PITCHER TAYLOR KACZMAREK IS DETERMINED TO MAKE THE MOST OF EVERY DAY
The dream goes like this … USD pitcher Taylor Kaczmarek stands atop the mound, peering toward his catcher. The fastball touches 90 mph.
The breaking ball darts at a 45-degree angle. The change-up drops off the table, the batter foolishly lunging, bat flailing at air.
“Throwing a pitch, knowing it’s going to be a strike, even before the batter does,” says Kaczmarek.
For now, it’s only a recurring dream, not reality. Kaczmarek is battling and, for now, defeating acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was diagnosed on May 26, 2012, seemingly at the height of his baseball career.
“In the beginning I was scared,” recalls Kaczmarek, a junior majoring in business administration. “It wasn’t really, ‘Why me?’ It was more, ‘Holy (cow). I’m scared.’ The only thing I’d heard about cancer was one of my dad’s buddy’s passed away. The only thing I knew was the worst.”
Until cancer’s call, Kaczmarek seemed to be on the fast track to a pro baseball career. He was selected the Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year his senior season at Desert Ridge High in Mesa, Ariz., compiling an 11-1 record, driving in an absurd 58 runs.
“He was a stud,” recalls Desert Ridge coach Pat Herrera. “He was our dude.”
Drafted in the 50th round by the Dodgers in 2010, his senior year in high school, Kaczmarek passed on turning pro, instead heading to community college. Two years later, he struck out 88 batters in 81 innings at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix. He batted .343 and accepted a scholarship to USD.
Then came the pain in his left foot, leading to a blood clot in his leg. Next came sleepless, sweaty nights. Playing catch with a friend one day, he nearly passed out.
“I had no idea why,” says Kaczmarek. A doctor thought he had mono. Blood was drawn. Then came the phone call. “You need to go to ER, immediately,” a stranger told Kaczmarek. “Your symptoms point to leukemia.”
That night, Russell Vaughan, Kaczmarek’s catcher since junior high, spent the night in his friend’s hospital room. No cot. No sleeping bag. Sprawled on the floor.
“I love the kid,” says Vaughan. “He needed someone, and if I made him feel comfortable, made him feel like he didn’t have cancer, then I’m going to try to make it as easy as possible.”
Leukemia is cancer of the blood. There are about 6,000 reported cases of acute lymphoblastic leukemia annually in the United States. There is about an 80 percent cure rate among youths.
Because he was young and in excellent health, Kaczmarek underwent an aggressive form of chemotherapy. He was hospitalized for a month. Ever the athlete, he pedaled a stationary bike, cranking out push-ups and sit-ups.
“I was miserable at the end,” he says. “I wanted to breathe fresh air. I just wanted to lie on a baseball field and see the stars.”
He lost 45 pounds, going from 6-feet-1, 225 pounds to 180.
Despite Kaczmarek’s leukemia diagnosis, the Kansas City Royals drafted him days later in the 40th round. The cancer has been in remission since Kaczmarek’s release. He enrolled at USD in the fall of 2013 and has played in a limited capacity the past two seasons.
After appearing in only three games in 2014, Kaczmarek signaled a return to top form when he pitched six shutout innings vs. San Diego State in May.
He takes one daily chemo-therapy pill, another once weekly, and makes a monthly visit to an Arizona hospital for IV treatments. There’s a good-news, bad-news angle to the cancer treatment.
The good news is that his cancer is in remission. The bad news is that chemo zaps his energy.
“It’s still a struggle every day,” he says. “I feel tired, fatigued.”
Meanwhile, he pushes onward, lifting weights, stepping atop the mound, practicing in the bullpen. If the cancer stays in remission, he can stop the chemotherapy medication in September.
He’s applied for an additional year of eligibility, and wonders how hard he’ll be able to throw and pitch with the anticipated increase in stamina.
“I don’t know if anybody could have handled this any better,” says USD Baseball Coach Rich Hill. “Taylor’s on the mound, throwing bullpen (workouts), in the weight room. You can see the determination in his face.”
Kaczmarek jokes that battling cancer is like “belonging to a brotherhood you don’t want to be in.”
He takes off his baseball cap, wipes his brow and says, “People may think I’m crazy, but I wouldn’t trade (cancer) for anything.
“I take nothing, absolutely nothing for granted. The beach. The desert. The mountains. Every day is a blessing.” — Don Norcross