Everyone was rooting for Liam Hendriks.
In the end, it helped him win.
It also helped him do the unthinkable. The man is about to return to a big league mound a month after finishing chemotherapy.
“The one thing that has helped me get back this quickly was the amount of people that didn’t have my phone number reaching out, either survivors or players or anything like that,” Hendriks said Wednesday, meeting the media for the first time since announcing his diagnosis via social media in January. “I think the biggest message that I got … was from (cancer survivor and Cubs pitcher) Jameson Taillon. His was: ‘It’s your journey. Nobody can tell you what to feel or what to do, baseball-wise. Do whatever you feel is right.’ That was on Jan. 30, and I think I actually threw a bullpen the next day.
“I was like, ‘Screw it, I want to push this.’ Before that, I was just planning on playing catch, making sure I was staying somewhat fit and then moving forward. That was one of the messages that really hit me, hit me in the eyes. I think it was right around the next day, or a couple of days later, I was on the mound throwing a bullpen. That’s the only reason you’re talking about a rehab assignment this quickly, because I’ve been throwing bullpens.
“It’s messages like that that kind of really forced me to dig deep and go like, ‘Look, I’ve done this my entire career. This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to try to push the limits and see what we can do.’”
Sporting a T-shirt that touted his triumph — “STRUCKOUT CANCER.” — Hendriks returned to his home ballpark victorious this week.
A conquering hero who truly earned hero status during a monthslong bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, every media eye, every fan’s eye watching online, every one of his teammates’ eyes as they watched from the back of the press-conference room was trained on a guy who was acting like himself — the thing that allowed his incredible return in the first place.
“He was still the same guy, with or without cancer,” Aaron Bummer told CHGO over the weekend. “It takes a special person to be able to do that. It takes a special person to be able to come out on the other side of it, too.”
“The positivity he showed throughout the entire process was inspiring,” Lucas Giolito told CHGO on Wednesday. “It’s like there was never, ever a doubt that he’d beat it and he’d be back here.”
Of course, as remarkable as this comeback is — Hendriks’ last round of chemotherapy came the same day as the White Sox’ home-opener, April 3; he’ll begin a minor league rehab assignment Friday and could be back on a big league mound after four or five appearances — his teammates knew there was no one better suited for the task.
Cancer, basically, picked a fight with the wrong guy.
“Not with Liam, I don’t marvel at it,” Kendall Graveman told CHGO last week. “It’d raise questions if it was the other way, because that’s not who he is. He’s somebody that has always been that way in his career. I’ve known him for a long time, and he hasn’t changed one bit.
“That was not a shock for us who know him personally. I know some people will say it’s a feat, but in him, it’s just normal that he would do it this way. He’s kind of had that mindset the entire time.”
Hendriks — the guy given the diagnosis, the guy going through treatment with his wife, Kristi, by his side — backed up his teammates’ long-standing belief that his absence from the clubhouse would be strictly temporary. Asked if he ever questioned whether he’d play Major League Baseball again, his answer was oozing with confidence.
“No, not at all,” he said.
Hendriks, of course, has been oozing with confidence for a while now. Pedro Grifol put it this way, that there’s a reason he’s the one taking the ball in the ninth inning and having so much success in baseball’s highest-stress moments. That he took the same approach to staring down cancer that he takes to staring down opposing hitters really shouldn’t come as a surprise.
But even for someone with as unique an attitude and spirit as Hendriks, there’s so much of this that is just absolutely ridiculous.
Let’s start with the fact that he might have pitched the entirety of last season with cancer.
“There’s no way to put a real timeline on it, but if I had the (lumps) in my neck in June and the ones in my hip were bigger, there was always the chance I pitched damn near all year with lymphoma in my system,” Hendriks said. “I’d like to think that was the reason I struggled to recover (after outings). And at the end of the year, I was damn near limping to the finish line.
“Who knows how much that actually affected me.”
