Why me? Question has new meaning for Taillon

Pirates right-hander finds strength, voice after cancer scare

Why me? Question has new meaning for Taillon

PITTSBURGH -- It would be easy for Jameson Taillon to make excuses, to draw a straight line from the cancer diagnosis that shook his team and family to the comparatively minor struggles he's had on the mound this season.

But Taillon is living proof that it's not always easy. The Pirates took him second overall in the 2010 Draft between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, two players who climbed directly to stardom. Taillon's path has not been so linear.

On the brink of the Majors, Taillon's career was set back by reconstructive elbow surgery in 2014 and a hernia operation in '15. After finally establishing himself last season, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in May.

Exactly five weeks after surgery, Taillon returned to the mound at PNC Park. The worst slump of his life began a month later.

"When you're struggling, it's easier to say you don't feel good. That's the easy thing to say," Taillon said. "Man, I'm tired. Man, mentally, I've been through a lot."

But for all Taillon has been through, he has never asked, "Why me?" At least not in the way you might expect.

"Same words. Same saying. Same phrase. But you can get two totally different things out of it," Taillon said. "Why is this happening to me? How can I shape this and make it a positive?"

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Since his diagnosis, Taillon has tried to look back for signs.

The "scary" migraines Taillon experienced this spring eventually subsided. He felt some pain in his groin, around his hip bone, but that could have been related to his hernia surgery or general soreness from pitching. Typically a morning person, driven by routine, Taillon found himself unusually tired.

"Then again, I thought, 'Yeah, pitching at Fenway Park, I'm going to sleep for 13 hours,'" he said. "None of it was pointing toward anything. … There were a lot of little things. But to this day, I just don't know."

The night of May 2, he knew. Taillon was watching TV in his hotel room the night before his scheduled start -- "a normal Tuesday night in Cincinnati," he said -- when he felt something that felt like a frozen pea on his left testicle. He texted his older brother, Jordan, a pulmonary and critical care physician in Fort Myers, Fla., and Pirates head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk.

Taillon scoured the internet for answers, but he pushed back a doctor's appointment until the team returned to Pittsburgh. He pitched the next night at Great American Ball Park, allowing six runs in five innings. Taillon seemed uncharacteristically disengaged afterward, as if his attention was elsewhere. It was.

"In the back of my mind, I know this isn't right, this doesn't feel right," he said recently. "I pretty much knew right away."

Taillon on loss to Reds

On May 5, Taillon had a diagnostic ultrasound. The next day, blood work and another ultrasound. He informed his family and girlfriend, Claire, that doctors suspected he had testicular cancer. They scheduled surgery for May 8. There was talk of chemotherapy, Taillon said, but he remained optimistic.

"That was the vibe I had the whole time," Taillon said. "No matter what, this is curable. Whatever step we need to take, this is going to be all right."

Jordan, 34, canceled a vacation to Los Angeles, where he would have seen his brother pitch at Dodger Stadium, and flew to Pittsburgh. While the Pirates donned purple "JAMO #50" wristbands out west, Jordan slept on Chad Kuhl's bed and served as the middleman and interpreter between doctors and the Taillon family.

Pirates sport Taillon bracelets

"He has a very calm, strong demeanor that he puts on externally," Jordan said. "Beneath the calm exterior, he had a lot of emotions happening."

After speaking to the necessary doctors, Jordan transformed "completely into brother mode" with his brother and Claire on May 7, just as he'd done the night before Taillon's Tommy John surgery in New York. They ordered takeout for dinner and started watching the documentary mini-series "The Jinx" in Taillon's apartment.

The next day, Dr. John C. Lyne performed the orchiectomy at Allegheny General Hospital. Taillon posted a note on Twitter a few hours later, describing his winding path to the big leagues and saying he "wouldn't change it for anything."

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As he quickly worked his way back to the mound, Taillon found himself comforted by a community affected by cancer.

Rockies pitcher Chad Bettis, who also returned this season from testicular cancer, encouraged Taillon during his rehab assignment. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who battled Hodgkin's lymphoma, reached out. So did Lance Armstrong. Reds general manager Dick Williams delivered Taillon a handwritten letter offering his support and looking forward to years of competition on the field.

"That was really cool," Taillon said. "Baseball's family. You put things aside and care about people first."

Taillon has been inundated on Instagram with notes from baseball fans and complete strangers. He has received a handful of private messages from men who were also diagnosed with testicular cancer and others who visited the doctor because of him.

"I got one that said, 'I don't know who you are, but I Googled testicular cancer because I'm going through it and saw your story,'" Taillon said. "People are all tied to it."

Taillon on his cancer diagnosis

That brought Taillon back to "Why me?" He discovered his cancer early and had access to quick, thorough medical treatment with the kind of insurance others might not have. Taillon is admittedly fortunate. He also has the platform of a Major League Baseball player. What can he do with it?

Taillon wants to focus on his career but won't shy away from telling his story. He immediately committed to becoming an advocate for early detection and looked for other ways to make a difference.

A coffee connoisseur, Taillon partnered with Pittsburgh's Commonplace Coffee to create a special blend; David Freese's wife, Mairin, designed the bag for him. Proceeds from the "Lending Hearts Blend" sales go directly to Lending Hearts, a local non-profit organization that supports children and young adults living with cancer.

On Sept. 1, Taillon and several other Pirates shaved their heads during an event on MLB's Childhood Cancer Awareness Night. He had some help. A boy battling cancer held the razor that buzzed off Taillon's hair.

"I didn't go through chemo. I felt the actual need to do it, to show that I'm with these kids," he said. "That's one of the small things we can do."

Pirates shave their heads

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Taillon is well-known around the hospital waiting room at this point. While waiting for appointments, he's signed blood test forms for fans -- "right under where it says what they're getting their blood drawn for," he said. Taillon's blood draws, once biweekly, now take place once a month, and his CT scans happen every three months.

The tests initially rattled Taillon, especially the brain MRI hours before he played catch at the ballpark. Not anymore. He feels great, he says, "almost not deserving" of everything he's received. Why him?

"That's why I feel the need to speak out and be a face of this going forward," Taillon said.

Taillon also felt a need to get back to normal, return to his teammates and finish the season strong.

In five starts between his return and the All-Star break, Taillon posted a 1.98 ERA. He was hit hard over his next 11 outings, recording a 7.17 ERA. Nobody would have blamed Taillon if he said he was tired, overwhelmed by an exhausting experience in his first full big league season.

"I wouldn't have come back if I didn't want to come back and feel ready to come back," Taillon said inside a small coffee shop in Cincinnati during an 11-day break between starts. "I wish I could use the excuse, I really do. I just don't think that's it."

Taillon's issues were mechanical, he said, caused by bad habits picked up over time. He plucked the positive from that, too, pointing to the way pitching coach Ray Searage helped him through his first extended slump.

"I tried to put my feet in his shoes, and I couldn't even fathom it," Searage said. "He is one strong kid, mentally."

Taillon looks fine physically, too. He has allowed three runs in 10 innings over his past two starts. After beating the Cardinals on Sunday, Taillon said he believes he is a better pitcher than he was at the beginning of the season.

"It's been a crazy year," he said. "I didn't envision it going this way when I broke camp."

Taillon's terrific outing

Who could have?

"This is all uncharted territory for everybody. Nobody's got a career like this," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's one guy that's going to sleep real well this winter. He's poured everything he's got into this thing personally and professionally.

"There's going to be a day where it's going to be good to sit down in a chair and go, 'Whew! What did I just go through?'"

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.