Back from cancer, Hess dominates for Durham

June 22nd, 2022

Time can pass in inexplicable ways. An offseason of normal length that feels like an eternity. An inning that stretches out like a rubber band in the moment only to snap back to a whirlwind when recounted.

has seen it all now.

In his first game back at Triple-A since a cancer diagnosis nine months ago, Tampa Bay right-hander Hess roared through a perfect inning with a strikeout, needing just nine pitches in a triumphant return.

“As cliché as it might sound, I just tried to tell myself, ‘Take one breath at a time,’” Hess said after his Durham side fell to Jacksonville, 9-3. “I knew the emotions were going to be high. I knew what I was probably going to be feeling. I tried to just go in and make it as normal as possible. The first pitch -- getting the sign, coming set, just thinking about everything and then throwing -- everything kind of clicked back into place. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any big emotions because inside, I felt like I was going a million miles an hour. I was just trying to make it a normal outing and keep it as low-key as possible. I don’t think there was necessarily anything low-key on the inside that I was feeling.”

Not much about Hess’ past year has been low-key. Shortly after the 2021 season, the 28-year-old was diagnosed with a germ cell tumor that had manifested itself in a cantaloupe-sized growth in his chest. By mid-October, he was in treatment, including three weeks of chemotherapy. Hess’ body, one of just 21,644 to reach the Major Leagues when he made his debut, withered.

“Even looking back at it now, it’s hard to really put into words, because it happened so quickly,” he said. “Your brain doesn’t have time to catch up with what’s happening around you in the moment. I take pride in my health and my fitness and physical ability. For that to be stripped away, it was very humbling, because it kind of shows nobody’s exempt from things around us.”

Doctors said the tumor could’ve been growing in Hess’ chest for two years. Before his diagnosis, Hess attributed unusual aches and pains to workouts or the grind of pro ball. For a while, he meant to see a chiropractor (“I always felt like my chest needed to pop”). Those things now appeared in a different light as treatment began. Hess conferred with current and former teammates like fellow cancer survivor Trey Mancini of the Orioles and others.

“Even last year, not on a cancer front, but one guy who was really with me along the way and we kind of helped each other in some senses dealing with our circumstances was ,” Hess said of his Durham teammate who suffered a life-threatening on-field injury last year and also returned this season. “We’ve gotten really close, and I think there’s a certain element when you go through traumatic things that can bring people together and bring out the best and help us push each other forward. He did that for me, and I did everything I could to do that for him, as well.”

In January, the news Hess waited for arrived: the tumor was gone. A new chapter began.

“Even little things like going for walks and being able to do that without having as much strain, being able to see, ‘OK, now I can go from that into doing a jog or do workouts now,’” he said. “As that progressed into baseball activity, getting cleared for that, building up to mound progressions, it was almost like a ladder. You take a step forward, and you just want to get to that next rung and keep going and keep going.”

Along the way, Hess has begun to embrace smaller moments of importance.

“I think that’s part of life,” he said. “That [established] that mindset of appreciating the things that are around you, that are good, because as I sat in that [treatment] room, I saw a lot of people who were in a lot worse shape than I was, who were day-in and day-out getting beat down and truly fighting for their life every day. Looking at it from that sense, I was really lucky.”

After reporting to Spring Training on a Minor League deal, Hess began his comeback. From bullpen sessions to live batting practice, work with extended spring camp groups and four appearances in Rookie-level Florida Complex League games, he progressed.

The first major step toward a big league return came Tuesday in Jacksonville. In the bottom of the eighth, Hess retired Luis Aviles Jr. on two pitches, the first he’d thrown in Triple-A since last Sept. 26. He took six to strike out Santiago Chávez and then needed just one more to get Bryson Brigman and end the inning.

“I knew that [Jacksonville was] pretty aggressive tonight and swung early in the count, so I was joking around afterwards saying I was just trying to throw strikes and not walk guys,” Hess said. “Stay around the zone, and if they’re going to be aggressive, let them be aggressive. It’s to my advantage.”

From the moment Hess toed the rubber to Brigman’s foul pop landing in Tristan Gray’s glove, three minutes and 22 seconds elapsed.

“I think it might’ve been the longest nine-pitch inning of my life,” Hess said.

Then, a short time later, “In the moment, I tried to treat it as as much of a normal game as I possibly could. By the time it was over with, it kind of seemed like it happened really fast.”

Time is funny like that.

With his wife, Devin, along for Durham’s trip, the Hesses reflected on their journey.

“We’re just talking and looking back on how far things have come and what it was like eight months ago, how I was bald and had no strength and was finding a way to get through each day,” he said. “To be sitting here now, getting back to this whole process, what the goal has been, it really is something that I hope can be used to help people that are going through a similar situation or difficulty in life.”

Hess’ first outing back on a Triple-A mound is behind him. It’s one clean inning on a box score, but it’s a lot more to countless people.

“I just want to bring hope,” he said. “The situation and the cards that I’ve been dealt, it’s difficult, but at the end of the day, as a person of faith, I believe that God puts things around us and in front of us and experiences that we go through to learn from and to use to help build other people up. Ultimately through this, I hope that that shows.

“Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Finding examples and finding reasons to keep going, it’s a challenging thing at times, but at the end of the day, when you really boil it down, I think that’s all we can do. Just try to make the most of each day, and I hope I can be a small piece in helping somebody either get through a difficult situation or look to as an example of somebody who’s done it.

“And make sure you tell the people you care about that you love them, because 10 months ago, it was not just dealing with not feeling great and all that. It got to a point where I was literally having to fight for life. That perspective that things can be taken from you very quickly, you’ve really got to appreciate the people you have around you and the little things that you can find in every day.”