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A season for life

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Willmar third baseman Caleb Ditmarson fields a ground ball in a May 10 game against Alexandria at Bill Taunton Stadium. Jake Schultz / Tribune2 / 6
Willmar third baseman Caleb Ditmarson throws on the run in a May 10 game against Alexandria at Bill Taunton Stadium. Willmar plays Alexandria in the Class AAA state tournament today at Siebert Field in Minneapolis. Jake Schultz / Tribune3 / 6
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Willmar's Caleb Ditmarson squares up a ball in a Section 6AAA playoff game against Dassel-Cokato May 29 at Bill Taunton Stadium. Jake Schultz / Tribune5 / 6
Willmar's Caleb Ditmarson (2) is greeted outside the dugout after hitting a home run in his dad's first game back from an extended stay in the hospital May 24 at Bill Taunton Stadium. Jake Schultz / Tribune6 / 6

David Ditmarson was losing a lot of weight. As a retired letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, he was always an active person who enjoyed the outdoors. That's what made his 60-pound weight loss all the more alarming.

As a precaution, David went to a doctor to check things out in November. His blood tests were normal and he felt fine aside from the weight loss.

Doctors scanned his pancreas, though, and found a mass.

It was cancer.

As Ditmarson's fight for his life unfolded in the months that followed, for the first time in his son Caleb's life, David was missing out on baseball games. Caleb, a senior with the Willmar Cardinals this season, is the team's ace pitcher and third baseman.

"When he was born, I made a vow I wouldn't miss anything of his," David said. "I've been to everything until I got sick and started missing some things and that was really hard. I missed a lot of baseball and that's both of our favorite sport."

But a rejuvenated David and his family wouldn't miss being at Siebert Field in Minneapolis on Thursday for anything in the world.

Caleb will get the ball to start for Willmar as the Cardinals take on Alexandria in the opening game of the Class AAA state tournament. His team carries a five-game winning streak and are as hot as any team in the state.

With his dad in the stands, Caleb has his eyes set on taking things to the next level.

"We're going to state baseball, my dad is back at home, everything seems to be going pretty well right now," Caleb said. "We can make it even better, though."

The fight begins

After his cancer was diagnosed, David and his wife, Linde, talked things over and decided to avoid chemotherapy and radiation, instead opting for an overhaul of his eating habits and an all-organic approach. That seemed to help.

"I haven't really been sick for most of it and everything else seemed fine, which confused some of the doctors" David said. "We figured, if the doctors are confused then I might as well try these unconventional means because I've seen it work for people. I felt like was I was getting stronger until early May this year."

At the start of May—a time typically known as baseball season in the Ditmarson household—David's red blood counts and hemoglobins began to drop. He also developed anemia. After an outpatient blood transfusion at Rice Hospital that yielded some troubling numbers, David was admitted to the hospital.

After a couple of days in the hospital, David felt as though as was improving and decided to go home. Two days later, he felt even weaker and began spitting up blood. Again he went to the hospital but this time he was sent to St. Cloud Hospital by ambulance.

Those first days of what proved to be a 12-day stay at the St. Cloud Hospital were nightmarish.

There were more tests and more bad news. Every doctor entered his room with a hanging head and an apologetic tone. David was at the point where chemotherapy wouldn't do much and surgery was too dangerous.

"It got pretty dark while I was there for a bit," David said. "They were concerned for my life at that point."

Baseball not top of mind

The Cardinals played Alexandria the day David was transferred to St. Cloud, losing 6-4. Caleb, who has been a strong player all year for Willmar, went 0-for-3 that day.

"I'm a very, very social person and that first day he got transferred to St. Cloud and I saw him in the hospital, that wasn't a great day for me," Caleb said. "We played and I was not really in the game and they were all feeling it, too."

Fellow senior Jack Baumgart plays first base for the Cardinals and saw something in his teammate he hadn't seen in almost 10 years of sharing the field.

"I wouldn't say that we weren't all there but we definitely had something else on our mind," Baumgart said. "That's the least I've seen Caleb talk for obvious reasons but it was more than baseball and that's what it has turned into for us."

The following night, Caleb and the Cardinals took on Sauk Rapids on the road. Caleb spent time with his dad in the hospital during the day and met the team bus at Sauk Rapids before the game.

"Before everybody got off I ran up on the bus and said, 'Let's go guys, we've got a game to win,'" Caleb said.

Willmar won that night, thanks in large part to Caleb's dominant performance on the mound. He recorded all but the final out, allowing just two hits and a pair of unearned runs in a 3-2 victory.

"It's been tough but seeing how Caleb plays through it kind of helps us all because that night that he was in the hospital I don't think I could have played in the game, but Caleb was there and played a great game," said shortstop and longtime teammate Jon Broman. "I have no idea how he did it."

Staying strong

Caleb insists he simply adopted his dad's optimistic personality, which helped him focus.

