As a pitcher, Taylor Kaczmarek is known for his fastball, changeup and curveball, not to mention his work ethic even under the most of challenging times when it would be easy to leave the game he’s invested so much of his life in.
But these last two months, Kaczmarek, 20, of Mesa, who was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 40th round of Major League Baseball’s draft last month after playing for South Mountain Community College the last two years, has been stepping to the plate to swing away at a challenging changeup he’s been thrown himself.
Being diagnosed with children’s leukemia on May 27, he hopes to throw the cancer a curve and resume his future in baseball after his recent release as a patient from the Mayo Clinic in northeast Phoenix.
So far, with the rallying of Kaczmarek’s family and friends, the son of Aaron and Michele Kaczmarek of Mesa is winning in the early innings of the battle he said he viewed as pitching in a baseball game. Just last week, about 600 people attended a benefit for Kaczmarek at Tempe Marketplace’s Cadillac Ranch and more benefits are being scheduled in the future to help him with hospital bills while insurance coverage is being sorted out. Although Kazczmarek was given the same medications and doses used to treat children’s leukemia, his insurance carrier is contending his treatments were experimental and may not cover some of his medical bills, Kaczmarek said.
After being released from the hospital on Wednesday, the 2010 graduate of Desert Ridge High School and Gatorade Player of the Year now is safe at home. Doctors have said by Kaczmarek completing a series of intensive rounds of chemotherapy, the leukemia now is in remission. He will undergo follow-up checkups the next five years to monitor his progress.
“I’m worn out,” but I think there are better days ahead,” Kaczmarek said.
Battling leukemia, going the distance
Kaczmarek knows that his condition is not a game, but if it were, he would have gone extra innings as a patient at the Mayo Clinic where he was viewed as an unorthodox patient from May 27 to June 27.
In the midst of undergoing 12 rounds of chemotherapy in the hospital (he considered each round one inning of a game), Kaczmarek defied the odds of falling to the punch that chemotherapy can knock one down with. Instead, he did stomach “crunches” in his bed. To keep the strength in his legs and balance of his upper body, he did “lunges” in the hallway near his room, squatting while carrying weights across his shoulders.
And through it all, he only lost 20 pounds off his 220-pound, 6 foot, 2-inch frame and claims he didn’t lose any hair. He also kept his appetite and his desire to return to the game and not take things for granted.
“It kind of made my outlook on life change in knowing what’s important,” Kaczmarek said. “This is something that has caused me not to take things for granted and realize what’s important in life. I’ve always loved my family and friends, but now more so.”
About two months ago, after Kaczmarek came down with a sore foot, his doctor told him that he had tendonitis. Kaczmarek said doing a simple task such as walking made him sore, and when he went back to the doctor, a blood clot was discovered in his leg, causing him to be placed on blood thinners. Following that, Kaczmarek noticed that his lymph nodes were swollen. It initially was thought that he had mono, but after having blood work done at Banner hospitals, the test results came back as abnormal. He was out running errands the day he received the phone call about the test results and that he needed to come into Banner’s emergency room immediately. He later was admitted to Mayo.
The month-long hospital stay was another chapter in his baseball journey in which his playing skills had captured the attention of the Oakland A’s, Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals, in addition to the Royals.
After Kaczmarek was diagnosed with leukemia, he fell to the draft’s lower rounds. However, the Royals remain committed to him as Kaczmarek weighs his options of whether to sign with the Royals or play baseball at the University of San Diego in the fall, spring or maybe next year. In the hospital, he often was visited by Royals Scout Ken Munoz who also brought along former major Leaguer Glenn Hubbard for support.
Early commitment, moving toward a goal
Kazcmarek’s earlier days in baseball tell a storybook tale. While at Desert Ridge, he played on back-to-back state championship teams, 2009 and 2010, catching the final out in the championship game his senior year.
Pat Herrera, the baseball coach at Desert Ridge, said of Kaczmarek, “He’s a great kid. He always was a pretty big kid, and always pretty serious about baseball. If he struck out, he wore it on his sleeve. He risked a lot because he invested so much.”
As a pitcher and outfielder at South Mountain Community College, he batted .350, hit two home runs, had 40 runs batted in and as a pitcher, had a record of six wins and five losses with 96 strikeouts and an earned run average of 2.30.
He had signed to play baseball at the University of San Diego in the spring. He is considering becoming an oncologist.
But with the Royals drafting him and sticking by him, and the University of San Diego’s commitment to him, he’s weighing his options seriously. He said his inspiration is Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester, who was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006, but battled back from his condition and later won Game 7 of the 2007 World Series.
“You have to be mentally prepared for something like this,” Kaczmarek said. “The mind is a powerful thing. If your mind is prepared, you can get through it. You just have to take it one day at a time.”
And hopefully for Taylor Kaczmarek, he will stay on the comeback trail that allows him to continue his baseball career.
“My main goal remains the same as it was before,” Kaczmarek said. “And that’s to play Big League ball.”
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