Devin Smeltzer, a Voorhees native and cancer survivor, began his season re-connecting with a Phillies icon, got traded, and then thrived in a relief role at Double-A
It’s probably a good idea for any young professional baseball player to always have an overnight bag packed, since the best laid plans can go haywire at a moment’s notice.
You could find yourself being promoted or demoted from one level to the next, requiring last-minute travel arrangements. You could find out you were traded, leaving your friends to chase your big league dream with another team.
Voorhees native Devin Smeltzer fell into the latter category in late July while his Double-A Tulsa Drillers were on the road in Springfield, Mo., about to play the penultimate game of a weeklong road trip. While hanging out with teammates before pregame stretch, playing hacky sack, a teammate came out of the locker room to tell the left-hander that his big league team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, had traded him to the Minnesota Twins.
“Everyone thought it was a joke,” Smeltzer recalled.
It’s an old joke but an effective one for minor leaguers every late-July with Major League Baseball’s trade deadline looming. But this time it wasn’t a joke, and Smeltzer had to go all trains, planes and automobiles in less than 48 hours, from Springfield to Tulsa, Okla., (to pack up his things) and then to meet his new team, the Chattanooga Lookouts, in Tennessee.
“We had a 3-and-a-half-hour Uber to make it to Tulsa, where we packed the truck and cleaned the apartment,” said Smeltzer, who traveled with Luke Raley, also involved in the Twins-Dodgers trade that sent veteran second baseman Brian Dozier to Los Angeles.
How much does a 3-and-a-half-hour Uber ride go for in the Midwest?
“Right around $400,” Smeltzer said. “They reimbursed us, thank God.”
The funny thing is being traded in the middle of the summer might not have even been the most eventful part of the 2018 season for Smeltzer, a 2014 graduate of Bishop Eustace Preparatory School who was drafted by the Dodgers in the fifth round of the 2016 MLB Draft. His second full season as a professional player began with him as the subject of a viral video, co-starring with 2016 National League manager of the Year Dave Roberts and former Phillies icon Chase Utley.
Hear about the incredible story of #Dodgers minor leaguer @alka_SMELTZer who survived cancer at the age of 9 and his special connection with a current Dodger. This story & more on an all-new #BackstageDodgers tonight after the post-game show. https://t.co/76ZKaB5xtp
Smeltzer, who turned 23 on Sept. 7, actually had met Utley a dozen years earlier at Citizens Bank Park. And he came into spring training last winter with a simple request: he wanted the opportunity to say “thank you” to Utley for talking to him back when he was a 10-year-old.
Smeltzer has one of the more inspirational stories of the thousands of men hoping to graduate from minor league prospect to major league player. When he was just 9 years old, Smeltzer was diagnosed with pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer in his bladder and prostate.
He was invited to meet Phillies players on the field during the 2006 season.
“I met (Cole) Hamels earlier in the season,” Smeltzer said. “Rollins was in the hospital here and there, he’d come in. They were all good guys.”
But his favorite Phillies player was Utley and the words of encouragement stuck with him throughout his boyhood and soon-to-be budding baseball career. So one day this spring, the Dodgers, unbeknownst to either player, set up a meeting in their spring training clubhouse in Arizona.
“I showed up and all these cameras were there and they hooked me up to a (microphone) and I was like, ‘What are you doing?’” Smeltzer said. “And so it was a surprise to me that it was going to be that way and it was a surprise to Utley as well. It was really cool that it was able to take off like that and get the story out there and spread it.”
The meeting between the kid who’d beaten cancer with the major leaguer he idolized, a dozen years after they first met, went viral. And the story continued to pick up steam in the summer, when it appeared on the NBC Nightly News.
“Yeah, NBC, Dateline, ESPN did a story,” said Smeltzer, who has been cancer-free since 2006 but still occasionally deals with the effects of long-term radiation. “I was live on Sportscenter on Facetime. Then a ton of local newspapers and news stations, it was awesome.”
The 2018 season, which wrapped up this week for Smeltzer, was a pretty good one, too. He made the Double-A Texas League All-Star team while with the Tulsa Drillers, switched from a starting pitcher to a relief role midseason, and finished strong with his new team in Chattanooga.
Less than five weeks after Dodger minor league officials moved Smeltzer into the bullpen, telling him it was their plan to fast-track him to the big leagues, Smeltzer’s future role became a little more uncertain when he was traded to a new organization.
“There’s possible talk of going back to starting again, but I’m not really sure yet,” said Smeltzer, who will represent the Twins in November at the Arizona Fall League, the premier offseason event for prospects.
On the Blitz tonight .. @TulsaDrillers pitcher Devin Smeltzer (@alka_SMELTZer) journey from battling cancer with motivation from a current #Dodgers player to play the game he loves. @NewsOn6Sports @News9Sport @DodgersNation https://t.co/Gc1bN7kL2G
Smeltzer prefers starting, but if he sticks in the ‘pen it might not be the worst thing in the world.
After giving up some hits and runs in his first two relief appearances, Smeltzer went 1–0 with four saves, 25 strikeouts and just four walks in his final 17 games (22 innings) of the season. He struck out 25 of the final 99 batters he faced, didn’t allow a run in seven of his last eight games, and collected four saves in his final five appearances.
“I mean it’s one of those things where if you tell me to go play shortstop I’m going to go play, I’m not going to tell you no,” Smeltzer said. “But I’d prefer to start, I love to start.”
As long as he can finish his baseball journey and reach a big league mound, Smeltzer will be happy with either role. Unfortunately, he won’t ever get to face off against Utley (who is retiring at season’s end), but surviving cancer and reaching the big leagues — while meeting his boyhood idol twice along the way — isn’t so bad either.
“He was kind of speechless at first,” Smeltzer said of Utley’s reaction back in March, when they were reunited after 12 years. “To see him at a loss for words was pretty cool. It was humbling for a lot of guys in the clubhouse. It just kind of goes to show that you don’t know who you’re going to impact every day. So it was good for everybody, I think.”
Knowing there are other kids battling cancer all over, Smeltzer is using his baseball career to help them on their own journeys to beating the disease. He started the #CatchCancerLooking Strikeout Campaign this season, where donors can make pledges per strikeout in addition to making one-time donations. Smeltzer struck out 83 batters in 33 games this season.
The #CatchCancerLooking campaign benefits Katie’s Crusaders at St. Christopher’s Hospital.