Ohio State’s Farmer Has Lasting Legacy

COLUMBUS, Ohio – I cried.

After a day of numbness when the unfortunate news was heard, Kendall Rogers asked me if I could write on the tragic passing of Ohio State pitcher Zach Farmer. There was not a way I could say no. While I have started and stopped, attempted and failed in my own attempt over the last 15 months to write on Zach’s battle with leukemia, this was not an opportunity I could turn my back to. Zach’s fight deserves the spotlight, greater awareness for acute myeloid leukemia needs such a platform and the more attention that is drawn to Be the Match is the least I can do in Zach’s honor.

But after I accepted the opportunity I cried.

How does one put in words the life of Zach Farmer? As well connected and open as one may be to the coaches’ offices and the clubhouse of Ohio State, can I really do Zach justice? This is a young man who was a son, a husband, a teammate, a friend. This is not the despair felt after a ninth-inning lead was blown, this is not the sorrow felt by a team that finished on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble; this is a life, and one unfortunately ended far too soon.

So I cried. The realization Zach would no longer be around the Columbus campus, would no longer be the proud son of Piketon, Ohio, overwhelmed me; there were not words I could figure out how to pen together.

In the 36 hours after Kendall asked me to write on Zach, I repeatedly started and stopped, wrote down ideas, searched for various synonyms and antonyms, tried to create an outline — nothing worked. Do I write on perseverance and a battle-until-the-end spirit? Do I try to examine the brotherhood of the Ohio State team and how the 2015-16 season has been dedicated to Zach? Do I simply relay quotes from head coach Greg Beals and Zach’s teammates and let their words carry the day?

Then it hit me.

Why do we even care about sports?

Togetherness.

When you think of your favorite sporting event — go ahead and close your eyes for a minute and do so — isn’t it one where you’re in the midst of others?

Did your father take you to your first baseball game, the place where you remember falling in love with America’s pastime? Did you hit a walk-off home run and remember the joyous mob standing there to pleasantly pummel you after you rounded third base? Are you a parent who remembers your son’s first Little League hit, or do you wish for another evening playing catch in the backyard with your far-too-quickly grown son now in college? Heck, did you rush the field among a herd of co-eds from your dorm, cementing your belief that your freshman year is still the greatest year you’ve lived?

Whatever your favorite sporting event is, I’m fairly confident it’s not one experience in a vacuum, where you and only you took part; it’s special because of the bond you have with others. It’s a moment you can relive over and over again, a moment in time your soul aches to go back to because right then and there, you and others were in the exact same moment, and there was happiness.

Farmer’s Bright Future

I first became aware of the special talent Zach Farmer was in the spring of 2011. In the aid of executive director Chris Valentine, I helped the Ohio franchise of Prep Baseball Report get its footing by providing content and writing stories, trying to help generate interest and bring awareness to the organization.

At the time, Farmer was a sophomore at Piketon High School in southern Ohio, and he was a damn good one.

En route to being selected to Baseball America’s All-America third team, Farmer struck out 140 batters against 21 walks in 66 innings, held a 0.68 ERA next to a .514 average at the plate and 20 stolen bases for good measure. Just one of three sophomores selected as All-Americans by Baseball America in 2011, as a two-way selection, Farmer’s name stood by the likes of Francisco Lindor and Carlos Rodon on the third team. Other first-round drafts picks named All-Americans included pitchers Archie Bradley, Dylan Bundy, Jose Fernandez and Henry Owens. Those players were in their senior seasons, Farmer was two years younger than the respective young bright stars of today’s MLB, yet received the same recognition for his talent.

Over the next 14 months his recruitment saw Farmer one of the most sought-after pitchers in the country.

With the likes of Kentucky, Louisville, LSU and Oregon seeking his commitment, I was in Bill Davis Stadium in June 2012, when Farmer informed the Ohio State staff of his commitment and intention to be a Buckeye. Pitching coach Mike Stafford burst from Ohio State’s two-level coaches’ offices to give a shout and a high five, “We got Farmer!” Two years in the rebuilding process of the onetime Midwestern powerhouse, securing Farmer’s commitment was the moment to date for Beals. Getting the top pitcher in the state, one of the best in the nation, Ohio State was back on track to being the big-swinging program of the Big Ten.

Zach Farmer, Ohio StateOhio State’s Zach Farmer passed away earlier this week after a long fight with Leukemia. (Ohio State)

There were concerns about a player with the tight-spinning curve Farmer easily snapped off, that an excellent athlete at 6-foot-2, 190 pounds with a feel for pitching and a loose arm that generated easy low-90s fastball velocity would be too good for Ohio State. Instead of being one of 25 bussing to Bloomington and East Lansing, Farmer would wind up bussing from complex to complex in the Arizona or Gulf Coast league, honing his craft for a professional organization.

Doing the normal showcase circuit of PG National, Tournament of Stars, East Coast Pro and Area Code Games, Farmer didn’t show his usual stuff. While ESPN’s Keith Law had him among the top 35 players for the draft a year out, an ankle injury and overcompensation in loose mechanics, in turn, caused Farmer’s stock to drop. A slow start out of the gate in his spring season due to basketball and Ohio’s unforgiving early spring weather, Farmer was unable to get his stock to the level it once was, though multiple teams made offers in the mid-six-figure range. He went undrafted and became a Buckeye in the fall of 2013.

