Liam Hendriks didn’t want to rule out the first two months of the season.
The closest to the Chicago White Sox, undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, shared those sentiments with general manager Rick Hahn in the team’s parking lot on the first day of spring training in Glendale, Arizona.
“I also prefaced it with, ‘Look, I understand this is a business. I’m not asking for any special treatment or anything like that,” Hendriks said Wednesday after trying to make the case for avoiding the 60-day injured list. “‘But if there’s a chance that I don’t have to continue, I would really appreciate not continuing just for my state of mind, because then I have something to beat.’ ”
Hahn spoke to someone who was part of rehab.
“And they were like, ‘He’s engaged,'” Hahn said Monday. “‘It’s entirely possible he’ll be back in those 60 days.'”
Day 60 was May 29, according to Hendriks. And sure enough, he was back on the mound for the first time in 2023 that night, pitching the eighth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Guaranteed Rate Field.
Hendriks spent part of his post-game press conference assessing the results – two runs in one inning – but there’s no denying that the inspiring night was far more important than any statistic.
“What he did motivated everyone,” said Sox starter Michael Kopech.
It wasn’t until early January that Hendriks revealed in an Instagram post that he was starting treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Initially we thought it was relegated to his neck and under his chin, so we thought maybe it was stage 2 at worst,” Kristi Hendriks, his wife, said Monday. “When they said stage 4 and we looked at the PET scan and it was all over his body, I was just in shock. When you hear stage 4, I think it’s one of the scariest things you’ve ever experienced.
“And I’m a control freak. I’m sitting there and just want to save him and help him, but I understand that’s not my place. I just knew we were in Mayo, we were in the best place we could be. You have to let go and trust. The science is really going to be there for him.
Hendriks said one of his first thoughts was “what does my 2023 look like, season-wise. That’s where my head went. Beat whatever prediction they gave me.
“It’s stage 4, but luckily our doctor was amazing,” he said. “Not only did she tell us in the same breath that it was stage 4, but she also said that I didn’t care or that I didn’t care. It was one thing, he didn’t There wasn’t really time to think about it. There wasn’t really time to think about it before she said I wasn’t worried. And that was extremely comforting.
“When she said I’m not worried, that was definitely a relief more than anything. Same gasp as hearing stage 4, you freak out and then she says she’s not worried , it relaxes you a little more.
Messages of support were coming in from everywhere. Hendriks said a Jan. 30 text from Cubs pitcher Jameson Taillon, once diagnosed with testicular cancer, stood out.
“His was, ‘This is your journey. No one can tell you how to feel or what to do when it comes to baseball. Do what you think is right,” Hendriks said on May 3, adding that he launched a bullpen session in the days following the text.
Taillon added last week: “It’s cool to know you have a competitor like that. I feel like probably – I don’t want to speak for him – but going through cancer treatments, nobody is comfortable with that. But I feel like competing on a big league mound is a place where he’s comfortable and he feels like himself.
Kristi said “baseball was really Liam’s saving grace.”
“He would basically have chemo on Monday and immunotherapy, and then on Tuesday he would just do chemo,” Kristi said. “Wednesday and Thursday he slept most of the day, then on Friday he got up and went to the field. I think that was his motivation to get up, to feel really good, to feel like he was doing something normal.
“When all that poison is pumped into your body, the last thing you feel is normal. It was great for him too to have the camaraderie with his teammates. You (the reporters) know Liam, he’s a goofy man and random. And he’s weird. He felt like he was part of his people again. I think if he hadn’t had baseball, his recovery would have been very different.”
On April 20, Hendriks announced he was cancer free. A minor league rehab assignment with Triple-A Charlotte followed, which included players stepping out of both dugouts to cheer on Hendriks ahead of his first outing in Gwinnett, Georgia.
Applause was widespread from the crowd and even the opposing dugout on Monday at the guaranteed rate field before Hendriks threw his first pitch, a strike at Matt Thaiss.
“It was emotional to see him go out, with all the work he’s done and how he’s done it,” manager Pedro Grifol said on Tuesday. “It was emotional to see his family and the way they reacted. It was just a good day. It had to happen. It had to happen for the game, it had to happen for him and his family.
Hendriks threw a perfect seventh inning in his second game Saturday against the Detroit Tigers, pulling out Zack Short to retire the team for the first punch of his comeback.
From the start, the Hendriks also wanted to lend a hand to others. The Sox have partnered with the Lymphoma Research Foundation for the “Close Out Cancer” t-shirt campaign. Funds raised provided financial assistance to lymphoma patients.
“I was truly touched to learn that (Hendriks’) first thought was about other patients,” said Meghan Gutierrez, CEO of the Lymphoma Research Foundation, in a phone interview with the Tribune during the training. spring. “They set out to think about partnerships and how they can impact the wider lymphoma community and maybe help other people who might not be as lucky as them to have some of the resources. and connections with cancer experts as they face their own diagnosis of lymphoma.”
A ceremony before Monday’s game recognized the over $100,000 raised.
Throughout, Gutierrez said Hendriks gave hope.
“Patients’ lives change forever when they hear those words you have cancer,” Gutierrez said. “And that can be a very isolating experience. So to see someone like Liam now who I think is very brave to share the journey and the diagnosis, to be out there to show that you can not only survive but thrive in the face of a lymphoma diagnosis, that means the world for the patients we work with.”
Cubs infielder Trey Mancini, who returned from stage 3 colon cancer, has texted Hendriks a few times over the past few months.
“The fact that someone can be back in Major League Baseball five months after diagnosis, that’s superhero stuff in my opinion,” Mancini told the Tribune on Friday. “It took me about a full year to come back, so for him to come back like this is amazing and just shows who he is.
“I texted Liam the other day, ‘No matter what happens, just make sure you love being back’, because I feel like my first game back, I just wanted to go out and hit a home run or something. Just enjoy the fact that we can keep playing because your life flashes before your eyes when that happens. It’s crazy.”
Reflecting a few days after Monday’s release, Hendriks said he was “more emotional than I have been in a long time.”
He received a book of supportive tweets signed by members of the Sox organization.
“It’s very humbling to know how many people are thinking about it,” Hendriks said.
A conversation with someone at the signing after Tuesday’s game stuck with the reliever.
“He was like, ‘I beat this thing twice and you don’t understand how many people you’re hitting going through what you’re going through,'” Hendriks said. “It’s something, I forget that by going out there and trying to do what I’m doing there, but it’s also realizing that I have a platform that I hope can potentially make a difference in someone’s life.
“That’s the only thing, whether it’s a state of mind, whether it’s knowing someone else is out there, whether it’s knowing you’re not alone, it’s something that I want to make sure we really focus on and insist on and obviously always raise awareness and funding and stuff like that to look for a cure.
“My focus now is to make sure everyone understands they’re not alone.”
Chicago Tribune reporter Meghan Montemurro contributed.
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