Hendriks was frustrated by how he was limited physically last season. But he made the All-Star team. He saved 37 games, one off the total he had a year prior, in his first season in a White Sox uniform. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; this is the guy who revealed last summer that he’s been pitching for years with a partially torn ligament in his arm. What chance did cancer have of slowing him down?
Then came this spring. He had revealed his diagnosis during the winter. We didn’t know what to expect as he went through chemotherapy.
What he did was get ready for a major league season. He threw and worked out away from his teammates at first. By the end, he was throwing bullpens that astounded his teammates and his manager, let alone the rest of us.
“You hear ‘cancer,’” Bummer said. “(You’re) seeing him in spring training throwing bullpens, and you’re kind of just like, ‘What? I don’t think you’re supposed to be doing that, man.’ And he’s out there throwing cheese in bullpens and doing the same thing, getting mad after bad pitches.
“He’s being Liam.”
That was obviously Hendriks’ plan every step of the way, and it’s his plan for the next step, too.
Any reasonable person would guess that someone fresh off cancer treatment might, no pun intended, lose a little life on their fastball, at least at the start. Hendriks isn’t anticipating any of that, and the White Sox plan to have the same ninth-inning man they watched dominate opposing lineups over the last two seasons back at their disposal in a hurry.
“I don’t plan on regressing,” Hendriks said. “That’s been my mindset. There’s no taking it easy. If I go out there and I give up a hit, I’m still going to be pissed. If I go out there and walk somebody, I’m still going to be pissed. If I go out there, it’s going to be the same mentality that I have. That’s the only way I’ve been able to do what I’ve done the last couple of years, is by having that mindset that there are extremely high expectations.
“It’s not going to change. ‘I’ve been through this, so I’m allowed to give up a hit.’ There’s going to be none of that. … There’s going to be no kind of qualms or resets or anything like that. As soon as I’m back, I’m meant to be in midseason form, and that’s what I’m going to be doing.”
Hendriks was already addressing his new manager, telling Grifol in the back of the room that he wants the ball in four or five consecutive games as soon as he returns.
As if anyone needed a reminder, this experience showed that Hendriks never stops being Hendriks, and obviously that includes what he and his wife do off the field with their philanthropic efforts in the community. Hendriks has added cancer-related causes to his already impressive list of charitable work, but it’s the firsthand experience, his conversations with those who helped save his life, that have guided his efforts in new directions.
“Raising awareness or donating money to help people and buying wigs and things like that,” Hendriks said, rattling off a list of things he has done and can do to help others who were and are in the same situation he was. “It’s the little things like that, that’s the stuff that isn’t covered by insurance, the things that help with the confidence levels. The mental aspect of everything going through treatment is about as important as everything else. You have a positive mindset of it, it makes it a lot easier.
“That was one thing that a lot of the nurses stressed to us. That was something that we wanted to make sure we took care of. There’s been a lot of people that have gone in there that haven’t been able to afford stuff that have now been given wigs and hats and everything like that, to make sure that they’re comfortable in their own skin, which goes a lot toward having a positive mindset on everything.”
Throughout everything, Hendriks was Hendriks. And that’s what made it so easy for everyone to root for him. He spoke of the cards he received from kids, the messages he got from his old home in Toronto, the people who said hi to him in the hallway and the unending commitment of his wife.
He’ll continue to get plenty of love, and it will be quite the scene when he next pitches at Guaranteed Rate Field and gets a warm welcome back from the home fans.
That it could happen by the end of the month? Even knowing everything we know about Hendriks, it’s downright incredible.
“We have our guy back. It’s been pretty shitty through April not having him in his corner over there building his LEGOs,” Giolito said. “Even when we’re not playing, his sense of humor and his presence in the clubhouse, he does a really good job of keeping things light and fun. And when we’re in that kind of state of mind, as a team, that’s when we play our best, as well. He’s going to be bringing that back, which I think will be good for us, since we struggled in April.
“(His first home game back is) going to be pretty intense, for sure. Probably pretty emotional for everybody: everybody on the team, the fans. I’m really looking forward to that moment. It’s coming up soon. He’s just got to get his rehab stuff in, and he’ll be back doing his thing.”