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My friend Wyatt Strehlow: The solemn but affirming journey of a local softball legend

Editor's Note: For the last 18 months, Roman Jimenez has penned a sports column for SDGLN called "The Athletic Supporter," only taking a short leave of absence last summer when his friend experienced a downturn in his fight against cancer. After quickly bouncing back for a time, Wyatt sadly succumbed to his disease earlier this week. This is Roman's stirring tribute to his friend and mentor. It is with equal sadness we announce that Roman has decided this will be his final column for SDGLN. He will be truly missed and we wish him all the best in his future endeavors.

The Return

On Sunday, March 30, 2008, Wyatt Strehlow took to the softball field for his 13th straight year. He toed the pitching rubber and the crafty lefty danced the ball up to batters who had just as much trouble hitting him on this Spring day as ever before — before the cancer diagnosis, the chemo and the radiation.

I know. I was there. I managed Wyatt that year. We played for team "SeanCody" in the B Division of our local America’s Finest Softball League (AFCSL), and on the mound that day, Wyatt was almost unhittable.

I’m sure if you’d ask him, he’d also tell you he hit well, too.

He didn’t. The truth is, on this day, he mostly hit bouncers to 2nd base or come-backers to the pitcher.

You see, as a strapping lefty, Wyatt’s best hit was when he could pull the ball down the right field line. But in order to do that, he needed to be able to swivel his hips with some torque, bring his arms through and crank the wrists so the barrel of the bat swung around early and with power. It takes strength.

Unfortunately, the months of convalescence, chemotherapy and the 33 radiation treatments in and around his pelvic area -- to beat back the anal cancer he’d been diagnosed with 6 months earlier -- had left him weaker, particularly in his hips. He couldn’t swivel or crank. He couldn’t turn on a pitch. But he played, because you can’t think of Wyatt and not think softball in the same thought.

Moving On …

With the exception of Wyatt’s remarkable return to the diamond that Spring, the 2008 edition of the SeanCody softball team lacked any real highlights.

A championship contender the year before, the team dropped to 4th out of five teams when the season was over. Frustrated, most of us went our separate ways, and on the diamond Wyatt and I did too.

We remained close friends off the field. We had already built a tight friendship several years before and though we were no longer teammates, we would always have a close bond.

A New SOL

The 2009 season saw two new teams in the C Division where Wyatt and I now played. Flicks, helmed by yours truly, and SOL, which pieced together a misfit group of characters from a variety of teams who wanted a new start.

SOL had a strong outfield, good hitters and a decent infield. But what they didn’t have was a pitcher.

As a friend of the team’s coaches, I suggested my friend Wyatt, and after some finagling, he joined SOL in late 2008, even though they had never played a game as a team.

Growing up, Wyatt was always an athlete, playing mostly with the leagues he would find with his Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

As an adult, he became involved in the gay softball league in his home town of Long Beach. Shortly after his move to San Diego in 1995, he joined the AFCSL.

The World Series, Round I

Wyatt had coached teams for a number of years, some of them good, some of them fun. Early on in his softball career, he got to compete in the Gay Softball World Series, a week-long championship tournament that brings the best competition together in the gay softball universe.

To play in the Series, your team has to qualify, and in San Diego, that means coming in 1st or 2nd in most cases.

Wyatt loved it, but was frustrated after his team had what he felt was a disappointing showing. After a long off-season, Wyatt was consumed with returning to the Series, held in a different city each year. Yet, time after time, he would fall short. Soon, it got to be that every softball decision Wyatt would make was geared toward making it back to the Series for another crack. He knew he could do better.

But the years passed by and he never even got close. He got older, a little bigger, a little slower, and it seemed the harder he tried, the worse the teams got around him.

Though the sum total of his softball dreams could be accomplished with pitching in just one more world series, Wyatt wondered if he would ever get there, a wonder especially prevalent after his disappointing 2008 season and some scary news soonafter.

Cancer Comes Back?

In August 2008, Wyatt would be notified that a PET scan showed possible new tumor growth in and around his lymph nodes. The days that followed included a dizzying array of doctors’ appointments, tests, and more than a few frayed nerves.

"Whenever you hear the word cancer, you always think of death," he had said. "Even though you try to put it out of your head, you still wonder."

Shortly after, Wyatt was given the full picture of his diagnosis. If the cancer had returned, he needed to have surgery to remove the lymph nodes, but they wouldn’t know if it had returned until they could biopsy the lymph nodes, and to do that, they had to be cut out. Recovery time? At least a few months.

Wyatt had a new team in SOL, but would he be able to play for them?

