More than just a game, baseball was a ray of hope
The Madera Tribune
It was just a bump.
Tony Noriega, former Madera Coyotes shortstop passed off his discovery as nothing but normal, however, once he no longer felt like himself, he knew something was up.
“So, a tumor started to grow, and I didn’t know what it was. I just thought it was a knot on my neck,” Noriega said. “As time went on, I felt my stamina decrease, I was always sleepy, and the bump kept getting bigger and bigger.”
Noriega was brought into the doctor and got a scan. While waiting for the results, Noriega continued practicing and doing his normal day-to-day activities during his freshman year at Madera High School.
However, there was a big difference. He could no longer play at the same level. During conditioning, he was far off from his normal pace. Something was wrong and in just a few days’ time he found out what.
He got the news from his parents a few days later after school. He had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and for Noriega, the thought of not playing baseball was the first thing he could think of.
“They told me the bad news that tumor was malignant, and it had spread to my chest and spleen. I had to go do radiation and chemotherapy,” Noriega explained. “My first thought was, so do I stop playing baseball. I wasn’t sure how long it would be before I got to play baseball again.”
His parents thought his time would be best spent focusing on the positives and worry about getting back healthy. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a type of lymphoma in which cancer originates from a specific type of white blood cells called lymphocytes. So, this fight wasn’t going to be easy.
Fortunately, in Noriega’s case, there was a high success rate of beating the cancer and that gave him some hope. Although, having the opportunity to be a key piece for the Madera Coyotes baseball team in the future was a spiritual and physical remedy.
When Noriega explained to the Coyotes’ baseball staff what he was dealing with, the entire baseball program embraced him. They let him know they had his back and they would be by his side. A gesture that stuck with Noriega through the good times and the bad.
He even threw out the first pitch of a varsity game during his treatment.
“I told them what was going on and they just gave me hugs and let me know they were supporting me. It helped me get through this, all of my friends on the team and just the coaches,” he said. “I just wanted to play baseball.”
Madera head coach Andy Underwood understood what Noriega wanted, but first and foremost his health was the most important thing.
“For a freshman to have to go through that, being diagnosed with cancer, is pretty scary for anybody. Tony just wanted to play baseball,” Underwood said. “He’s just a normal kid who wanted to be healthy and have the experience of playing baseball, but I know it was really tough for Tony.”
Despite the rough road Noriega traveled early in his days at Madera High School, there were positives. Noriega’s battle brought him, the baseball team and the community together.
“I think there is a silver lining to it. Our team and community rallied behind him and I think we all became closer,” Underwood said. “We made shirts and stickers and all kinds of things and sold them. We were able to generate a little bit of funds for the family and to help Tony along. That brought us together as a team.”
With that support, Noriega knew that baseball was waiting for him. He knew that if he focused on getting healthy, he could come back and contribute to a strong team.
Noriega went through four months of chemotherapy and two months of radiation. Through the first month of chemotherapy, he could feel the effects on his body. He felt different and he felt pressure in parts of the body where the radiation was.
But luckily for Noriega, in two months, the cancer was pretty much gone.
“The first scan showed my body lit up, which is bad. The second scan, a few moths after the first showed it was all gone. I was like wow and that lifted my spirits up. Once I looked at that, it was a reminder that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”
After the chemotherapy, that’s when Noriega felt his worst. He felt terrible fatigue, he wasn’t all there and then he started radiation.
At first, Noriega thought it would be worse, but with only 15-minute sessions, four days a week, he soon felt less apprehensive about it.
“I didn’t feel much pain. I knew I just had to fight through it,” he said.
After a third and final scan, Noriega was cleared to go. The cancer was in remission.
“I had the biggest smile on my face, I was finally done,” Noriega said.
Now healthy, another big challenge; getting back to baseball shape.
“I almost felt depressed because all of my memories of baseball, was me doing things, but I couldn’t physically do it. So, it was really frustrating and probably the worst because I’ve been waiting for this for so long, but I can’t do it.”
He couldn’t even do the basics. Noriega couldn’t run, throw a ball, his physical strength was low, and he was down mentally.
But the Madera Coyotes coaching staff pumped some life back into Noriega.
“I had great coaches and they saw my struggles and they didn’t let it slide. They kept pushing me and pushing me, helping me get back into a baseball player,” Noriega said. “It took about four or five months to get back into baseball shape again, but I just appreciated their effort in helping me.”
Noriega came back for his sophomore campaign and started out on the junior varsity team. While upset he didn’t make the varsity team early on, it forced Noriega to work harder and just a few games into the season, he got his chance on the varsity level.
Noriega got his chances here and there, but he was a grateful for the chance.
“It was a slow progress, but I appreciated it and I knew it was big. Every step I took forward was big for me,” Noriega said. “Halfway through the season I ended up getting the starting job and I was just happy for how far I came.”
Noriega enjoyed his time as a Madera Coyotes’ baseball player, before moving on to Fresno City College where he found himself in the same position.
Noriega wasn’t a starter, but he put his head down and capitalized on his opportunities. As a freshman at Fresno City, Noriega is the starting shortstop with a career in baseball ahead.