This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Body 2017 Issue. Subscribe today!
SIX WEEKS IS all. Six weeks in Jameson Taillon's life that somehow felt like both a flash of lightning and an eternity. Six weeks from feeling something foreign in his left testicle to cancer surgery to recovery. Six weeks of panic and isolation and fear and relief. Six weeks.
Taillon is 25 years old, 6-foot-5, sturdy like something that grows from the ground, smart and composed, mature in a way that young men of his station rarely are. He was the second pick of the 2010 draft, the future of the Pirates, eternally destined to be sandwiched between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in baseball's consciousness. When he has been on the mound -- 18 big league starts last year, 10 and counting this year -- he has shown considerable promise, but something always gets in the way. He missed the 2014 season after Tommy John surgery and 2015 after hernia surgery. Last July he was struck in the head -- "my big, hard head" -- by a 105 mph comebacker.
But nothing compares with the story of those six weeks, which centered on a commando-style mobilization, from trainers and doctors to Taillon's family. His brother Jordan, a 34-year-old pulmonary ICU physician in Florida, arrived to become the medical interpreter and gatekeeper for their parents and two other siblings. Jameson is a man of routines, most of them based on the notion that control creates results. One of them involves getting to the ballpark every day as early as possible. "That way," he says, "the chaos comes to me instead of me walking into the chaos." The story of those six weeks, told by those who lived it, proves that control has its limits and chaos has a mind of its own.
On May 2, the Pirates were in Cincinnati, playing the second game of a four-game set. After a blowout win, Taillon, who was starting the next night, was killing time in his hotel room.
JAMESON TAILLON: I'm lying in bed, hand in my pants, watching TV -- just like a guy, you know? I just felt something that was really noticeable in my left testicle. I immediately felt like there was something wrong.
JORDAN TAILLON: As soon as he felt something that night in Cincinnati, I got a text from him. I tried to calm him. It can be eight billion different things when you feel something on your testicle, so I didn't want him to freak out. But from what he was telling me, it was concerning. I could sense it in his voice.
JAMESON TAILLON: I told my brother about it and then kind of got into the WebMD rabbit hole. I was up late looking stuff up, getting more worried because everything on there is bad, and then finally I just x'd out of it. Dude, stop. You're just scaring yourself.
GERRIT COLE (PIRATES PITCHER): I had breakfast with Jameson the next morning, and he told me he felt something the night before. He was definitely alarmed by it, but he said he wasn't in any pain, so he kept thinking it was only swelling. He had to go out and pitch that night, and I know it was on his mind.
JAMESON TAILLON: There's no doubt I knew there was something going on down there when I took the mound, but when there are fans in the stands and a guy standing in the box with a stick waiting to bash me, I can't be thinking of anything else. I thought I did a good job of separating it.
MICHAEL TAILLON (FATHER): I was in Calgary [for work] watching Jameson pitch with a friend of mine who's also an avid baseball fan. A couple of innings into the game, I said to Norm, "Something just doesn't seem right. I don't know what it is, but this isn't normal." I was watching the way he was landing, and it seemed like he was out of whack. It looked to me like there was some hesitancy, like he wasn't following through and he was landing gingerly. Maybe it was just a father's intuition, but something seemed out of sorts.
SCOTT MITCHELL (PIRATES senior PITCHING COORDINATOR): Every time the camera focused on Jameson, it was like he wasn't there. He was just -- I don't know -- vacant. I just didn't see the normal determination and fire.
MICHAEL TAILLON: I hadn't heard Scott had sensed something. [Pause.] Wow. That's pretty remarkable.
SCOTT MITCHELL: I didn't say anything to anyone else, but I made a mental note that if I saw it his next start, I was going to call [Pirates pitching coach] Ray Searage. When I found out his father had a similar reaction, I was taken aback. It was eerie.
The Pirates returned to Pittsburgh on Thursday, May 4, roughly 48 hours after Taillon's late-night discovery. The next morning, Taillon had an unofficial ultrasound by a Pirates doctor, and as he looked at the screen projecting the image of his left testicle, Taillon felt a buzz run through the base of his spine.
JAMESON TAILLON: I'm not a doctor, and I could see it right away. There was something on there. That led to the more official work -- checking the tumor markers, checking the bloodwork. Everything was really elevated, and word came down the next morning: They needed to remove my left testicle.
SCOTT MITCHELL: On Friday, I was at a game with our Triple-A club and I get a call. "We need a starter in Pittsburgh." I asked why, and I was told that they couldn't tell me because it was a personal matter. I had no idea what it was, or who it was, but I immediately thought of what I saw while watching Jameson.
MICHAEL TAILLON: The call I got from my wife, Christie, early that Saturday morning is a call no parent should ever have to receive or make. I lost both of my parents to cancer. I know what it can do.
JORDAN TAILLON: I got the first text from Jameson late Tuesday night, he got the diagnosis Friday and the surgery was scheduled for Monday. I had taken a week's vacation to go to Los Angeles to watch him pitch because I've never been to Dodger Stadium. I changed my flight. Instead of going to Los Angeles, I got a trip to Pittsburgh.
JAMESON TAILLON: He would have stayed at the JW Marriott in LA. Instead, he slept in my roommate Chad Kuhl's bed.
