Newly acquired reliever struggled after mother's death in 2007, thrived after therapy
By Cody Stavenhagen
ARLINGTON -- There is only a caution light in Wymore, Neb. Not a stoplight -- a caution light.
The idyllic feel of Wymore is reflected in the easygoing personality of Rangers lefty Jake Diekman. It's one of those blue-collar towns of about 1,400 people where life moves slower. Diekman still lives in the area, and he said he'll never leave.
But as much as Diekman's Wymore upbringing defines him, the pain of his mother's death is what shaped him. The Nebraska native became a sidewinding pitcher who has beaten the odds his entire career. Diekman comes out to the haunting folk tune "House of the Rising Sun," throws upward of 96 mph and has one of the highest strikeout rates in the league.
"He's got a lot of intensity on the mound," teammate Cole Hamels said. "I think that's how he bottles it up."
The day Diekman's mother, Billie, died of a heart attack in February 2007, he was pulled out of practice at Cloud County Junior College. A teammate drove him the 90 minutes back to Wymore, and Diekman said the rest was a blur.
For Diekman, losing Billie was devastating. She is the most outgoing person he has ever known. Billie started her own promotions company, and she loved to act in the local theater. His mom was his rock, she made life enjoyable for her son and was the motivation behind his every move. Not long after her death, Diekman signed to play baseball at Nebraska. It was what she would have wanted.
But for the rest of that season, Diekman was lost. He pitched just days after Billie's death because the mound was his only solace. After playing games on Fridays and Saturdays, Diekman would drive home to Wymore and stay until Monday morning, often not knowing what to do other than sit by himself and drink. He said he became an alcoholic for about two months.
Not long after, Diekman was drafted in the 30th round by the Philadelphia Phillies. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up for Diekman, the junior college kid whose baseball background never looked like it would lead him to the pros. His high school, Wymore Southern, was so small that it didn't have a baseball team, so he competed on a small American Legion team instead.
Despite the odds, with his mother still in his thoughts, Diekman pursued a dream. That meant locking up sadness he didn't know how to deal with. As it so often does, sadness eventually turned to anger. The smallest things would set Diekman off.
"I was an angry person all the time," Diekman said.
It wasn't until 2012 that Diekman regained the part of himself lost after his mother's death. Tired of the bitterness and confusion, he decided to spend the offseason going to therapy. Every Thursday, back home in Nebraska, Diekman would talk to a therapist about his life, his problems and how to deal with it all.
"Certain points in your life, you just have to grow up as a person," Diekman said. "If you know that certain stuff is just on your mind all the time, or you're getting mad or sad or depressed in certain situations, then you need to honestly look yourself in the mirror and be like, 'Why is this happening? What needs to change?'"
Finally, life stopped seeming so gray. Diekman learned that talking was the best way to overcome the sadness. This past offseason, he had the words "Gut it out" tattooed on his right wrist. He also wore a T-shirt with the same phrase to raise awareness for ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Diekman has suffered from colitis since he was 10, and when he tried to change his medication this past offseason, he got sick and lost 20 pounds.
Through it all, Diekman's support came from his father, Paul -- the hardest-working person he has ever known, the one who rises every day at 5 a.m. to work in the same factory, the one who would do anything for his son.
Billie's death only brought Paul and Jake closer together. Even with the hectic schedule of a Major Leaguer, Diekman talks with his dad every day. In the offseason, they find a way to see each other, and they watch football together every weekend.
"He's my best friend," Diekman said. "I owe him everything. I wouldn't be here without the support that he's given me."
It was hard for Diekman to leave his father and his town behind when his baseball career took off, but he has no regrets.
In 2009, it seemed the lefty from the middle of nowhere had finally reached his limit. A Minor League coach suggested Diekman change his release. Out of desperation, he agreed.
"They said, 'Hey, what do you think about changing your arm slot?'" Diekman said. "Well, I wasn't going to say no, because I'd probably get released. Looking back, that [was] the best move ever."
Five years later, the sidearm thrower finished the 2014 season with a 3.80 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 73 appearances for the Phillies.
"Diekman last year was probably just as good as all but a couple lefties in the game," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said.
Last Friday, Diekman was acquired by the Rangers, along with Hamels, in exchange for Matt Harrison and five prospects. Like always, he called his father. They talked about all the topics that come with a career-changing trade, but Paul was a fan of Diekman coming to Texas for one simple reason.
He is closer to home.
Cody Stavenhagen is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.