The Mariners don’t play until tonight, so I headed down to the ballpark today to work on a story and got to take in some of this morning’s minor league intrasquad game. Joe Saunders was the main act in that one, throwing six innings of two-run ball in which he struck out eight batters and walked a pair.
I know some of you are a bit worried by what you’ve seen out of Saunders this spring, but keep in mind, the Arizona air — as we’ve mentioned — makes it difficult for pitchers to get breaking stuff over because the baseball is tougher to grip at times. Not making excuses for Saunders, just saying that spring training can be a tough place to gauge. He looked sharper with his pitches today.
There was a fairly large crowd of spectators, minor leaguers and team executives — including GM Jack Zduriencik — on-hand to watch.
The opposing pitcher Saunders faced was none other than Taijuan Walker, who was sent down to minor league camp by the Mariners just last week. Walker is also the main reason I went to the game, since I plan to write about him for tomorrow’s print edition of the paper. He pitched three innings, struck out five batters and the only run he gave up was on a solo homer by Class A prospect Jabari Blash. Walker’s mother, Nellie Garcia, is spending the month down here with him after spending much of the past year battling Stage 3 breast cancer.
She just went through a horrendous round of chemotherapy and radiation treatment that ended on Feb. 25.
“My tumor was what they call a rapidly growing tumor, so I was on some pretty harsh chemo,” she said. “I was pretty out of it.”
But the good news is, the cancer has since been declared to be in full remission.
It was Walker’s mother who raised him and his three siblings on her own in California. She attended just about every one of his games from Little League on through high school, sometimes driving two hours each way. She works full-time as a process server and her former boss used to be very generous in giving her time away so she could be in the stands.
But she moved to upstate New York just over a year ago — a few months before the cancer diagnosis — and rarely got a chance to see her son pitch professionally. There was a Cactus League game against the Diamondbacks last spring that she was in attendance for and then she didn’t really see him in a professional game after that until last summer’s Futures Game — which took place only about a week after she was told she had cancer.
Needless to say, the past year has been difficult on both.
“He took it pretty hard,” she said.
Garcia said she raised her children to be independent and self-supportive. And Walker did such a good job of putting up a brave face after her diagnosis, that it wasn’t until later on when a friend confided to her how much her illness had weighed on her son.
Walker said the day he got the news was among the toughest of his life. And there were times last year when it impacted his play. But he tried to push his own concerns aside and focus on helping his mother get better.
“I just tried to stay strong and be supportive for her,” said Walker, 20. “Being so far away, I talked to her every day when I could. I just made sure I stayed strong for her. It helped a lot.”
But it’s also given them each a fresh perspective. Walker has a different view of his own mortality now and tries to have more fun when he plays, preferring not to hang on every pitch or result.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “You never know. You never know when it’s your time. Or when you’re going to get diagnosed with cancer. Or anything for that matter. So, I just kind of live every day to the fullest and try not take it for granted. To be able to play baseball, it’s a blessing.”
And his mother? She does the same thing. It isn’t about whether Walker makes the majors this year or next. It’s about the joy of watching him pitch.
Just like she used to in Little League all those years ago.
“I think it’s harder when they’re in Little League,” she said. “It gets so intense when they’re at that age.”
It gets intense when they’re all grown up, too. But Walker, after the past year, is better equipped to deal with it now.
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