Diekman's story inspires beyond baseball

Rangers reliever achieves dreams despite battle with colitis

March 2nd, 2017

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- At first chance, you look for hope. It is surprising how quickly the mind searches for it, how hungry the mind is for every inspiring sign. When the doctor first told us all that Elizabeth, our oldest daughter, had Crohn's disease, we had no idea what it meant. We only knew that she had lost so much weight, that she felt tired all the time, that she wouldn't eat and that sometimes she would suddenly and inexplicably feel deeply sad.

We searched the Internet. We scoured the literature. We considered different treatments. We tried to understand how this disease would change her life and ours. And then, yes, when we began to come to grips with the disease, we looked hard for hope, for those people who dealt with Crohn's and colitis -- similar chronic diseases that affect the intestines -- and still triumphed. There is Kathleen Baker, swimmer, Olympic medalist. Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered from Crohn's. Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready has it. Jake Diekman, a pitcher for the Texas Rangers, has colitis. There are many others.

You wouldn't think that stuff matters much. Elizabeth is not interested in becoming an Olympic swimmer, heroic general, awesome guitarist or hard-throwing reliever. But it matters deeply. Because they made it. They endured. That's what you latch onto. They found a way to overcome the awful attacks of a disease that doesn't fight fair, one that hits you hardest when you feel weakest. They found a way to live not just good lives but extraordinary ones.

"Yes," Diekman says. "You tell her, 'Crohn's doesn't have to get in the way of dreams.' It just doesn't have to."

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You want to talk an extraordinary life ... Diekman's baseball story comes right out of "Field of Dreams." He grew up in a tiny town, Wymore, in south central Nebraska, just a few minutes from the Kansas border. Wymore is so small that the high school doesn't even have a baseball team. Diekman played catch with his father, Paul, who still works in a factory there in Wymore (he plans to retire this year). Later, Jake played some American Legion baseball. That was the extent of his baseball experience.

When Diekman was 10, the doctors told him he had colitis. In truth, they didn't know much about the disease then -- this was 20 years ago. They gave him some medication, the best stuff they could find at the time, and he went on. One of the quirks of Crohn's and colitis is that the disease can, at various times, go into remission, even a long remission. You think that it's gone forever. Diekman thought that. After his initial bout with colitis, he felt better throughout high school. Diekman played baseball, basketball, golf. He was really good at golf. He filled out the papers to attend the Golf Academy of America in San Diego.

"Why didn't you do it?" you ask him.

"I guess I didn't really want to leave home," Diekman says.

Instead, Diekman took on a bunch of odd jobs (including working in the factory where his dad worked) and they convinced him that he really wanted to do something easier. He thought about playing baseball. He went to play at an NAIA school, Doane College, in nearby Crete. Then Diekman transferred to Cloud County Community College in Concordia, Kan. And somehow, he got noticed. Well, in a way, that isn't a big surprise -- scouts don't see that many 6-foot-4 lefties who can throw 90-plus mph. Diekman was raw. He had no idea where his pitches were going. Still, Nebraska offered him a full ride. And, at the same time, the Phillies took Diekman in the 30th round of the 2007 Draft.

And it was at that very moment in Diekman's life, when it seemed like his life was coming together beautifully, that the worst thing happened. His mother and biggest fan Billie died.

"She really wanted me to go to Nebraska," he says now.

Diekman chose instead to sign with the Phils. He worried that he wouldn't get another chance.

And that's exactly when Diekman's colitis came back with fury.

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How does Crohn's and colitis hit you? Well, there are what you call "flare-ups," where stomach pain roars in. This is the most obvious symptom, the one that is easiest to grasp. But there are so many subtle little attacks that are hard to pinpoint, hard to understand, hard to explain to other people. Sometimes, for instance, Crohn's and colitis will obstruct your appetite so that nothing in the world sounds worse than eating food.

"I've lost 20 pounds," Diekman says. "Twice."

