Jiwan James is one of my clients. He is formerly of the Phillies, where he was regarded by Baseball America as the best defensive outfielder, the best runner, and the best athlete in the system. Then he got a life-changing diagnosis. Last week he signed with the Detroit Tigers on a minor-league deal literally the day before minor-league players reported to spring training. Here’s the incredible journey we went on together.
I started working for Jiwan in 2007, when he went in the 22nd round. Jiwan had a football scholarship to play at the University of Florida—he could have played with Tim Tebow—but the scout Chip Lawrence had done his job well: He got to know the family and ascertained that Jiwan loved baseball. Jiwan got a significant scholarship to forego football. Lawrence had signed Domonic Brown the year previously, and consequently the two ballplayers would eventually be compared to each other, but that didn’t happen right away, because here’s the thing: Jiwan was drafted as a pitcher. He was long, projectable, loose, with a big-time arm. But he hurt his arm, missed all of 2008, and in 2009 he and the Phillies decided he would be an outfielder.
At some point during the 2010 season Jiwan let me go (not unlike the Jaye Chapman situation I wrote about). It was disappointing and frustrating, because we always had a good relationship, but that’s the business. There was never bad blood, and we stayed in touch on Facebook, and in 2013 he had a falling out with his agent so just like that I was back to work for him. He continued to be on Phillies Top 10 lists, and made SportsCenter with one of the most incredible catches you’ll ever see:
Then life got in the way, as life tends to do.
During the 2013 season Jiwan was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an often debilitating illness for anyone, much less a professional athlete. I do not want to get into the specifics of the surgery he had after the diagnosis, but it was not unlike the procedure I had to remove a significant amount of my small intestine when I was 17. Here is a great profile of Jiwan’s battle, written when he had signed his indy ball deal. More on that later.
After he missed the majority of 2013, I was concerned his career was over. I even wrote an article here at BP about the Phillies graciously re-signing him for the 2014 season, offering him not just a chance to come back but also health insurance. The 2014 season started off well enough. Jiwan had a good spring, but once again he had his Crohn’s flair up and ended up playing only nine games in Double-A. The Phillies decided as soon as Jiwan was healthy they would release him. I have immense respect for the entire Phillies front office, and they were nothing but supportive toward my client while he battled the illness, but I was shocked that they released him so soon after they had re-signed him.
He lost a lot of weight, and spent a lot of time away from the game. Then he had to bust his ass to gain that weight back; by January he was a giant again, just like the prospect we all remembered. I had to get him playing somewhere so I reached out to Paul Herrmann of the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League. Same club Jaye Chapman and Tim Gustafson signed out of last year, so I knew I could trust them. I explained Jiwan’s situation and they signed him immediately. Thank goodness for the Atlantic League—they put Jiwan back on the radar, and I was then able to get him workouts with big-league clubs.
One of the all-time good guys in the game—my mentor, so to speak—is Murray Cook, former GM of the Expos and Yankees, now with Detroit. He and I had one of our weekly phone calls—about a totally different player—and he mentioned that the Tigers were having their open workout on March 9th in Lakeland, close to where Jiwan lives. I told Murray, I know how tough you guys are with your medicals. Do you think it would be worth Jiwan showing up? He said it couldn’t hurt, so Jiwan went to the workout. He was the only player they signed.
When Jiwan called to tell me the medical staff cleared him, it took all I had to hold it together. I have no problem admitting I cried a little—I’ve probably used the words “incredible” and “amazing” 10,000 times this week. What are the odds a player and an agent would have gone through the same major GI surgery? The Tigers haven’t promised anything beyond a chance, but what more can you ask for? I just want to scream: THIS KID OVERCAME CROHN’S! CAN YOU FREAKING BELIEVE THIS????? What he has just accomplished blows my personal story out of the water. After all he has been through, he earned this. Never has the phrase "It can't hurt" ever paid off more in my career, or his.
So Jiwan is in spring training where he belongs, working hard as always. He might start in A-Ball, he might go to Double-A, maybe Triple-A, who knows? If it doesn’t work out, he’ll likely convert back to pitching, and all of these possibilities are better than going home. The most important thing is that Jiwan James is happy, healthy, and he gets to play baseball again. Does it get any better than that?
Res Ipsa Loquitor
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