"In that game, I felt like I needed to do it for him," Caleb said. "I realized he wouldn't want me to be sad about him being in there, he would just want me to go play baseball so that's what I did. I had a positive attitude."

That night, Caleb returned to the hospital with the game ball for his dad.

"Like a typical guy, I grew up trying to be tough and taught not to cry but as I get older the tears come easier," David said. "That night there were plenty of tears."

Despite the heartfelt moment, some of David's doctors suggested hospice care as they prepared for the worst. For the first time, negativity entered his mind. As he's done throughout his life, David turned to his faith.

"I thought maybe this is it," David said. "I don't want to leave any of my family ... but I thought this would really be hard on Caleb. He's 18, so he's technically an adult but that's the thing that was scary to me. I have to admit, as people of faith, I talked to my wife, I spent one night shaking the Lord and I realized this wasn't my time. Caleb said the same thing to my wife and my sister came to visit me and said the same thing. We started getting more optimistic after that, I realized it wasn't my time. After that, do you feel more optimistic because you're walking around or are you walking around because you're more optimistic?"

A long ball to savor

Meanwhile, one of David's doctors continued to fight for a solution and worked on getting him transferred to the Mayo Clinic.

"She kept trying to convince the Mayo Clinic to take me because she said, 'If you look at your test results, it's all horrible. It looks like a person on their deathbed. But if you look at you, you're up and walking around everyday, you're eating multiple meals, you're asking for extra portions,'" David said. "Something didn't match up."

The Mayo Clinic eventually accepted David and he was transferred there May 20. At home, Caleb asked his mom if she thought David would be able to make it to the regular season finale with St. Cloud Apollo. Uncertain what to say, Linde assured Caleb his dad would try his best.

That Tuesday, the doctors at Mayo decided to re-run every test on David and decided, in the meantime, he could go home. That meant that after more than three weeks of ups and downs in the hospital, David was going to be able to see Caleb's final regular season game at home.

In the seventh pitch of Caleb's first at-bat in the bottom of the second inning, with his dad seated behind home plate and armed with a pen and his scorebook, Caleb slugged a home run over the left field fence.

"I don't believe in coincidences," David said. "He's been playing organized baseball since he was nine years old but in all those years he had never hit a ball over the fence. It was such a cool moment. I still tear up when I repeat the story."

Caleb's longtime coach, Tom DeBoer, couldn't believe the moment.

"I was coaching third and I could see his dad in the first or second row behind home plate keeping book and I could see the smile on his face," DeBoer said. "It was one of those moments where you just look at your surroundings and realize this is why I do this."

His teammates waited for him outside the dugout but allowed him to savor the moment at home plate, a triumphant occasion in a tough year.

Baseball family rallies

Since his return from the hospital, David's health has continued to improve and the Cardinals have soared.

David has added nearly 30 pounds and doctors at the Mayo Clinic say they believe he has a more treatable form of pancreatic cancer than originally diagnosed.

Willmar, meanwhile, is in the state tournament for the first time since 1987. Caleb threw a one-hitter against Waconia, the defending state champions, in the section semifinal, and delivered the game-winning RBI in the section final against Benilde-St. Margaret's.

Through everything, David's positive attitude and refusal to believe in coincidences continue.

"He told us after the section final, he came up to the group of seniors and said, 'Ever since I've gotten out of the hospital you guys haven't lost a game,' " Caleb said. "So that's definitely been a big part of our season. It's been tough but it's definitely been something to build on."

Willmar's roster includes eight seniors, almost all of whom have played together since the Prairie Dogs in 10U baseball. This journey has been a family one, on and off the field. Many of the Cardinals don the initials "DD" on their caps to play for David and some have words written on their cleats as well.

"If anything, it's brought us closer than we already were," Baumgart said. "Throughout VFW and everything we were really tight but after that we've been even closer."

DeBoer coached many of these players in VFW and now at the high school level and said the team's reaction to David's illness has been special.

"It's been awesome to see the way the team has rallied around him to be there for him when he was going through that," DeBoer said. "It was pretty uplifting. It seems like ever since then we've been playing our best baseball. Everyone has sort of taken what's going on outside the field, whether it's school or personal things, realizing this is our team, this is our family, and they've come together."

The unity extended beyond the players, too. Shortly after David's initial trip to the hospital, the parents and family members of the Willmar baseball team put together a Strikeout Cancer benefit to help the Ditmarsons. The money they raised helped pay for medical bills and showed an outpouring of support. The benefit was held during a home doubleheader against Rocori in which Caleb earned the save in both games. A month later, DeBoer says that sweep was a turning point in Willmar's season.

Throughout the past couple of months, David has remained steadfast in his faith and the belief that a positive attitude can help anything.

"Them winning has boosted me, too," David said. "Is that helping my health? It probably is. Having a positive and good outlook is a big aspect of getting well."