On July 19, Sag Harbor Whalers starting pitcher Kevin Eaise had one of his best outings of the season, striking out eight batters in six innings of work with one run and no walks, in a tough 1-0 loss to the Long Island Road Warriors.
The rising sophomore at UPenn has had a good summer for the Whalers, which are 18-21 as of Monday morning. He is 2-4 with a 4.98 ERA but has a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio with 47 strikeouts and 11 walks in 30.2 innings pitched. Like all players, Eaise has his ups and downs in a sport that is often defined by slumps and streaks. Unlike many other players, he’s able to take the good and the bad in stride, without reveling too much in victory or wallowing in defeat. His naturally laid-back personality is part of the reason. But he also experienced something nearly a decade ago that has given him the kind of perspective most of his peers don’t have.
When he was 10 years old, Eaise, a native of Monroeville, New Jersey, was having a catch with a friend before the start of their All-Star Little League game. As the ball sailed toward his glove, he saw two instead of one. The double vision continued throughout the game, but he brushed it off, thinking maybe something was wrong with his contact lenses. When it did not abate into the evening, he told his parents. A trip to the pediatrician was followed by a trip to an eye doctor. Before long, he found himself laying in an MRI tube at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and then, in the same day, being wheeled in for brain surgery.
Doctors had discovered a benign but inoperable tumor on his brain stem, which required surgery to relieve swelling and pressure.
Eaise recounts the story now in a way that makes it clear that his description of himself as laid back is not an exaggeration.
“I was like, alright, I guess I have to do this,” he says, in a deep, almost sleepily matter-of-fact tone. “Obviously, it was a lot worse for my parents,” he adds, ascribing obviousness to something that is not obvious at all, because shouldn’t it be acutely terrifying to be told, at the age of 10, that, suddenly, you need to have brain surgery? Maybe not, if you don’t have any time to think about it.
“I don’t really remember what I was feeling,” Eaise says. “The surgeons and everybody, they were great. We’re still friends today. And it was a pretty quick process.”
Eaise was discharged from the hospital the day after the surgery, and was playing wiffleball with his friends a few hours later, back to normal 10-year-old, baseball-obsessed-boy life. He was, in fact, in the beginning chapters of a new normal, which he says became clear over time as he matured. Initially, he returned to the hospital for follow-up MRIs every three months, then every six months, then every year, and now he only goes back for MRIs every other year. He’s been told that it’s reasonable to expect everything will be fine from now on, although he said he always has some anxiety when he goes in for the MRI.
He and his family—parents, Kevin and Debbie Eaise, and three younger sisters, Maria, 18, Anna, 15, and Gabrielle, 12—could have counted their blessings, thanked their lucky stars, and other clichés, and moved on with their lives. But instead, they’ve chosen to adhere to a different cliché: everything happens for a reason. Return visits to CHOP for MRIs brought Eaise and his family to the children’s oncology ward, to a place where there are other young cancer patients, some of them with brain cancer, whose stories will not have a happy ending like his. The Eaise family found they could not ignore this reality, and did not want to. So they started a charity, the Eaise Family Foundation (rally4research.net), which supports research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“We are big believers in everything happens for a reason,” Eaise said. “I was put in this situation to potentially make a difference. Why not take an opportunity to help out kids that weren’t as lucky as me?”
Eaise acknowledges the inherent sadness that comes with being around terminal cancer patients, especially children, and how it can be painful to confront that. But in his trademark, matter-of-fact approach, he explains why he hasn’t shied away from it.
“You make friends with some of these people, and then sometimes their life takes a turn for the worse,” he said. “You have to look back on it and just try to raise more money and keep helping them out.”
Eaise says that’s what he will continue to do in the future. With three more years as a pitcher at UPenn on the horizon, and hopefully several more years beyond that as a professional player, his career on the mound is still his top priority. But he chose UPenn as much for its academic reputation as for its standing as a quality baseball program. He has yet to declare a major, but is considering pre-med or business, and ideally would like to find a way to combine both fields in an effort to help those struggling with a cancer diagnosis. He says his experience of facing down his own mortality in such a real way at a young age has led to that motivation. And it informs his present day as well, every time he steps on the mound.
“It definitely changes your perspective,” he said. “You realize it’s not the end of the world if you have a bad game. People are going through worse things. A lot of those kids would rather be giving up runs on a baseball field than sitting in CHOP.”