Cancer survivor & baseball enthusiast Jason Kurtz

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun. Interviews were conducted at the local hospital.

MORE THAN A GAME

March 24, 2006
By Ed Odeven
Sun Sports Editor

During the long offseason, Opening Day can’t come soon enough. For baseball fans, it’s an unofficial national holiday, a day that’s marked on our calendars since, well, the day after the previous World Series ends.

For Flagstaff resident Jason Kurtz, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2006 Opening Day at Chase Field will have an even bigger meaning: a celebration of life.

Fittingly, on April 11, he’ll return to the place where his life took a turn for the better.

Kurtz will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Diamondbacks-Rockies game.

“It’s such a simple task,” Kurtz was saying Friday morning at Flagstaff Medical Center’s main lobby moments before he walked with visitors to 3 South, the medical/surgical unit he works at as a clinical coordinator.

“We have a softball team on our floor. Anybody can throw a ball, but I just know when you get on a field with 50,000 people looking at you, the most remedial, simplest tasks can be difficult.”

Not that he’s complaining, though.

Kurtz already knows what he’ll wear to the game: his D-backs jersey and hat — and a huge grin, too.

“It’s my one opportunity to step on a major league pitching mound,” he says, smiling.

A year ago, popular former D-back Mark Grace and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg threw out the ceremonial first pitches at Arizona’s first home game.

Kurtz, 32, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on April 10, 2003, just weeks before his wedding.

After undergoing nine months of high-dose chemotherapy, the cancer was not eradicated from his body. So he received a stem-cell transplant in 2004, but that failed, too.

What followed was several agonizing months of radiation and chemotherapy for the D-backs’ season ticket holder.

Now it was August 2005 and the cancer had spread to Kurtz’s lungs and bones. He was gravely ill and stopped working at FMC.

One option remained: a bone marrow transplant. Nobody in Kurtz’s family was a match, but fortunately one was found — a 38-year-old woman from the East Coast.

But before he had the transplant, Kurtz’s wife, Dawn, encouraged him to go see a D-backs game, a source of enjoyment for both of them on the many weekends they attended home games, as they made the trip from Flagstaff to Tucson.

Kurtz was feeling miserable, but reluctantly agreed to go, if only for an hour to see the D-backs and Rockies on Aug. 7.

Jason and Dawn, who’s also a nurse, showed up at the game and planned to sit in their customary seats in the left-field bleachers.

Didn’t happen.

One of the D-backs’ ushers upgraded their tickets, giving them front-row seats behind home plate. (Says Derrick Hall, Arizona’s senior vice president of marketing and communications, “If our VIP tickets are not being utilized for whatever reason on any given night, we’ll go up to random fans and ask them if they want to move down to those seats.”)

What a treat that night was for Kurtz.

“I will never forget that special night for as long as I live,” Kurtz tells the small crowd assembled on 3 South, including a broadcast crew from “Diamondbacks, Playin’ Hardball,” the team’s weekly TV show, which was taping a segment.

As he made his customary walk around the ballpark during that game, Hall was informed of Kurtz’s battle with cancer by the stadium worker who gave him and his wife the upgraded tickets and he was immediately touched by the fans’ loyalty to their team.

“I just thanked them for being there under those conditions,” Hall recalls.

Kurtz’s bone-marrow transplant took place last September at University Medical Center in Tucson. He remained at the hospital until Nov. 23, 2005, the day before Thanksgiving, recovering from his transplant.

A recent CT scan revealed that Kurtz is now 100 percent cancer-free, and it’s no shock that he’s eternally grateful to his donor.

“I don’t know who she is, but she saved my life,” Kurtz says now.

Two weeks ago, Kurtz sat down and penned an e-mail of gratitude to Hall and the D-backs for the positive feelings they gave him before he encountered this life-altering medical procedure at UMC.

“We enjoyed ourselves so much,” he writes. “For three hours, I was lost in the magic of the D-backs. Not once did I feel sick or feel pain.

“In fact, the whole time I was there I didn’t need to take any medication. I can’t begin to tell you how great it is to feel normal and good when you’ve had the weight of the world on your shoulders for so long.

“…That game meant so much to us, thank you. My wife was nearly in tears just seeing me so happy and comfortable, something she hasn’t seen in a while. My mind and spirit where now ready for what was ahead.”

A copy of that letter is proudly on display in Hall’s ballpark office.

Kurtz, a former Army medic and football player at Tucson Canyon del Oro High School, plans to start a foundation to help others who are going through similar experiences.

He envisions this foundation as one that serves the needs of Flagstaff, which includes actively encouraging people to become nurses — a nursing scholarship will be offered every semester to help offset the severe shortage of nurses.

“We want to make more nurses and we want to make people that have cancer more comfortable financially, emotionally and spiritually … here, locally,” said Kurtz, who became a nurse eight years ago.

One visitor suggests Kurtz, who plans to go with a baseball theme for the foundation, calls it The Winning Run Foundation. Another recommends First Pitch Foundation.

Kurtz says both are fine ideas, but he isn’t ready to name the foundation just yet.

On an airplane flight two weeks ago, Hall brought Kurtz’s letter with him. During the trip, members of the D-backs’ front office were discussing who might throw out this year’s first pitch on Opening Day. They threw out a few names — ex-Arizona State golfer Phil Mickelson and some well-known singers — as possibilities.

Those were fine choices, all concurred.

But then Hall took out the letter and read it to those on the plane.

That changed everything.

“It was unanimous. Everybody said, ‘This is the first-pitch (guy),'” Hall recalls.

And so Hall made a call to the Kurtzes. Dawn answered the phone (Jason was out fishing, like he was during their belated honeymoon in Homer, Alaska, last May) and later relayed the exciting news to her husband.

And you already know he’s thrilled about Opening Day.

Before, the 6:40 p.m. game, Kurtz will be introduced to the fans, Hall revealed, including a touching video tribute of him reading the now-famous letter he wrote to the D-backs.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a dry eye in the house,” Hall decides.

Kurtz already knows a thing or two about Opening Day lore, especially about U.S. presidents — John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, for instance — who have thrown ceremonial first pitches at big-league ballyards.

“I’m going to be better than JFK, because he threw like a girl,” Kurtz jokes, as the visitors laugh hysterically. “But I have to admit, say what you want about Bush, (but) Bush threw the ball in there pretty good. So I need to be somewhere in between there, between Bush and JFK.”

All kidding aside, Kurtz says he hopes his moment in the spotlight can inspire others.

“This is bigger than me,” he adds. “I don’t deserve to throw out the first pitch.”

But he is, and that’s a great reason to celebrate Opening Day.

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