“Hard to Grip”: How Emil DeAndreis’ battle with Rheumatoid Arthritis became story of hope
Getting to play the game of baseball is something so fun, many yearn for the opportunity to play and play forever. Commonly referred to as the 'children's game', everyone who plays has to hang up the cleats at some point. For Emil DeAndreis, it came earlier than he wanted after being diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Emil DeAndreis grew up playing the game he loved in San Francisco and enjoyed not only the game but had some success on the mound as well, resulting in a scholarship offer to play Division-1 College Baseball with the Universtiy of Hawaii at Hilo.
The left-handed relief pitcher who on occasion started some games, broke the school's career relief appearance record while there, though according to him, he "probably threw 79-85 mph, so I didn't really blow it by anybody."
"As that kind of pitcher, I wasn't really an MLB prospect," said DeAndreis.
With that in mind, he still had the hunger and competitiveness to keep on playing somewhere if he could.
"One of the avenues that sort of revealed itself for that opportunity (to play professional baseball) was out in Europe," said DeAndreis. "I made a YouTube video of a bullpen that I had pitched and sent it to a number of coaches all over Europe."
(Emil DeAndreis Bullpen session, Courtesy of Emil DeAndreis)
He generated interest from one of those teams who ended up giving him a contract which would begin the following season. All of this occurred after he had thrown his last pitch on a college mound.
The following spring in April of 2008 at 23-years old, something didn't feel right physically as he noticed some changes which enabled his pitching ability.
"One of the changes was I started to feel a burning sensation in my left elbow," said DeAndreis. "That sensation started to turn into swelling to the point where I could barely extend my elbow. It wouldn't flex all the way."
After seeing a sports doctor and receiving some cortisone to help relieve the pain, it ended up not having any effect as the swelling moved into his fingers and wrists.
"I had Rheumatoid Arthritis," said DeAndreis.
After the diagnoses he was in denial and surprised that something like this could happen.
"I told nobody, I even tried to hide it from my parents who were in the room with me when I got diagnosed," said DeAndreis.
"When you've been pitching all your life, through college...you get to a point where there's hardly ever a time where you completely feel 100-percent healthy," said DeAndreis. "You usually experience little burning sensations and twinges and tweaks and stuff, and you're used to pitching through those things."
He adds that he was hoping or expecting to be able to try and pitch through the arthritis, which he felt would go away and get better at some point.
"So essentially I was in denial," said DeAndreis. "Another reason I was in denial was because Rheumatoid Arthritis is not a condition that's typical for young men, in fact it's typical for the opposite...older women."
He says knowing this and the denial of having the disease and feeling it would get better, resulted in him not taking his medication to help treat the disease for about six months.
"The disease just spread and spread until I was basically a cripple," said DeAndreis. "I was almost immobile and that was when I finally had to accept the disease."
"I make an effort in my book to sort of sell myself as the kind of guy who liked to stare people down and flex his muscles, because that's the person I was," said DeAndreis. "I was told by nature that soon I was going to be completely defenseless, crippled and a shell of my former self."
He dives into how he overcame his early denial of the disease, a fear of changing from the physical guy he was who loved the game of baseball to something else and he hopes to steer others onto a path of hope in this book.
"I think it's different from person to person," said DeAndreis. "My advice would be just figure out your own pace."
His own journey he says took him down a dark road where he stepped away from the game for a while, because every time he watched it or spoke about it he wanted to get on the mound again and knew that he would never be the same.
"The reason I entered this dark place was because I cut baseball out of my life," said DeAndreis.
He became an English Professor at the College of San Mateo and lives home with his wife Kendall.
He got back into baseball as a coach for his alma mater Lowell High School out in the Bay Area where he is today and teaches youngsters how to throw and develop their skill set.
DeAndreis says he can still technically throw but it's not as effective or fun to be in a league but it is when he gets to throw some batting practice.
Despite the medication to treat the arthritis, he still feels some of the sensations in his pitching elbow when on the mound today.
"When I'm throwing BP to them I don't get too cute in terms of the repertoire, I just throw them fastballs right down the middle," said DeAndreis, who adds that he's also a volunteer coach at the College of San Mateo.
While throwing BP to the team at San Mateo he adds, "throwing BP to them is a little bit more fun and challenging because those guys can really knock it around," DeAndreis adds,"I do mix in some curveballs there."
Between the high school and the college coaching he also is offering some advice for pitchers around the country who are at those levels and want to climb higher.
With the ongoing epidemic of 'Tommy John' surgeries or other various arm issues among young pitchers, he doesn't overly encourage kids to throw breaking balls like a curve but also realizes how valuable they are for a future.
"I am a firm believer in avoiding the curveball, especially if you have a starter who's at a tender age of 16 or 17," said DeAndreis. "The body is going through so many different changes and is constantly growing. I think putting trauma on such a sensitive area is really ill-advised and dangerous."
However, he says a curveball or a slider is the difference sometimes between a scout noticing you or walking away.
As a coach, he says, "when I'm calling pitches, if I can help it, I'll call for it sparingly."
Another point he wants to urge players and coaches to consider is to increase, not decrease the amount of time in the gym.
"I don't believe in not lifting weights in high school," said DeAndreis. "I don't believe in the idea that it's dangerous."