In his first career game as a collegiate pitcher, Richie Suarez was credited with a win after helping the Rowan baseball team to a 6-4 victory over Randolph-Macon College earlier this season.
However, Suarez was a winner long before ever stepping on the mound for the Profs.
Suarez was diagnosed with cancer. He was forced to get a double hip replacement. He’d been out of the sport since 2010.
He also didn’t let any of that stop him.
Now back to full health, Suarez, who battled back from leukemia and a dangerous bone disease that ravaged his body, and had the potential to ruin his baseball dreams, has carved out a role on the Profs’ relief staff this season.
But the 22-year-old Suarez isn’t there just to enjoy the ride. Instead, he’s become a significant contributor.
He’s currently tied for second in wins this season for the Profs, and in eight appearances, has allowed three earned runs in 13 innings. Suarez also earned Rookie of the Week honors from both the New Jersey Athletic Conference and New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association in March.
After dreaming about it for so many years, Suarez’s comeback is now in full force.
“To get out and play again, it’s awesome, it’s a great feeling,” Suarez said. “When I first got back on the mound in February, I thought to myself, ‘what am I doing here?’ I was excited and it was surreal, I couldn’t believe I was back. But after that first outing, it was just me playing baseball again. I just started working on things and just went back to being a baseball player again.”
A prolific All-Conference pitcher at Eastern High School in Voorhees, NJ, he had his sights set on pitching for Rowan in college after graduating in 2010. Though, he wouldn’t get the chance.
In August of 2010, just a few weeks before his freshman year was set to begin, he started losing weight at a rapid pace. Eventually, he ended up in the hospital and just days before the fall semester was set to begin, Suarez was transferred to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia after tests concluded that he had Acute Lymphoblastic leukemia. The diagnosis came out of nowhere.
“At no point did I ever think or was I told that it could be leukemia, it was never an option,” Suarez said. “I lost like 10 pounds in a short amount of time, but I was an 18-year-old kid, so I wasn’t really thinking about it. I kept losing more weight, but I still ignored it. I was under the mindset that I needed to get ready to practice in the fall.
“Eventually I went and saw a doctor and got some tests done. Then next morning, my mom got a call early in the morning, and was told that I needed to go to the hospital because my white-blood cell count was really high. At that point I was furious, because I had no idea I had cancer and I had so much stuff I wanted to do before moving into college.”
Suarez’s white blood cell count was so high that doctors thought someone had incorrectly calculated the number. They had not, and suddenly, everyone knew something was very wrong.
“When the doctor came in she had tears in her eyes,” Suarez said. “She told me, ‘you have leukemia. For at least the next six months, your life is going to be flipped upside-down. You’re not going to be able to go to school. It’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever had to deal with.’”
After the diagnosis, the road to getting back to a cancer-free life was a long and arduous one. Suarez began to shy away from interacting with friends as the chemotherapy, radiation and other drugs were pumped through his body. He lost all of his hair, and his attitude went from that of a fun-loving kid to a dark, depressed one.
“I lost weight, was throwing up and losing my hair,” Suarez said. “I even started having issues with my back. But that wasn’t even the worst part, the physical part you can get over, but the mental side of it was awful. When you get diagnosed like that, it’s like suffering a loss. Your life is taken from you, every bit of normalcy is gone. Also, when you’re 18 years old and have cancer, every ounce of innocence is taken from you. I became a very bitter, angry kid.”
It took 14 months of rigorous treatment to finally get the cancer into remission, and he now looks far from how he did during the worst of the treatment. Suarez, who stands at a lanky six-feet tall and around 165 pounds, no longer shows many signs of what he went through.
Though he beat the cancer, that wasn’t nearly the end of the battle. In December 2012, he was dealt another severe setback with the diagnosis of a bone disease called Avascular necrosis, also known as osteonecrosis, caused from the leukemia treatments. The disease decimated bones in his lower body, especially his hips and knees.
“I couldn’t open my legs outside of like a foot apart,” Suarez said. “When they went to operate, my doctors said my hip bones were like marshmallows, they couldn’t get any traction because the bone was dead, and they can’t bring dead bone back.”
He decided to get both his hips replaced during one single surgery, knowing full well that the process of getting back to full speed would be a long one. After months of rehabilitation and therapy, he was able to return to a semi-normal life, at least by Suarez’s standards. He still received outpatient chemo treatments until last December, but with new hips in place and a renewed sense of comfort, Suarez began working back into baseball shape.
“My doctors told me I would never play baseball collegiately, they said I would never throw as hard,” Suarez said. “When I made the team, I called that doctor back and told him he was wrong.”
Through all of his ailments and setbacks, Suarez was still determined to get back on the mound. After medical redshirting in 2012 and taking a year away from the team last season, Suarez began to focus and train to get back into playing shape during the summer of 2013 — despite still receiving cancer treatments.
During the summer, he was able to participate in a tournament with his old high school coach, who saw that his velocity was much better than many had it expected it to be, and encouraged Suarez to try to get back on board with the Profs.
“My old coach told me I was throwing a lot better than he had expected, and encouraged me to give Rowan baseball another chance,” Suarez said. “I didn’t want to be the charity case, who only made the team because I’m the cancer kid. I wanted to be able to get people out and compete, so I went for it.”
With that new-found confidence, he tried out for Rowan during the Fall 2013 semester. He performed well enough to earn a spot, and after four long years, Suarez knew that come 2014, he would get an opportunity to play the sport that he loved the most.
