The inaugural five-day JM23 Classic at Tempe Diablo Stadium went off without a hitch from Sept. 15-19, with a champion crowned on the final day of the tournament.
But even as exciting as it was for many fans to watch live sports for perhaps the first time in months, that was all secondary to the main goal of the event: honor the legacy of former Perry baseball player Jacob Medina.
“Without embracing sadness, you can’t celebrate the joy,” said Emery Miller, Jacob’s longtime friend and organizer of the event. “The people in the ‘Jacob Strong’ family, we’ve embraced a lot of sadness in the last 19 months. But to now be here and see me and Jacob’s vision come to life, it’s beyond words. It gives me goosebumps.”
The 24-team tournament was the brainchild of Miller and Jacob. The two discussed it late one night in December. Miller initially thought of hosting the tournament for only freshman baseball teams at local high schools. All proceeds from the tournament would go to a family in need. Jacob, however, aimed higher.
Still in remission at the time from his first battle with leukemia that resulted in a lengthy stay at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Jacob threw out the idea of hosting an entire league. In his mind, he wanted to raise more money to help a family.
“This is classic Jacob,” said Miller, who smiled and looked down at his orange “Jacob Strong” bracelet. “He says, ‘I like the idea, but what if you did more?’ I think it goes to show how Jacob was. He wanted to help people by doing it in the very best way possible. But I was like, ‘dude, who is going to run the league? We are all in college.’
“He never settled for good enough. He always wanted perfection, especially when it came to helping others.”
As Miller and his non-profit organization, Team Emery, began finalizing plans for the tournament in February, Jacob’s health once again began to decline.
He beat Leukemia in just 33 days in March 2019. After his physical therapist raised concerns once again a year later in March 2020, tests revealed a new tumor growing in his leg. The cancer had returned, this time at an accelerated rate.
Even then, however, Jacob’s mindset never changed. He was confident he could beat it. But his parents, Mike and Krystal Medina, said the chemo treatments were too harsh on his organs.
Jacob passed away in May after he was moved to hospice care. He was 19 years old.
Before his passing, Miller decided he wanted all proceeds from the tournament to go toward his family. Additionally, he wanted to honor Mike, Krystal and Jacob’s younger brother, Casey.
The three joined Miller on the field the final day of the tournament just before the championship game between Las Vegas Basic School and Poston Butte. They stood near home plate, where “JM” and “23,” Jacob’s initials and number, were written in white chalk.
Miller shared the idea behind the tournament, and his relationship with Jacob that went well beyond baseball and school. The two bonded over their medical challenges, Jacob with cancer and Miller with congenital heart defects. He handed over the microphone to Krystal and Mike, with Casey standing by their side. They expressed gratitude toward Miller, Team Emery and the volunteers who made the tournament possible.
“The support is just awesome,” Mike said. “It’s been overwhelming. We are going through a pandemic right now, but people here think this is more important than that. I think all of this goes to show how special Jacob was.
“People don’t even know him, but they hear his story and they just want to participate.”
The three were then gifted a custom blue wooden bat with Jacob’s initials engraved in white. Mariah Meredith, Jacob’s nurse at PCH, presented the gift.
“When I got a message asking to come, there was no way I could turn it down,” Meredith said. “I felt very honored and Jacob made me feel like a special person in his life.”
Jacob was described as a happy-go-lucky kid with an infectious smile who loved Air Jordan shoes and to be there for those in need. Even when battling through his own misfortunes, he made sure to be there for his friends.
Austin Kowalchuk, Kenzie Jones, Abby Cabner and Anthony DeAndrea were some of the many who volunteered to help run the tournament in Jacob’s honor. They recalled on several occasions going to his house when he was battling cancer for the second time. He always appeared strong and told them if they needed anything, he was there.
He was always the first to lend a hand to those in need, even if he didn’t know them.
“He always thought of others before himself,” Jones said. “No matter what condition he was in, no matter how he was feeling, it was always about other people before himself.”
Jacob qualified for Make-A-Wish, which grants children who are sick a wish. Most of the time, it’s an elegant vacation or meeting celebrities. Jacob’s wished to meet Michael Jordan, but not for his own personal gain. He wanted to design a custom Air Jordan shoe that would be sold every September during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. He wanted all proceeds to go toward the families of sick children.
Unfortunately, Jacob’s wish never came to fruition. But Mike and Krystal hope to one day fulfill it in his honor.
Jacob’s desire to help others through difficult times never went away, even as he was at his worst. The family has heard countless stories of how he helped peers since his passing. One of the most notable came from one of his old classmates now enlisted in the military.
“He told us he was in his darkest moment but out of the blue Jacob texted him and said he wanted to check on him and see how he was doing. Jacob was in a hospital bed at the time,” Krystal said. “He told us Jacob saved him. Even as Jacob was not feeling well and getting chemo, he wanted to reach out and make sure he was doing OK.”
The tournament in Jacob’s honor proved to be a success for a variety of reasons. Miller said several teams have already asked to play in next year’s event. But more importantly, it allowed those close to Jacob and even those who didn’t know him quite as well to come together and celebrate his life.
Miller and the Medina family believe Jacob made more of an impact in 19 years than many people make in a lifetime. But that’s just who he was. He truly meant the world to everyone he came into contact with.
“Jacob was the kind of kid that even though I hung out with him for 19 years, it wasn’t enough time,” said Miller, fighting back tears. “Knowing Jacob was humbling. Knowing him made me a better person.
“This event, this is Jacob. This is his community. It takes a special young man to bring this many people together for a great cause.”