When Devin Smeltzer was just 9 years old, the young Philadelphia Phillies fan found himself frequently feeling the urge to go to the bathroom. Doctors would soon find a grapefruit-sized tumor pressing against his bladder, and he was diagnosed with cancer just a month before his 10th birthday.
Smeltzer, who started playing baseball when he was just 4 years old, found a bit of happiness while going through treatment when he was able to take to the field. The game of baseball gave Smeltzer a feeling of normalcy as going to crowded places like school and church were taken away because of his compromised immune system, he told Spectrum Sportsnet.
Smeltzer got his chance to mingle with major league players in 2006 when he visited Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, the home of his favorite MLB team. It was there that Smeltzer—who, at that point, had lost his hair due to chemotherapy and radiation treatment for his pelvic rhabdomyosarcoma—was able to spend time with two of the Phillies’ players, pitcher Cole Hamels, and second-baseman, Chase Utley. A picture was taken of Utley signing his autograph on a Phillies hat for an eager Smeltzer, who was then a patient at St. Christopher’s Hospital in Philadelphia.
“The picture of me and Chase has been in the living room for a long time,” Smeltzer, 22, told the news outlet. “When I go back home, it’s always very humbling to see that picture because of where I’m at today. It’s crazy to believe that I was going through such a hard time at such a young age, and how far I’ve grown.”
In the years since, Smeltzer has maintained his love of baseball, and continued playing the game when he entered college. In 2016, he was selected in the fifth round of the MLB draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and his cancer is now in remission, according to the LA Daily News. A year before Smeltzer’s selection in the draft, Chase Utley was traded from the Phillies to the Dodgers, where he has played ever since.
Smeltzer has since been a pitcher in the Dodgers’ farm system in the minor leagues, and during spring training this year, the team brought him into the clubhouse where manager Dave Roberts had the picture of Smeltzer and Utley in hand.
After telling the team Smeltzer’s unlikely story, Utley and the pitching prospect had a chance to reunite, more than a decade after taking their picture together in Philadelphia.
“I was able to play through it,” Smeltzer said to Utley in the Dodgers clubhouse. “I just wanted to thank you for everything you did. It means a lot.”
- Want to keep up with the latest from PEOPLE? Sign up for our daily newsletter to get our best stories of the day delivered straight to your inbox.
Smeltzer is now leading a campaign to raise funds for Katie’s Krusaders, an organization that provides financial and personal support for kids with cancer or other childhood diseases. He hopes to raise money for every strikeout he throws this season, so he can help other children who are in the same position he once was.
“It’s a pretty special and unique story with Devin,” Utley told Sportsnet of Smeltzer. “I can’t even imagine what he was going through, what his parents were going through… Hopefully, at some point, he’ll be pitching at Dodger Stadium.”