After a fall practice season where the Ohio State coaching staff saw a return to form by Farmer, the lefthander entered the spring as the team’s Sunday starter before settling into their primary midweek starter. For nine starts, Farmer was everything the Ohio State staff could have asked for. Over 44.1 innings, Farmer had a 3.04 ERA, struck out 31 batters. His 10th appearance for Ohio State was in relief, an April 20 outing against Murray State with five innings of three-run, three-strikeout baseball that upped his record to 6-4 on the year.

Farmer’s extended appearance was a sign he could help solidify the rotation in the late-season push.

The Realization: Farmer Had A Fight

The outing against Murray State would be Farmer’s last, and his life would change just a few days later.

Farmer didn’t pitch the following week at Purdue, held out as he felt fatigued and ill. Still feeling bothered when the team returned, Farmer had bloodwork examined on April 28 and received a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. Before traveling to Louisville the next day for a midweek game, Ohio State was informed of Farmer’s news.

The team lost 7-3 to the Cardinals, and would drop eight of its final 13 games. Baseball was no longer at the forefront; balls and strikes, outs and runs were meaningless next to leukemia and cancer, life and death.

Stumbles encountered on the field, but away from the diamond Ohio State shined.

Led by co-captain outfielder Tim Wetzel, the entire Ohio State team and staff were swabbed for the national bone marrow donor program “Be the Match.” For patients diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and other life-threatening diseases, a bone marrow or cord blood transplant may be their best or only hope for a cure. Be the Match is a national registry to pair patients in need of a transplant with a donor who matches. While Wetzel was already a part of the registry, he led the efforts of the team, which turned into Ohio State-wide efforts to be the match.

With the college baseball community and his team heavily supporting him, Farmer went in remission on June 5, 2014, as he announced he finally was cancer-free. Farmer had plans to be back on the mound for Ohio State in 2016.

Unfortunately, this July 15, Farmer announced his cancer returned, but he was ready for a second round to fight against the disease. In the following weeks, it was discovered the cancer was spreading at a rapid pace, and Farmer would have less than a month to live, maybe even only a week.

Bill Davis StadiumOhio State kept the lights on this week in honor of Zach Farmer. (Ohio State twitter)

On July 19, Farmer married Kelsie Mays, his high school sweetheart. A week later, during his National Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech, Randy Johnson offered words of encouragement to Farmer. But earlier this week, Farmer was called to rest, his wife and family by his side. He passed away at The James Cancer Hospital on the campus of The Ohio State University. Three weeks after learning the cancer returned, Zach was no longer with us, tragically just eight days after turning 21.

Throughout his fight, Farmer showed more courage, more gallantry and more resiliency than I thought a human could possess. Whether it was hanging around the Ohio State clubhouse and dugout, making quick-lipped jokes, being one of the “good ol’ boys” as Beals called him, or whether it was taking to Twitter and sharing thoughts like, “When some things go wrong, take a moment to be thankful for the many more things that are still going right,” the soft-spoken Farmer was positive, did not despair and had no doubt he would again beat cancer.

I will never have half the fight; I cannot fathom what one goes through with knowledge of impending death. I would wonder, “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” Zach did not hide, Zach did not show fear, he faced it head on, and until his final days remained steadfast in the belief he could get out of it; it was the same character that provided the makeup to be the exceptional pitcher he was.

I wanted to you think back to your favorite sporting moment, hopefully realizing that it was due to not just yourself and what you experienced, but who it was with, and the further illustration of the togetherness of life.

Zach is gone forever, there is no way around that, and it’s not easily welcomed. But Zach has brought so many people together. Who knows how many lives he has extended by bringing awareness to Be the Match. How does one put a number to the count of people he brought inspiration to? There are countless lessons to learn and there are an incalculable number of people whose lives he touched.

Before the tragedy struck, Beals and I agreed to meet Thursday morning to discuss life outside of baseball. After five years at the helm of the program, I wanted to bring to light the efforts Beals and the Ohio State staff made in the community, the team’s graduation rate and volunteer efforts.

I had no idea the turn of events where the focus would squarely be life away from baseball.

After we spoke on the previously intended topics, I asked a final question to Beals about what he learned from Zach, and about the time they had together.

Beals spoke to the excitement of winning the recruiting battle for Zach, what that meant to the program and what a heck of a pitcher he was. There were pauses and grasps for the right words but Beals was at his most passionate and focused when it came to talking about Farmer’s impact off the field. The will and the attitude Zach lived his life with, that attitude permeated throughout the Ohio State baseball family.

Sports bring us together. In his 21 years, Zach did more than any game, season or sport can ever. I knew Zach was a special baseball player when I first became aware of his talent, I realized Zach was a special person as he fought this battle. His legacy extends beyond baseball and eclipses any memory of a game. He’s brought us together to cherish life and to fight until the end.

Zach Farmer would tell me, and everyone, to push ahead … and not to cry.

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