JORDAN TAILLON: Sometimes I think I lead to some of the nervousness in the family because I tell stories from work. Just recently I had a 31-year-old die of postsurgical complications, so I know that no surgery is routine. On this one, I tried to take on the role of calming everyone. My parents were pretty worked up, and so we had a separate text chat to keep Jamo out of it.
MICHAEL TAILLON: Jordan knew how much we wanted to be there, but he thought it would be best if Christie and I didn't come. He said, "Let's not get him distracted and not get him emotional." He knows I'm the emotional wreck in the family.
JORDAN TAILLON: Sunday night before the surgery, we had a big last dinner since he couldn't eat the next morning. Watched a lot of Netflix and had a lot of good food. He was nervous -- anyone with this going on would be -- but we pretty much duplicated what we did when I stayed with him the night before he had Tommy John: movies and good food, trying not to think too much.
MICHAEL TAILLON: I didn't even want to put myself in Jamo's shoes long enough to think about what he was going through. His mind racing 100 mph ... ah, the thought of it just broke my heart.
III. Surgery and Recovery
On Monday, May 8, Taillon underwent a one-hour surgery at Allegheny General Hospital to remove his left testicle. Jordan kept the family informed with updates that couldn't come fast enough. After the surgery, Jameson posted a message on social media that read, in part: "Today I lost a piece of my 'Manhood.' But today I am feeling like more of a man than I ever have. My journey hasn't been the smoothest. But it is my journey, and I wouldn't change it for anything." The journey sped by like a fast-motion video. The Testicular Cancer Awareness Foundation states that exertion is off-limits for up to four weeks after surgery. In less than three weeks, Jameson was pitching in a minor league rehab game.
JORDAN TAILLON: My parents were kind of saying, "Why is he getting back and playing so fast?" But medically, there was no reason not to go back.
JAMESON TAILLON: Being invested in something, being part of the team, just felt right. Physically, I don't think we rushed it at all. Mentally, you could make the case for someone getting a diagnosis and going home and sitting out the whole year if that's the way they want to handle it.
TREVOR WILLIAMS (PIRATES PITCHER): From the outside -- five weeks, that seems superhuman. We really should have picked squares and made an over/under. I'll give him three and a half weeks, someone else gets five.
GERRIT COLE: For about two weeks before he came back, we were looking at him and wondering: "Why isn't he coming back sooner?"
MICHAEL TAILLON: I get it: He's a baseball player. That's what he does. I wouldn't want him sitting in a room thinking "Why me?" That's not him.
JAMESON TAILLON: I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. It's an extremely curable form of cancer, and I am surrounded by the best doctors. I got to cut lines in doctor's offices and hospitals. I realize not everyone is as fortunate. That's why I feel this responsibility to be an advocate and speak out.
MICHAEL TAILLON: Good thing he's different from his dad. When I found out, I was extremely angry and extremely sad. I'm so proud of the grace and class he's shown throughout this.
IV. The Return
Exactly five weeks after surgery, Jameson took the mound to pitch against the Rockies on a June night at PNC Park. His locker was filled with letters and get-well cards. The fans held signs and leaned over the outfield wall while he warmed up before the game. They stood and cheered when he walked from the dugout to the mound to start the game.
JAMESON TAILLON: From the minute I walked onto the field, I took it all in. A lot of guys are going to maybe lie and say they don't see it or don't hear it. I saw everything. I heard everything. I saw the signs. I heard people when I was warming up in the outfield. I heard them through the whole process. I was aware of what it meant for me to be out there, and what it meant for the city and for the people watching who have been affected by something similar.
MICHAEL TAILLON: I was there. Out of all of us, I'm the one who wears his emotions on his sleeve, and sitting there while he walked from the dugout to the mound ... I was very emotional. I'm sitting there crying my eyes out, and all I could think about was the person sitting next to me. I imagined him looking over at me with tears running down my face thinking, Jeez, what a whack job this guy is.
JAMESON TAILLON: It was a whirlwind. I've been through stuff -- Tommy John and the hernia. I got hit in the head.
MICHAEL TAILLON: He's had his setbacks, but nothing like this. I don't mean to diminish anything, but this was different from a hernia or Tommy John.
JAMESON TAILLON: Obviously this was different -- very different. But those experiences helped me.They've taught me to be in tune with my body. But if I wasn't surrounded by doctors and trainers every day, I'm not sure I would have said something until it became a problem. That's what makes it scary; a lot of people aren't aware of it until it's too late.
MICHAEL TAILLON: His markers are good, his scans are good -- but there's a part of me that still worries. It's the dad in me. I said to Jamo: "You've got to promise me this. If you start feeling tired or run-down, you're going to have to fold your cards until we not only beat this thing but absolutely kill it."
GERRIT COLE: I feel like some people would be like, "Woe is me. Man, this is the third setback in my career." But he takes this terrible thing and has such a unique way of dealing with it.
JAMESON TAILLON: This experience has definitely been weird for me. If you had come up to me a day before I got my diagnosis and talked to me about cancer, I would have shut down. But now I've gotten so many messages -- not just from testicular cancer survivors but people opening up about their stories of life; people are comfortable talking to me. This experience has been scary, sure, but it's also been rewarding and cool.