Royals reliever's melanoma diagnosis hits close to home

March 7th, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The freckle on 's left shoulder changed only slightly, but it was enough for him to take notice and have the thought in the back of his head -- and voiced by his wife -- about getting a doctor to take a look.

Fast forward to mid-February when Duffey arrived in Surprise as a non-roster pitcher looking to earn a spot in the Royals’ bullpen. During Duffey’s mandatory physical, he mentioned the skin spot to team dermatologist Dr. Glenn Goldstein.

“I don’t love that one,” Duffey recalled Goldstein saying.

Duffey added later: “Without him doing that, who knows where we are in six months?”

A biopsy revealed the suspicious mole was melanoma, setting in motion an emotional journey for Duffey while bringing up past grief and offering a new perspective on life and baseball for everyone involved.

“We play a game for a living, I get to manage a team for a living, but everybody’s a human being out here,” manager Matt Quatraro said prior to the Royals' 8-7 loss to the Mariners on Wednesday. “Whether it’s skin cancer, colon cancer or all the different screenings you can get, it’s invaluable. It literally helps save lives.”

Duffey, 33, found out the result of the biopsy on Feb. 26 and pitched that day against the Cubs anyway, knowing he might not pitch for a while. There was a slight chance that the biopsy hadn’t removed all of the cancer, and doctors recommended a second procedure.

“I asked Doc, ‘Do we wait six months until the season is over?’” Duffey said, expressing his desire to make the roster and pitch in the big leagues again. “And he said, ‘You could. Is it worth it? No.’”

So Duffey elected for surgery, performed by Dr. Patricia Carroll-Chen in Arizona on Feb. 27. With 40 stitches lining the left side of his upper back, Duffey is in the clear for now, with check-ups every few months on the schedule. He hasn’t pitched since, and he’s eager to return to the mound. But Duffey knew firsthand how seriously he needed to take the situation.

Both of his parents had cancer, and hearing Duffey’s diagnosis brought a wave of grief along with it. His mom, Shanna, had breast cancer and died after complications from a blood clot in 2012, when Tyler was a junior at Rice University.

His dad, Tim, had melanoma and died in 2021. The two shared a close bond when it came to baseball especially. Tim was “there for everything,” Tyler said; the two even drove to Tyler’s big league debut in 2016 together.

“My parents are with me everywhere,” Duffey said, with tears falling down his face. “My brother and I are in a unique group. I’m not going to say we’re better for it, but we’ve seen some things that will change you. It’s all about perspective. Ultimately, just be happy for people. Be happy and you got to deal with what comes.”

Duffey was allowed to start light baseball activity on Wednesday and hopes to see game action by the end of spring. But he also wants to shine light on what’s happened. Friends in and out of the game have texted to ask why he hasn’t been pitching, and Duffey responds with a picture of his stitches and the accompanying story.

He wants to raise awareness for what he and many others have gone through. The American Cancer Society estimates that over 100,000 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed -- about 59,000 in men and 41,000 in women -- in 2024, with about 8,300 deaths. The risk increases with age, but it’s one of the most common cancers in young adults.

“We’re in the sun a lot,” Duffey said. “Outside always, often not even thinking about it. Sitting in the bullpen… it’s a long day out there. But it takes nothing to get checked, that’s the biggest thing I’ve taken from it. It’s no effort other than showing up.

Even noticing the smallest of changes can make a big difference.

“It looked a little different than the rest at one point, so I was like, ‘Let’s see what he says,’” Duffey said. “… I can’t say it enough that I’m just fortunate. Had I gone a year, maybe I’m missing a lot more than a piece of skin.”

Duffey sat in the bullpen with his teammates on Tuesday night during the Royals’ game. He’s itching to pitch again.

His dad would be pushing for him to get back out there, anyway.

“The saying, ‘We make plans, and God laughs,’ it’s real,” Duffey said. “But I’m in a great spot. After this, I’m such an out-of-sight, out-of-mind guy. I’ll be fine. Go play baseball. That’s what I love doing. And if I didn’t do that, that’s who’d be upset with me. It [would be], ‘You’re here, quit crying. Let’s go.’”