SOL’s Coming Out Party

With a borrowed pitcher, SOL went to Palm Springs for the 2009 Winter Classic softball tournament while Wyatt stayed behind and healed from a major lymphectomy.

SOL showed their salt and took 2nd in the desert, their first tournament as a new team. Certainly this was a good omen for the Spring season, set to start in just two months.

But would their new pitcher be ready? Would he be effective?

Wyatt answered that question in March 2009, when he toed the rubber for SOL and the team started off 2-0.

His bat was a little slow at the start of the season, but when the team went to the Saguaro Cup in Phoenix in April, his bat came alive and he was able to move up the order, contributing to a potent line-up that ran all the way to 3rd place in one of the largest tournaments in the southwest.

During the rest of the Spring season, Wyatt pitched with new confidence as his team went on to a stellar 16-2 record going into the final week of the season. Tied for 1st place much of the year, Wyatt’s dream of another World Series berth had finally come true, as both the 1st and 2nd place teams that year would be going, and the worst SOL could do then was finish 2nd.

But what SOL really wanted was the championship and in their way stood the Outlaws, 2008’s division champions, and the home of that borrowed pitcher they had taken to Palm Springs six months before, Randy Miller.

A Dramatic Finish

It was Outlaws against SOL for the title. Though my games had long-since finished, I sat in the stands that June afternoon in Poway rooting for my friend. It was a dramatic game, with momentum shifts, great plays and timely hits by both sides. It was a war, and when it was over, SOL had dethroned the champs on a clutch hit by Shawn LeClaire, timely pitching by Wyatt, and a stellar defensive play up the middle by Lora Gunter at second base that people still talk about.

After years of failed attempts and a brutal fight with cancer, Wyatt had won. He had a division championship to show off, another shot at the World Series, and he thought he was done with that insidious disease.

World Series, Round 2

The 2009 Series was held in Milwaukee. That August, Wyatt and I received devastating news. Our dear friend Adam Hamilton, 31, had lost his fight with lung cancer. Adam was like Wyatt in that softball was one of the things that defined him. He was a tough competitor and fought as hard as he could for eight months.

Soon after Adam’s passing and just days before Milwaukee, Wyatt got some scary news of his own. A follow-up PET scan showed an "area of concern" near his sciatic nerve.

What looked like a small tumor was developing and it was pushing against that nerve in Wyatt’s back, sending shooting pains up and down the length of his body. Radiation wasn’t an option, but surgery and chemo were. They would be options he would explore … just as soon as he got back from Milwaukee and realizing his dream.

Wyatt pitched every game his team played, and he pitched well. He defended his position. He hit, and he did it by turning on pitches with brute force. Even though every step of every pitch and every hit hurt, he played; he had worked too hard, and gone through too much, not to.

He had a strong team behind him and although he had only shared with some of them what he was going through, because of how well he was playing — lights out pitching and the 2nd highest batting average on the team — they couldn’t have known he was playing his last games.

Maybe he knew. Maybe that’s why he was so good that week. After a softball career that spanned 14 years, there in America’s heartland on a warm Summer’s day, among the corn stalks and dairy farms, the 49-year-old baller was leaving everything he had on the field.

My friend Wyatt never played softball again. He didn’t have to. He accomplished what he’d set out to. He wanted to do better than the last time, and he did. His team finished tied for 9th in the world.

I could now write here about the 18 months or so that followed that series, culminating with the death of one of my best friends this past Monday at 3:05 p.m. in Salt Lake City, surrounded by his family and friends. But it hurts too much and it’s really not important.

What I will tell you is that Wyatt fought hard, aided by heroic and herculean efforts on the part of his sister and friend Audra. Theirs was a fight that served as an inspiration to many of his friends, including me.

As for me, I’m still playing softball, still coaching Flicks, and we’ve started off 4-0 this season. With my team’s permission, on Sunday, April 3rd, we’re going to dedicate the next 16 games of our season to Wyatt Lisle Strehlow, and with his help, we’re going to get back to the World Series in Chicago and we’ll do it for him.

See you in the Windy City, my friend.

Roman Jimenez is the sports columnist for SDGLN. He is an award-winning journalist who spent most of his career covering crime and politics. After burning out, he became a media consultant for high profile science and technology companies as the founder of The Media Prose. Belying his massive frame, Roman's skills as an athlete are well known, playing tennis and softball regularly with all the quickness and agility of a pregnant rhinoceros. As a result, Roman has covered sports in our community for various outlets off and on for 10 years.

Photos at left: (top) Wyatt coaching third base. (center) In 2008 trying to turn on a pitch. (bottom) During chemo. All photos courtesy Roman Jimenez.