'Night and day' difference for Orze post-cancer

Mets draftee lauded as 'high-makeup kid, high-quality kid'

June 17th, 2020

NEW YORK -- For as long as he could, Eric Orze shrugged off the pain. It began as a strange sort of groin discomfort that faded and returned, easy to ignore. This was the spring of 2018, and Orze’s University of New Orleans baseball team was down to one healthy catcher on the roster. As a pitcher who had caught a bit in high school, Orze had volunteered to catch bullpen sessions to ease the burden.

When his groin started hurting, Orze figured it was a result of all the extra catching reps, nothing more, until he awoke one morning at 4:30 a.m. “screaming in pain.” Orze called the team’s trainer and went to the hospital. He underwent an ultrasound.

That morning, he learned that he had testicular cancer.

“Your whole body kind of goes numb,” Orze, 22, said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “You don’t really know how to react. You don’t really know what to do. And then that wave of emotion hits you.”

When it did, Orze’s hands started shaking. He began to cry. And then he resolved not to let the disease beat him.

In the two years that followed, Orze battled not just testicular cancer, but skin cancer in four spots on his body. He eventually returned to the mound stronger, in his estimation, with a renewed outlook that crystallized his ambitions to become a professional pitcher. Orze grew more and learned more in two years than he ever thought possible. He became a better pitcher and a stronger person, and others took note: last Thursday, the Mets selected Orze in the fifth round of the Draft.

“It just shows you that you’re capable of doing anything you want to,” said Orze’s college coach, Blake Dean.

Back in 2018, however, the idea of being drafted was so far removed from Orze’s worldview as he sat in a hospital room and called his mother. Orze asked if she was sitting down, then told her he had been diagnosed with cancer.

“I could just hear her breathe for a second,” Orze recalled, “and then she just goes, ‘Look, I’ve got to go. Your dad’s work is 10 minutes down the road, I’ll call you back when I get there. I just need to go find your father.’ So she hung up, called me back probably 10 minutes later and she was already crying. ... My dad was pretty emotional as well. That was definitely probably the toughest phone call I’ve had to make.”

As distraught as Orze’s parents were, their longer-term reaction mirrored his own. Once the initial shock of the diagnosis faded, Orze began contemplating ways to beat it. He scheduled surgery as soon as possible. Then, as he recovered from that operation, Orze lobbied Dean to let him travel with the Privateers to Texas, where the team was set to compete in the Southland Conference baseball tournament. Though Orze was struggling even to walk normally at that point, Dean agreed. The trip gave him a chance to take his mind off his looming recovery, which did not go as smoothly as planned.

Surgery had been a success, but shortly thereafter, fluid began building up in Orze’s lungs, preventing him from breathing properly. He returned to the hospital, where one of the doctors noticed an abnormal mole on Orze’s back. Next came a meeting with a dermatologist, who diagnosed him with a second type of cancer. Skin cancer.

Considering what Orze had just been through, the second diagnosis hardly fazed him. Nor did a follow-up visit that revealed two additional melanomas, nor a fourth episode that surfaced last summer. Orze continued fighting, realizing that what he once considered a fine work ethic was not nearly good enough. Even after he recovered from his medical issues, Orze paid more attention to what foods he was putting in his body -- not only to pack back on the 25 pounds he had lost, but also to fulfill a renewed commitment to health and wellness. He avoided alcohol. He slept more.

At first, acts like throwing a bullpen session could cause Orze to “wake up the next day feeling like I got hit by a truck.” Only gradually did he regain strength, pumping his fastball back into the low 90s. By opening night of the 2020 season, Orze was ready, returning to the mound against Southern University. He struggled in relief that night, but a week later, Orze threw five sparkling innings to pick up his first win in two years.

He was on his way. When the coronavirus forced the NCAA to shut down the remaining baseball season, Orze took a 3-0 record and a 2.75 ERA with him into quarantine. More than that, he realized that he had not simply beaten cancer; as a result of his newfound commitment and work ethic, he had actually become a better pitcher than he otherwise would have.

"It sounds crazy and it sounds bizarre, but cancer was a blessing in disguise for sure,” Orze said. “If I hadn’t gone through that ... I had Draft aspirations, but I don’t think anything would have come of it.  Even though I had good numbers and I had good stuff and I did well before being diagnosed, I was a very average college pitcher. I thought I was doing enough at the time. Realizing now how much really goes into being a professional, I don’t know that it would have happened.

“Seeing the transformation I’ve made to now, I’m realizing that I really wasn’t as good as I thought I was. It kind of put me in my place, and gave me the perspective that I needed to understand that a professional is different.”

Teams took notice. At home with his parents in Illinois, Orze fielded calls from his advisor relaying an encouraging level of interest across the league. One intrigued team was the Mets, who had expressed a desire to take Orze in the third round, at No. 91 overall. That didn’t happen. A round later, the Mets called back to see what sort of monetary package he would accept if they took him in the fourth round. That didn’t happen either. With one round remaining, Orze texted area scout Jet Butler, committing to sign if the Mets took him in the fifth.

When they did, at 150th overall, Orze went numb.

“I wanted to cry,” he said. “I wanted to scream. I wanted to run. I wanted to lay down and pump my fist. It was a great moment. A wave of emotions hit me. I’ll never forget that.”

Later that night, Mets scouting director Tommy Tanous lauded Orze as the type of “high-makeup kid, high-quality kid” the Mets want in their organization -- not just due to the character he showed in twice beating cancer, but also because of his ability to turn life-changing misfortune into something unequivocally positive.

“It’s almost night and day as a human being, how much I’ve changed as a person going through that,” said Orze, who hopes his own story can inspire others. “It forced me to grow up, and really start to take responsibility for my life and what I wanted to do with it.”