Minor-league baseball community rallies behind Michigan reporter who had their backs first

Detroit News

There are few bigger advocates for minor-league baseball players than Emily Waldon.

Back in the spring of 2019, Waldon, then writing for The Athletic, put one of the brightest spotlights on the financial inequities facing minor-leaguers, under the headline, “I can’t afford to play this game.” Within the month, the Toronto Blue Jays responded to the article by pledging to do better, including a groundbreaking plan to increase their minor-leaguers’ pay by 50%. Major League Baseball has since made similar strides.

In 2020, when the minor-league baseball season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving hundreds of players scrambling to make ends meet, Waldon took it upon herself to organize a help chain, connecting players in need with those who could help, whether with work or cash.

Now, minor-league baseball, and the baseball community at large, is returning the favor, rallying behind Waldon, 38, of Grand Rapids, as she embarks on her own battle — with breast cancer. Since she was diagnosed in early January, the baseball community has raised tens of thousands of dollars for her fight.

It’s really a full-circle — errr, full-diamond? — story that showcases no matter how large minor-league baseball is, at its core, it’s really just one big family.

“She’s been a voice for minor-leaguers and hardships for so long,” said Spenser Watkins, a former Detroit Tigers pitching prospect who made his major-league debut with the Baltimore Orioles in 2021. “So, there’s no surprising in my eyes with what’s happening. When you’re in this community, you’re supported by so many people. It’s so widespread.”

Waldon first began to notice some symptoms, the specifics which she prefers to keep private, in November. That led to a battery of tests — a biopsy, an MRI, an ultrasound, a mammogram — and even more uncertainty.

On the afternoon of Jan. 4, while working her day job at a Mercedes dealership in Grand Rapids, Waldon received a call from her personal-care physician.

It was cancer, he said. She’ll never forget that day or that call, even if she doesn’t remember the exact specifics of the phone call.

“It was like everything kind of stopped. I didn’t freak out,” Waldon said. “It was just more kind of shock. People say when they get that news, they forget most of what the doctor tells them. I found that very accurate. I sort of blacked out.”

A cancer diagnosis is always jarring, but especially at that age — being under 40, Waldon wasn’t even eligible yet for insurance-covered mammograms, and there’s no family history of cancer.

Waldon’s first call was to her best friend, a coworker, Wendy Scanlon. The next was to one of her two older sisters, Amber (she also has four younger brothers). She wasn’t as much as scared as she was eager to begin treatment. She’s a planner. She wanted a plan. She didn’t plan for the outpouring.

Waldon is plenty visible on social-media circles, mostly in pumping up this minor-league prospect or that Rule 5 pick. She’s open about her faith. But she struggled whether to take her cancer news public. In subsequent calls with her sister, Amber convinced her to do it.

“She said, ‘You’ve gotta let people know,'” Waldon recalled in an interview with The News this week, a day before her first chemotherapy treatment Tuesday, at Grand Rapids’ Mercy Health Lacks Cancer Center. “‘They’re gonna want an idea of what’s going on and obviously get the prayers going.’

“Much to my complete shock, the response was far and away from what I was expecting.”

Waldon isn’t a traditional reporter. She didn’t go to school for it. She was just a hard-core baseball fan when, back in 2014, she sort of cold-called an editor at Bless You Boys, a popular website devoted to all things Tigers coverage. She wanted to write, the editor said yes. Then, the catch: How about the minor leagues?

Waldon’s first thought: “Why?”

“It was a little pre-prospect revolution,” Waldon said, with a laugh.

But she gladly accepted the gig, which worked out nicely, with the Tigers’ Single-A affiliate, the West Michigan Whitecaps, just a 15-minute drive from her house.

She became a regular at the ballparks, eventually spring trainings and Arizona Fall Leagues, too, with her minor-league reports earning her the big social-media following — eventually leading to writing opportunities at national outlets, like The Athletic for a while, and today, Baseball America. She worked her way up, slow and steady, not unlike mid-round baseball draft. She’s no bonus baby.

But it’s her interaction with the players that stands out most to them. She isn’t immediately all business during interviews. She wants to know about the player, their background, their real story. It’s not unusual for Waldon to message a minor-leaguer asking about an injury, or congratulating them on a marriage of the birth of a child, or celebrating — like with Watkins, last July — a major-league debut.

“She’s really efficient with her work,” said Tyler Freeman, an infielder and top prospect with the Cleveland Indians’ system. “But she’ll reach out just to see how you’re doing and stuff.

“I don’t think there are many reporters doing that.”

Waldon defends breaking that fourth wall: “It really is a family. I feel like they’re all little brothers.”

There’s that connection, and hence the reaction to her cancer diagnosis — which includes a treatment plan of six cycles, one every three weeks, that should run into June. She’s received hundreds of messages, via text, call or direct messages, from scouts, coaches and, mostly, players — plus, of course, fans of her work. She’s had messages from Australia, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Canada and the United Kingdom. One player recently texted her, “Gotta remember, leave it all out on the field,” an inside joke between a reporter and athlete who can’t stand canned cliches.

Then there was Rob Friedman, a baseball analyst for ESPN and a popular social-media figure whose “Pitching Ninja” clothing line is popular throughout the game.

He wanted to find a way to help, so he launched a shirt with his logo, colored in pink for breast cancer, with all proceeds going to Waldon. Friedman normally keeps his shirt lines up for a couple of days; this one he kept up for a couple of weeks — and when he closed it, there was a loud outcry to sell them again. He figures he has sold at least a thousand. Players and coaches are posting them on Twitter, including Tigers pitching coach Chris Fetter.

“I thought people would want to help. I knew she’s done so much, and people would want to give back,” Friedman said. “I was just talking to a friend. It’s almost like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ where George Bailey does all this stuff for people … and in the end, when he needs help, they actually come back with money at the table and help him out.

“People she’s helped out are helping her out in a time of need. It is great.”

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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