Just-Drafted Dodger From Voorhees Beat Childhood Cancer at St. Chris
Devin Smeltzer was not scared.
The Voorhees, New Jersey, native had not yet turned 10 years old, and was diagnosed with a rare form of pelvic bladder cancer. But Smeltzer was a tough kid. The pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma didn’t scare him. It just made him angry.
“I was never really scared,” he tells Philadelphia magazine. “I was more angry and pissed off in the beginning… it was probably two months of me being a pity party.”
But his mood improved as he continued his treatment at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children. He steeled himself by focusing on returning to his playtime passion, baseball. Though he missed the entire fourth grade at his South Jersey school, he recovered — and returned to school and the baseball field.
Last month, Smeltzer was selected in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He signed with the team, and is now a professional baseball player. And, he says, he couldn’t have done it without the support of the staff at St. Chris.
“St. Christopher’s saved my life,” he says. “I have relationships with nurses and doctors there and they’re my family. I look up to them like any other part of my family.”
One of those family members is Margaret “Peg” Mulherin, a registered nurse at St. Chris for more than three decades. (“When I finished nursing school I had a friend who talked me into driving from New Jersey to Philadelphia to come to St. Christopher’s,” she says. “She stayed a year and I’ve been here 36.”) She says Smeltzer was scared of one thing, but it wasn’t the cancer.
“Dev was a nervous wreck,” she says. “He had a lost a lot of weight. Kids hear the word cancer they think, ‘Jeez, I’m going to die.’… but he hated, hated being in the hospital.” But what scared Smeltzer was needles; he had a portacath installed in his arm. “Even though it was numb,” she says, “he was always a nervous wreck about who was going to do it, how fast you did it, that kind of thing.”
The treatments were tough. Smeltzer describes his ordeals: Two months of chemotherapy. Nine weeks of heavy radiation and chemotherapy. Then chemo for the rest of the year. “It was horrible,” Christina Smeltzer, Devin’s mom, says. “He was a healthy kid, and it took us all by surprise.”
Smeltzer constantly asked the doctors when he’d be able to play baseball again. “When he started to play again, it gave him some normalcy in his life,” she says. “It was something that he knew, something that calmed him down. When he started to play again, he just breezed through the rest of his treatment.”
On August 12th, 2000, he was declared cancer-free. And Smeltzer was a star once he returned to the baseball field. But it was after he transferred to Bishop Eustace Prep in Pennsauken that he began to really shine. By his junior or senior year, he realized he really could play professional baseball.
“He’s always been one of those players that always had the heart to make it as a pro,” says Tim Smeltzer, Devin’s dad. “It’s been an amazing ride.”
He was drafted by the Padres in the 33rd round of the 2014 MLB Draft, but turned them down in order to go to college.
He spent a year at Florida Gulf Coast University and struggled his first year, going 1-4 with a 6.19 ERA. But he lit it up in the Cape Cod Baseball League that summer and basically “got too good” before transferring to San Jacinto College in Texas.
He helped his team to the junior college national championship game before losing. He was excited for the draft last month. But your draft slot determines your minimum signing bonus in baseball, and when Smeltzer wasn’t called by the third round he had resigned himself to playing another year of junior college baseball.
But when the Dodgers took Smeltzer, they offered to pay Smeltzer over slot — that is, pay him like he’d been drafted a few rounds earlier than the fifth. He accepted, and began training at the Dodgers’ Arizona facility. He’s pitched nine innings so far as a pro, with a 4.00 ERA.
“Honestly, it hasn’t hit me,” he said. “It just feels like another summer of summer ball. I think it’ll hit me when I don’t have to report to school next year. It’s been a dream come true so far.… there’s a lot of hard work ahead of me but I’ve been blessed to get drafted by the Dodgers.”
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