DETROIT — There are few greatest defenders for minor league baseball players than Emily Waldon.
In the spring of 2019, Waldon, then writing for The Athletic, shone one of the brightest spotlights on the financial inequity facing minor leaguers, under the headline “I can’t afford to play this game.” . During the month, the Toronto Blue Jays responded to the article by pledging to do better, including a groundbreaking plan to raise the wages of their minor leaguers by 50%. Major League Baseball has since made similar progress.
In 2020, when the minor league baseball season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving hundreds of players scrambling to make ends meet, Waldon took it upon herself to organize a chain of help. , connecting players in need with those who could help, whether with work or money.
Now, Minor League Baseball and the baseball community at large are reciprocating by rallying behind Waldon, 38, of Grand Rapids as she embarks on her own battle with breast cancer. Since being diagnosed in early January, the baseball community has raised tens of thousands of dollars for her fight.
It really is a full circle – uh, full of diamonds? — a story that shows, no matter how big Minor League Baseball is, it’s really just one big family.
“She’s been a voice for the minor leaguers and the struggles for so long,” said Spenser Watkins, a former Detroit Tigers pitching prospect who made her major league debut with the Baltimore Orioles in 2021. So there’s nothing surprising to me with what’s going on. When you’re in this community, you’re supported by so many people. It’s so widespread.
Waldon began noticing some symptoms, the details she prefers to keep secret, in November. This led to a battery of tests – a biopsy, an MRI, an ultrasound, a mammogram – and even more uncertainty.
On the afternoon of January 4, while working at a Mercedes dealership in Grand Rapids, Waldon received a call from her attending physician.
It was cancer, he said. She will never forget that day or that call, even if she does not remember the exact details of the phone call.
“It was like everything kind of stopped. I didn’t freak out,” Waldon said. “It was just kind of a shock. People say when they get this news they forget most of what the doctor tells them. I found that very accurate. I sort of passed out.”
A cancer diagnosis is always shocking, but especially at this age – being under 40, Waldon wasn’t even eligible for insurance-covered mammograms yet, and there’s no family history of cancer. .
Waldon’s first call was to his best friend, co-worker, Wendy. The next was to one of her two older sisters, Amber (she also has four younger brothers). She wasn’t as scared as she was eager to begin treatment. She’s a planner. She wanted a plan. She hadn’t anticipated the outpouring.
Waldon is highly visible on social media circles, mostly pumping up that minor league prospect or Rule 5 pick. She’s open about her faith. But she struggled to go public with her cancer news. In subsequent calls with her sister, Amber convinced her to do it.
“She said, ‘You have to let it be known,'” Waldon recalled in an interview with The Detroit News this week, a day before her first chemotherapy treatment on Tuesday at Mercy Health Lacks Cancer Center in Grand Rapids. “‘They’re going to want to get an idea of what’s going on and obviously get the prayers going.’
“To my shock, the response was far from what I expected.”
Waldon is not a traditional journalist. She didn’t go to school for that. She was just a die-hard baseball fan when, in 2014, she somehow cold-called an editor at Bless You Boys, a popular website devoted to all things Tigers coverage. She wanted to write, the publisher said yes. Then the rub: what about the minor leagues?
Waldon’s first thought: “Why?”
“It was a little pre-prospective revolution,” Waldon said with a laugh.
But she happily accepted the gig, which worked out well, with the Tigers’ Single-A affiliate, the West Michigan Whitecaps, just a 15-minute drive from her home.
She became a regular at baseball fields, eventually spring training and Arizona’s fall leagues, too, her minor league reports earning her the big following on social media – eventually leading to career opportunities. writing in national outlets, like The Athletic for a while, and today. , Baseball America. She rose through the ranks, slowly and steadily, much like the midterm baseball draft. She’s not a bonus baby.
But it’s his interaction with the players that stands out the most for them. She’s not immediately all business during interviews. She wants to know more about the player, his journey, his true story. It’s not unusual for Waldon to message a minor league player asking about an injury, or to congratulate them on a wedding or the birth of a child, or to celebrate — like with Watkins. , last July – his major league debut.
“She’s really efficient at her job,” said Tyler Freeman, infielder and Cleveland’s top system prospect. “But she’ll contact you just to see how you’re doing and everything.
“I don’t think there are many journalists who do that.”
Waldon defends breaking that fourth wall: “It really is a family. I feel like they’re all little brothers.”
There is this connection, and therefore the reaction to his cancer diagnosis – which includes a treatment plan of six cycles, one every three weeks, which is due to end in June. She received hundreds of messages, via text, call or direct message, from scouts, coaches and, most importantly, players – plus, of course, fans of her work. She received messages from Australia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Canada and the United Kingdom. A player recently texted him: “I have to remember, leave everything on the pitch”, a joke between a journalist and an athlete who can’t stand canned clichés.
Then there was Rob Friedman, a baseball analyst for ESPN and a popular social media figure whose “Pitching Ninja” clothing line is popular throughout the game.
He wanted to find a way to help, so he launched a shirt with his logo, colored pink for breast cancer, with all proceeds going to Waldon. Friedman normally keeps his shirts lined up for a few days; this one he kept for a few weeks – and when he closed it there was an uproar to resell them. He estimates that he has sold at least a thousand of them. Players and coaches post them on Twitter, including Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter.
“I thought people would want to help. I knew she had done so much and people would want to give back,” Friedman said. “I was just talking to a friend. It’s almost like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ where George Bailey does all that for people…and in the end, when he needs help, they come back with money. money to the table and help him.
“The people she has helped help her in times of need. It’s been great.”
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