Sometimes, Crohn's and colitis will invade your feelings, turn you inside out.

"There were times," Diekman says, "when I would just get angry for no reason at all. It didn't even make sense."

More than anything, though, Crohn's and colitis hit you when you're down, when you're stressed, when you are feeling a little bit defenseless. So you can imagine the strain of being a 30th-round pick from a tiny town in Nebraska, you show up in the Minor Leagues, you try to prove yourself, you try to make it not only for yourself but for your mother.

That's when the colitis attacked in force.

"It's like whatever stress you already have," Diekman says, "Colitis doubles it."

When Diekman was 21, he went to Class A Lakewood and got absolutely shellacked, giving up 120 hits in 96 innings, walking a bunch of hitters, barely striking out anyone. That was the worst time, the time when it seemed like his dream would end before it began. The Phillies sent Diekman back to low-level Class A ball. And then, something lucky happened -- the Phils asked him to change his arm slot. He had been an extreme over-the-top pitcher, so much so that, as he says, he had to move his head out of the way so not to get in the way of his arm.

Diekman dropped the arm slot so that he was pitching more side-arm. And, immediately, it felt right. Immediately his velocity jumped up. Diekman began making his way up the Minor League ladder -- slowly, very slowly, but surely. And as he grew older, he began to use his mother's memory as an inspiration rather than as a weight.

When he was 27, Diekman finally made it to the big leagues. And he stuck. Over the past five years, he has become a solid reliever, striking out 11 per nine innings, holding hitters to a .227 batting average and so on.

But all along, the colitis got worse. Diekman barely battled it to a draw. He would have colonoscopies every year, many different medications, many different treatments. Every Crohn's and colitis patient knows about the dreaded drug Prednisone, an effective medicine with harsh side effects. As our doctor told us, "You don't want to be on Prednisone for long." Diekman would get such large prescriptions of Prednisone that one pharmacist asked him if it was intended to put down a horse.

"It made me feel good and terrible all at the same time," he says. "My stomach felt good. But the rest of me felt awful. Anything would set me off. If someone honked a car horn at me, I wanted to get out of the car and fight them."

This past November, Diekman had another flare-up. And that's when doctors recommended that he have his colon removed. It's an involved three-part surgery that requires six or seven months for full recovery. But Diekman was told that when it was done, he would no longer suffer from colitis. And he did not hesitate.

"They said I was a good candidate for it because I'm an athlete and my body knows how to heal itself," Diekman says. "When they told me that, I thought, 'Yes, this is what I want. This is what I need.'"

So that's where Diekman is now, between his first and second surgery. He decided that he wouldn't just go through the surgery; he would take people with him. Diekman has let people into his life, even the most embarrassing parts. You can follow along on his Twitter or on the Crohn's and colitis Facebook page. He wants people to follow along.

"People don't like to talk about it," Diekman says. "It's something that people are embarrassed about, or they feel like it's personal. But a few years ago, I decided that I'll talk about it as much as I can. I try to talk to kids who have Crohn's and colitis. I try to talk to parents. And I try to let as many people know about it. It affects 1.6 million people, so you think about someone in your family, someone in your school, someone at work."

Diekman has worked with Athletes Brand to make T-shirts to raise money and awareness. The shirts read "Gut It Out." The T-shirts will be on sale for the rest of the week and have raised more than $12,000 so far.

Of course, beyond all this, Diekman is also on his own journey. He will have the second of three surgeries on April 12. Diekman will have the third and final surgery nine weeks later, and when that's done, he expects to begin working out almost immediately. He fully intends to be there pitching for the Rangers in their stretch run.

"I'll tell you one thing," he says. "That first time back on the mound, I'll cry. I know it. After all the surgeries, all the years, to be out there on the mound, pain free. I'll definitely cry right there on the mound."

Diekman smiles a little.

"And what I do after that game," he says, "well, that's my own business."