Liam Hendriks Retains Discovering Private Challenges—and Defeats Them All

Spring training is baseball’s preseason precursor for the unofficial national holiday known as Opening Day. Liam Hendriks, however, has already begun prepping for a summer Red Sox playoff push.

The hard-throwing right-hander is forced to miss another start to the baseball season—this time he’s working his way back from elbow surgery. His inevitable late-season return is almost guaranteed to elicit thunderous applause from Boston fans, but this sequel to Hendriks’ long-running inspirational story will be nearly impossible to match after last season’s march to the pitching mound—just months after defeating cancer.

Hendriks’ return on May 29, in front of nearly 24,000 fans at Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field, resulted in a goosebump-inducing standing ovation that even he admits was more emotional than he initially expected. (For stat nerds, Liam Hendriks, then with the Chicago White Sox, gave up two runs on three hits and a walk in a 6-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels.)

But his return that night was bigger than any box score, as evidenced about a month later at LA’s Dolby Theater, when in front of his athletic peers at the 2023 ESPYs, Hendriks received another standing ovation, this time after his comeback story earned him the prestigious Jimmy V Award for Perseverance.

He already had acquired a reputation as a unique vocal leader in the dugout, now as a Jimmy V Award recipient, the three-time All-Star instantly became a global voice and advocate for cancer awareness. During his speech, Hendriks stated that “nobody fights the disease alone,” as he paid tribute to his wife Kristi for being by his side.

w for others battling the disease, Hendriks has the opportunity in his own way to be by their sides.

“I can now talk to people who’ve been affected by cancer,” he says. “I can talk about how I’ve gotten through it. The excitement that you can get from someone telling you they’re in remission—you don’t see that joy and sheer excitement on people’s faces very often like that. That’s something that is really special to behold.”

For Liam Hendriks—his triumphant return last May was the culmination of small victories he set for himself during his battle with stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma. w with cancer in his rearview and spring training in full swing, Hendriks now has to contend with rehabbing his throwing arm after undergoing elbow surgery to repair a torn UCL suffered last season. While Hendriks had the end of May marked on his calendar last season, this year, he has a new target date: Aug. 2.

This too, he says, will take small progressive steps—from rehab to training to throwing before getting back on the mound. As daunting as elbow rehab may sound, Hendriks has been down this road several times, from reworking his body to rewiring his mindset in order to resuscitate his career from journeyman to bona fide All-Star closer. The previous success he’s had with his mental strategies is partly why he has zero doubts on his return.

“I knew I was always gonna be back,” Hendriks says. “There was no doubt in my mind then and there’s not a doubt in my mind that I’m going to come back from my latest setback.”

Going into this season as a free agent and with a definitive return date not solidified, the Boston Red Sox were confident enough in Hendriks’ ability to recently sign the 13-year veteran to a two-year, $10 million deal. The contract not only gives him peace of mind, but it allows Hendriks to place his total focus on getting his arm back to 100 percent without the additional stress of having to audition during the season.

For another season, Liam Hendriks’ comeback story continues.

“It means I have more eyes on me while I rehab,” he says. “I’m now able to use the training staff, strength and conditioning staff in world-class facilities and be around every day with eyes toward getting back as soon as possible. That’s not even before you add in nutritionists and sports therapists and all the technology. The plan is still the same of being back in August but now I can really focus on my recovery without having to mentally prepare myself for a showcase.”

Liam Hendriks Created a Winning Mindset for Mowing Down Opposing Hitters

Before earning an ESPY, a multimillion-dollar contract, or even the reputation as a reliable closer, Hendriks’ early career challenge was trying to earn a steady major league roster spot.

Hendriks bounced around with five different teams from 2011-2018, as he was used primarily as a middle reliever. And while he had confidence that his fastball and changeup were major league quality, his stats showed otherwise—in seven of his first eight seasons, his ERA was over 4.0. On five different occasions Hendriks had a DFA (designated for assignment) tag slapped on him. And as his age approached 30, opportunities were starting to slip—which he admits created thoughts of simply being content as a middle of the road middle reliever.

However, Hendriks says his fifth DFA—this time with the Oakland A’s—was when a mindset enlightenment took place. It was a simple question posed by a family friend that put his career in perspective: “Why can’t you be a closer?”

“Something clicked,” Hendriks says. “I was like, why am I putting ceilings on myself? Why am I telling myself I’m not the reliever who can throw 100 strikeouts in the season.”

Self-reflection became the spark Hendriks needed to re-establish himself as the dominant reliever he had envisioned. Doing so, however, required Hendriks to go all in on his off-season training. Although his unorthodox training style would probably give trainers fits, it gave Hendriks the confidence boost needed to give his skills a needed spark.

The method: Hendriks says he tossed out the idea of unilateral training. After all, his thought was that since he pitches with just his right arm, he would double down on strengthening those “pitching muscles”—his throwing arm, along with right quad and left hamstring. “If I’m going to be pitching, why wouldn’t I just continue to throw so I just throw a lot?” he asks. “I can fine-tune every muscle that I need in order to throw.”

As important as the physical training was, rewiring his mindset may have been his most important contribution to his turnaround. Although he always saw himself as an elite closer, this time around Hendriks was willing to embrace any role a team gave him—whether it’s a mop-up role or in the middle innings of a game, he was all in to maximize any opportunity.

