'This is bigger than baseball': Hendriks returns after defeating cancer

May 30th, 2023

CHICAGO -- Prior to the start of Spring Training, in the parking lot of the White Sox complex at Camelback Ranch, to be exact, delivered an important message to general manager Rick Hahn in the midst of the closer’s battle through chemotherapy to treat his stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

“Not surprisingly, Liam knew that it was a possibility that he’d wind up on the 60-day IL if we got into a roster crunch like most teams do in spring,” said Hahn, recounting the story from the White Sox dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field ahead of Monday’s series opener against the Angels. “He told me [on the] first day of spring, ‘I could be back before those 60 days are up.’

“I was like, ‘Hey, that’s great. Good news. Good to hear. I’m going to go talk to somebody who’s part of the rehabilitation.’”

The ensuing news Hahn received was not surprising. Despite being diagnosed in December and announcing his cancer on Instagram in January, Hendriks was committed to come back within those two months -- and it was entirely possible. That possibility became an amazing reality Monday, when the White Sox activated Hendriks from his injury rehabilitation assignment and placed right-handed reliever Jimmy Lambert on the 15-day injured list with right ankle inflammation.

Hendriks was able to play long toss and throw a few bullpens in Arizona while undergoing chemo, followed by six rehab appearances for Triple-A Charlotte and three live bullpens with the White Sox. His activation Monday put a playoff buzz around the ballpark for a team entering the night at 11 games under .500. 

“Again, this is bigger than baseball, right?” manager Pedro Grifol said. “This is about life and the diagnosis and the comeback and how he did it. And how good he was prior to [it] and how good he's going to be afterward. 

“This is just bigger than the game itself. What he's done and how he's done it has been remarkable. It's an inspiration to everybody on this club, it's an inspiration to everybody who follows the game and knows about Liam.”

There was some understandable concern about Hendriks’ first game being an emotion-filled trip to the mound. In his first Minor League rehab appearance on May 5 in Gwinnett, both teams stood in front of their respective dugouts and applauded when Hendriks took the mound.

For his return to a Major League mound, take that reaction and multiply it by 1,000 with a packed crowd cheering his every move, likely filled with many of the same ardent White Sox fans who sent cards and letters of support to Liam and his wife, Kristi, during his cancer battle. Hendriks, who is one of the nicest, most giving people one could hope to meet, pitches with aggression and anger on the mound. So flipping that switch is a little tougher in this instance.

“Liam is one of those special players [who] has the ability to connect with fans even if they never met him,” Hahn said. “Whether it’s the charitable work he does in the community or the authenticity that comes across when he gets interviewed or the way he’s so honest and vulnerable about himself and what he’s experiencing. In some ways, fans are going to feel like it’s an old friend or relative who has fought through something and survived this and is now here to be celebrated."

"All I kept saying to him the whole time was just, 'Do you see how loved you are?'" Kristi Hendriks said during her Monday evening media session. "'You are loved by fans, your teammates, the community, the city of Chicago, the cities you played for previously. They are all supporting you.'"