Michael Kirkman has never used it as an excuse. And his wife, Lorie, said he never will.
But cancer is a scary word for anybody to hear, especially a professional baseball player in the middle of his career who is fighting for a job in the big leagues and has a wife and two young twin daughters.
Kirkman has gone through several highs and lows in his baseball journey. He reached the big leagues in 2010 and pitched in the World Series later that year.
Since then, he’s bounced between starter and reliever, the big leagues and Triple A.
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But the biggest hurdle has been his cancer diagnosis during the 2011-12 off-season. Lorie remembers the day the results came back from doctors at the University of Florida Cancer Hospital saying Michael had “primary cutaneous marginal zone B-cell lymphoma.”
It’s a non-life-threatening form of cancer that presents itself on modules on the skin, although it’s not a form of skin cancer.
“This cancer is super rare and the doctors had never seen someone under the age of 75 walk in and have it,” Lorie said.
“So here he’s 25 at the time and it’s pretty odd to happen. They didn’t really understand it and did a lot of tests to try and figure out why it was going on and they couldn’t find it.”
The day after he made his starts at Triple A Round Rock, Lorie said, Michael would go in for treatments that lasted between six and eight hours.
Those were never enjoyable days and left Michael feeling terrible.
“He couldn’t drive himself, had flu symptoms,” Lorie said. “I would say, ‘Michael, you don’t have to go to the field. The team said it’s fine if you don’t.’ But he always wanted to go and I’d drop him off. He’d be late, but he’d be there. Then he’d get home and crash.”
The treatments extended into the off-season and the cancer eventually went into remission. Doctors believed it wouldn’t resurface for at least 30 years, and that gave Michael a sense of relief after a difficult season.
He then went into spring training and dominated. He had a 2.45 ERA over seven outings, holding opponents to a .184 average.
Finally, it seemed, Michael Kirkman had put all of his promising potential together going into 2013.
He made his first Opening Day roster, but things unraveled once the season began. Kirkman had a 7.15 ERA in April, a 6.75 ERA in May and made only two appearances in June before being placed on the disabled list.
A screening Kirkman had early in the season revealed a recurrence of the cancer, although Kirkman doesn’t like using that as a reason why he struggled.
“To myself and everyone else, I try to downplay it as much as possible,” Kirkman said. “I don’t want to say that affected me, but I guess it could have. But I don’t want that to be an excuse.”
Said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels: “I don’t know if most of us can understand what that’s like to go through, but he’s never used that as an excuse.”
But Lorie knows the recurrence hit Michael hard.
“He was pretty discouraged by that,” Lorie said. “He doesn’t want to be bothered with it during the season. Some of the treatments weren’t too hard on him, but they’ve told him in the future he may have to do more aggressive treatments. I think that’s always looming in the back of his mind.
“Like, what am I going to have to do to get rid of this? Is it going to be something that’s going to affect my career? He definitely doesn’t want that.”
Kirkman has since whipped the cancer a second time and a routine checkup on Jan. 6 revealed no troubling signs.
Kirkman is worry free again this spring and has gotten off to another promising start, throwing five scoreless innings. He is in a good spot mentally and knows he has the skills to compete at the highest level.
The Rangers know that, too, but they also know this spring could be Kirkman’s final one. He is out of minor league options, so he has to break camp with the team again or be exposed to outright waivers.
“I don’t like to use that [last shot] term, but we’re limited in what we can do,” Daniels said. “He’s got to make the club.”
Michael and Lorie want it to happen, of course. It’s the only organization the high school sweethearts have known and it has become a second family to them.
Kirkman, a 2005 fifth-round draft pick, has been with the Rangers the most consecutive years of anyone in the clubhouse.
Michael has been able to chalk up last year as a forgettable one. He dealt with the cancer recurrence, struggled on the mound and then even had a poor hunting season.
“I like to duck hunt, went to Arkansas and never met my limit one day,” Kirkman said, shaking his head with a grin.
“Let’s just say it’s nice that 2013 is gone. It’s a new year.”
Since making his debut in 2010, it’s been a rocky road for Kirkman.
|Year||Team||Games||ERA||SO||Walks||Opp. bat avg.|
|2010||RangersTriple A Oklahoma City||1424 (22 starts)||1.653.09||16130||6810||.235.161|
|2011||RangersTriple A Round Rock||1527 (7 starts)||6.595.05||2184||1237||.250.295|
|2012||RangersRound Rock||2815 (8 starts)||3.825.25||3848||1731||.182.266|
|2013||RangersRound Rock||256 (5 starts)||8.186.98||2523||1519||.364.282|