Since returning, Suarez said the adjustment has had its ups and downs. His fast ball still only maxes-out in the mid-to-low-80s, well below where he was as a senior in high school. However, his out-pitch, the slider, hasn’t been effected.
“My mechanics are different, and pitching from the windup is more difficult,” Suarez said. “My legs still aren’t as strong as they can be, so I expect to improve as time goes by. But I’m just as competitive as I always was, if not more now. With what I’ve gone through, I don’t really get nervous about things anymore when it comes to baseball.”
Now that he’s back, Suarez fully acknowledges the role that the support of his family, friends and community as a whole played in overcoming cancer and the bone disease.
“It was overwhelming at first,” Suaurez said. “People I hadn’t spoken to in years, people I didn’t even like, they all sent me well wishes. I had friends who took like six trains to see me, and my phone rang off the hook with calls and texts. The community was unbelievable too. They did countless fundraisers and raised so much money. They made wristbands and hoodies that said ‘Swing for Richie.’ It was really great to see everyone come out the way they did.”
He’s also gotten well-wishes from some of sports’ biggest names over the past few years, including Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels. More recently, Fox Sports NFL reporter Jay Glazer also gave Suarez a shoutout on Twitter the day after he got the first career win.
“Huge love to my man Richie Suarez who kicked cancer’s ass and pitched his first college game for Rowan… w(ith) two artificial hips #youinspire,” tweeted Glazer to his over 600,000 followers on Feb. 24.
Among the big supporters of Suarez in his comeback was Rowan baseball coach Juan Ranero, who didn’t give up on Suarez after recruiting him out of high school. Ranero checked in on his status regularly, and they kept in contact despite the toll the disease and treatment took on Suarez’s body.
“It was shocking, it felt like my heart stopped when I got the news,” Ranero said. “It was a tough situation when we figured out what had happened. I had a friend who had leukemia a few years before Richie, so I tried to pick his brain as far as what happens to someone with it. And it was put in my mind right away that he wasn’t going to pitch for us this season.
“We told him he’d always be part of this team, but in the back of my mind, I knew he wouldn’t be part of helping us win games in that spring. Then, he and his dad would swing by my office and give us updates on what could possibly happen, and it seemed like everything bad kept happening until about the last year. Right now, his velocity is going up. Sometimes he gets a little tick from me because I think he tries to overthrow. But I do think he has the potential to get back into the upper 80s, and the slider is going to bite harder.”
Ranero, who admittedly had his doubts about Suarez rejoining the team when he tried out, can now take solace that his decision is paying off dividends both on and off the field.
“The quote I always told him was that his health is the primary goal,” Ranero said. “His hard work and determination have inched him closer and closer to where he was in high school. Anybody who knows me, I wasn’t going to be the sympathetic coach because he had leukemia.”
Likewise, fellow Profs pitcher Dylan Johannink also saw Suarez’s progression back to baseball. The pair first met three years ago at a Rowan baseball practice, and a friendship developed that would lead to the two becoming roommates, and eventually teammates.
“Richie’s told me in the past that baseball was really the main thing that got him to beat cancer, and I couldn’t be happier for him now,” Johannink said. “Just being able to play alongside him is an amazing feeling. I was just as nervous as he was when he tried out, and knowing that coach isn’t the type of guy to let him on the team just because he had cancer, he had to beat out some really talented guys to make it. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Richie’s earned his spot and role on the team.”
Suarez’s journey has also led to new passion when it comes to academics — oncology. Currently a biology major, Suarez plans to attend medical school after graduating from Rowan, with the goal of eventually becoming a childhood oncologist.
“When I was 18, I wanted to be a professional baseball player, but when I got sick, it humbled me and changed me,” Suarez said. “My main drive now is school, though. I don’t think I’m the smartest kid, but I work really hard. I think I can bring something different to the table because I went through it, and know what the patient is feeling. I think I can really make a difference, and really help the kids.”
Suarez and his family have also started an organization called Striking Out Kids’ Cancer, and have participated in numerous benefits, with all proceeds going towards cancer-fighting hospitals like the one that saved his life.
As of now, Suarez expects to graduate next spring, meaning that the 2015 baseball season will probably be his last. With his current progression as a reliever this season, he has eyes set on perhaps starting games next year.
“I still have to be smart about things, but I just work just as hard and my expectations are higher now than they were when I was 18,” Suarez said. “I expect to go out there and every time to get everybody out. It’s not going to happen every time, but I expect to walk off the mound without anyone getting on.
“Coming into the year I wanted to start, but I had no idea whether my legs would be fine. As long as I’m pitching, I’m happy. Do I have a goal of starting at some point? Of course. But coach is starting to see that I can go longer. I think I’ll stay in a relief role for the rest of this season. But next year, who knows?”
However, whether he blows away opponents or struggles to get outs on the mound, Suarez said he’s just happy to be back. Plus, any obstacles he’ll face are nothing compared to what he’s already overcome.
Yet, Suarez will always have to worry about the cancer coming back, and will have monthly and yearly checkups with doctors for the rest of his life. Down the line, there’s also a chance he’ll have to get knee surgery or even replacements as the Avascular necrosis lingers in his bones. There is no cure for the disease.
But he’s not worried about that right now. For the first time in years, Suarez can live his life the way he always envisioned it: As a baseball player, as a Rowan student, and most importantly, as a normal 22-year-old.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride,” Suarez said. “I’ve had some real lows, and some real highs. Right now, I’m on a high and I’m hoping I stay here. I don’t see a reason for it to change. Things are working out, and I couldn’t be happier.”