On a rainy afternoon at Seattle’s Safeco Field, a plucky young Nebraskan who might well be the bravest pitcher in Major League Baseball accepted the 53rd Hutch Award® Wednesday before a luncheon crowd of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center supporters.
Jake Diekman, a 31-year-old lefty relief pitcher for the Texas Rangers, rejoined his team in September after recovering from surgery to remove his large intestine, which had been irreversibly damaged by a disease he had battled since he was 10 years old, ulcerative colitis.
It is no wonder, therefore, that he was this year’s winner of the Hutch Award. That coveted honor is given to the player whose actions on and off the field reflect the inspiration and courage of the cancer research center’s namesake, Fred Hutchinson, the legendary Major League pitcher and manager who succumbed to cancer in 1964 at the age of 45.
The luncheon is also a fundraiser for the cancer research center. Nearly 900 guests helped raise $400,000 for Fred Hutch during the event, which included a silent auction. The funds will be devoted to cancer prevention research.
Among those on hand to celebrate Diekman’s Hutch Award was another pitcher — beloved in Seattle and arguably one of the best to ever play the game — Hall-of-Famer Randy Johnson. The 6-foot 10-inch left-hander pitched for the Seattle Mariners from 1989 to 1998. Before retiring at the age of 46, Johnson struck out more batters than any other left-hander in Major League Baseball history.
“I want to congratulate Jake for his dedication in baseball, and for finding what he had to do to overcome and get healthy again,” Johnson said.
As Diekman stood on a stage in the stadium to acknowledge the award, he told the crowd that it was exactly one year ago on that day that he was wheeled into the first of his three surgeries at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. His wife, Amanda, he said, was with him in the hospital for the next 15 days. “She left my side for two hours,” he said. “And both hours the pain was so bad she had to leave the room.”
When he returned to the mound Sept. 1, for the first time all last season, he struck out the first Los Angeles Angels batter he faced and retired the side. The Rangers won 10-9.
“I was able to pitch the entire month of September, and that meant the world to me,” Diekman said.
Today, just months away from the start of a new season — in which Diekman is likely to face the Mariners in 19 high-stakes games — he is preparing for the best years of his career.
“I can confidently say that I have never felt better in my entire life,” he said.
Diekman and his wife are co-founders of the Gut It Out Foundation, which they created to give back to the community of people who battle Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, conditions in which the body’s immune system attacks the lower gastrointestinal tract. The foundation has raised $15,000 for research efforts to find a cure.
The couple joined Johnson on the day before the luncheon for a tour of Fred Hutch research laboratories and chatted with scientists. Dr. Jerry Radich explained how his research on finding ways to improve cancer diagnostic tests led to a technology that can detect chronic myeloid leukemia from blood droplets collected on a paper card. The cards are shipped from resource-limited countries to laboratories in Seattle, and through an agreement with the drug manufacturer and a Seattle-area nonprofit, the Max Foundation, those diagnosed with CML via this technology are treated for free.
In a visit to the laboratory of Dr. Beverly Torok-Storb, left-handed pitchers Diekman and Johnson became left-handed pipette operators, practicing one of the fundamental skills researchers employ in their efforts to understand cancer and find cures.
“This is a great experience,” Diekman said of his tour. “They are doing so many great things.”
Diekman also stopped by a wall of Fred Hutchinson memorabilia honoring the laboratory’s namesake. On that wall is a plaque listing prior Hutch Award winners. They include baseball greats Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax and Carl Yastrzemski in the 1960s; and more recently Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright and, last year, Miami Marlins pitcher Dustin McGowan.
“It’s a heck of a fraternity,” Diekman said. “It’s humbling that only 53 people have ever done this, and these are some of the best to ever play.”
For Johnson, the trip to Fred Hutch felt a little bit like coming home. He said he used have a home on Capitol Hill, overlooking Lake Union, and he fondly remembers watching the seaplanes take off and land. In his retirement, he devotes much of his time to photography, but even in his playing days he enjoyed walking through Seattle venues like Pike Place Market and the Space Needle, taking photos.
He remembers Seattle as an exciting place, bursting with new ideas in music, in computers and in the coffee industry.
“I played and lived here for 10 years of my life,” he said during an onstage discussion with broadcaster Rick Rizzs. “Three of my four children were born here. I’ll never forget the teammates I had and the moments we shared together.”
Johnson was particularly appreciative of the cancer researchers and physicians at the Hutch. “We do need to find a cure,” he told Rizzs. “And it will start just across town at Fred Hutch. I want to praise everyone who does their part to make that happen.”
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs.