough to get the confidence back,” Davis said. “Especially something like (Feltner’s) where it’s a life-threatening issue. It has got to be tough to step back on that mound.

“Talking to him when he was making his way back, I know he’s really dialed in with all of his preparation and stuff, physical and mental. Being able to watch him go through that was hard, but I honestly learned a lot … to see him take that time he needed to kind of rebuild himself and make himself as confident as possible. He has all the tools obviously, but it’s definitely a big hurdle to get back on the mound after something like that.”

Rockies manager Bud Black was put in a tough situation having to decide whether Feltner should pitch again last season.

With Colorado completely out of playoff contention, there was reason to ask whether the risk to Feltner if he took the mound again last season was worth it.

Ultimately, Black left it to Feltner to decide.

“None of us have been in his shoes … (being hit by a pitch in the head) is a different animal,” Black said this spring. “His goal was to come back. I think it’s more the mental comeback as opposed to the physical. I think with players, physically they’re all able and confident that they’re going to come back … but the mental hurdle is the biggest challenge.

“I think him coming back cleared that hurdle. I think as we go into this spring, each live batting practice, each exhibition game … I don’t want to say they are distant reminders, but something that he can look back on and know what he overcame.”

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Going from struggling to walk to returning to professional baseball shape in the same season might have seemed unfathomable after a life-threatening incident, but it was an important step for Feltner and the team.

Making a start or two before the start of the next season would give Feltner a taste of competition and make him feel more comfortable heading into the offseason.

As the season progressed, Feltner’s rehab gained significant momentum.

“It was a very slow process in the beginning, but then it was like a snowball effect,” Feltner said of his recovery. “Once I started healing, I started healing quicker, and then we realized there was a chance I could get back out there in the same season.”

Feltner did just that.

He made two more starts before the season’s conclusion, including a five-inning, five-strikeout shutout performance against a stacked Los Angeles Dodgers lineup in his first game back. The confidence that Feltner gained from pitching those two games was important for his mindset going into what turned out to be an injury-free offseason.

“I was totally healthy,” Feltner said, describing how his body felt leading up to spring training this year. “It was good because that was not always a possibility, but to be able to have a normal offseason and lift the way I normally do and prepare was definitely ideal.”

So far in 2024 Feltner has pitched 16 innings, allowing six runs while striking out 18, including a 10-strikeout gem against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 6. His 96-plus mph fastball, combined with a powerful slider and reduced speed on his changeup, has been good enough to land him on the major league roster, where the light is shining on him again.

Asher Hyre

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Asher Hyre expects to graduate in August 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hyre has interned at Position Sports in Phoenix as a marketing coordinator.

Spencer Barnes

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Spencer Barnes expects to graduate in May 2026 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Barnes has been a sports beat writer for AZPreps365 and the Gunnison Country Times. He also has done Blaze Radio Sports and the Walter Cronkite Sports Network, clubs that have allowed him to take photos of ASU basketball, football and others. Barnes does freelance photography for Phoenix area high school football and basketball teams and hopes to end up as a traveling or team photographer for the NBA.