“I was gonna go out and earn it,” is how Hendriks described it. “I needed to earn absolutely everything because that’s the only way I’m going to get it. Who cares if they wanted to throw me in the fourth or fifth inning? I’m gonna get out there and prove them wrong. Whatever it was. I was going to go out there and do it and make sure that I got that next opportunity to move into a later-inning role.”

In 2019, Liam Hendriks did just that, recording a personal best 124 strikeouts in 85 innings to go with 25 saves with the A’s. He signed with the White Sox a season later, and in 2021, Hendriks led the American League with 38 saves and 113 strikeouts. He followed that with 37 saves in 2022, and in the process earning himself three All-Star Game appearances.

He had worked his way to finally becoming the dominant and reliable relief pitcher he thought he could be.

Then cancer hit.

Gordon Donovan/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Fighting Through Cancer

Liam Hendriks seems like the hardcore athlete type whose first aid of choice would be to rub dirt on it and walk it off.  In other words, Hendriks is kind of used to playing with pain.

So far his medical list is comprised of surgeries on two knees, a hip, elbow, and spine, as well as removing bone chips here and there. His current rehab from a torn UCL, he says is from a chronic injury he’s pitched through until his velocity noticeably decreased. Some may call his mindset crazy, he thinks of it as old school.

“I call it the 1990s rule,” he says. “Anyone who kind of grew up in baseball before the ’90s tend to play through a little bit more. There’s obviously exceptions, but a lot of the new generation have been coddled a little bit more.

With that mindset, it’s not so far-fetched to think that Hendriks probably played the entire 2022 season—albeit unknowingly—with cancer.

After earning his third All-star selection in four seasons (the 2020 season was cut short due to COVID), Liam Hendriks felt what he described as a golf-ball size lump in the back of his neck. At first he dismissed it as an “enflamed follicle.” Then another one appeared. He says his body felt a little off, but nothing too strange, shrugging it off as sign of aging and fatigue from the season. Blood tests came back negative.

When the season ended, the symptoms persisted. He checked with the White Sox team physician to get an antibiotic prescription. The team doctor instead told him to get checked immediately. He did, as well as doing some in depth research himself, through the famous medical journal known as Google. “It said if the lump was hard, immovable, and no pain, that’s not a good sign,” Liam Hendriks recalls. “That was the exact opposite of the way I thought it was. I thought there would be pain or worse, but no, that wasn’t the case.”

His and Kristi’s worst fears were then confirmed: stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system, and usually found in the lymph nodes. According to the American cancer society, the chance that a man will develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his lifetime is about 1 in 42; for women, the risk is about 1 in 52.

“There’s 82 different subsets and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was hoping it was gonna be one of the good ones,” he says. “Luckily enough it was a very treatable one, which is great. But yeah, it wasn’t exactly the funnest time of my life.”

A Combination of Chemotherapy and Curveballs

On Jan. 8, 2023, Liam Hendriks announced to the public his cancer diagnosis and that he was about to begin treatment. Despite the devastating diagnosis, Hendriks’ mindset remained laser focused but split on both beating the disease and working his way back to the bullpen as quickly as possible. “When I found out I told my wife Kristi, and she was obviously upset,” he says. “Once we got it confirmed, it was like, what are the treatment plans and how quickly am I going to get back?

The original treatment plan called for six rounds of both chemotherapy and immunotherapy—his goal was to work to reduce the amount of rounds. Mondays were chemotherapy and immunotherapy followed by additional chemo on Tuesday. The severity of the side effects called for the next three weeks off before his next round began.

The treatments he admits left him “catatonic on the couch,” but being away from the team was also taking an emotional toll on his psyche.

“It was really hard because I would be lying in bed trying to watch a game and would then just fall asleep,” he says. “I would wake up and the score would change. That was really hard—not being able to compete or do anything like that.”

However, by Friday of that week, just three days after his treatments, Hendriks would push himself back to the baseball diamond around his home in Scottsdale, AZ. It was nothing too strenuous at first, some light throwing drills. Besides the good feeling of getting off the couch, the throwing provided the mental boost to push through to the next round and finish off the remaining rounds of chemo and immunotherapy.

“Baseball is my happy place,” Hendriks says. “So why wouldn’t I go to the field?”

Another curveball cancer threw at him, was an unexpected weight change. Hendriks, who normally adhered to an intermittent fasting diet style, gained weight throughout the treatment, adding 35 pounds to his normal 6′, 235-pound frame. “That was a byproduct that I didn’t exactly expect,” he says. “You read about cancer treatments and how it kind of kills the body to which you lose weight and muscle mass, but I went the other way.”

With treatment and pitching, the weight eventually came off, while he still remained on pace to hit the target return date.  “I used the timeline as a challenge,” he says. “I gave myself a timeline of being back on May 29. And that was the date that I came back.”

Boston Red Sox Pitcher Liam Hendriks celebrating on the mound during a baseball gameMark Black/UPI/Shutterstock

Liam Hendriks and His ESPY Moment 

On April 8, Hendriks triumphantly announced that his cancer was officially in remission. He had cut his treatments from six to four rounds, and now with the good news meant his main focus could return to baseball and his return to the mound.

He had kept a light schedule during his treatments, but now was all in on his rehab assignment. While he relished the opportunity to get back to training, at age 34, he found himself as the grownup on a team filled with players barely pushing 20. He made the best of it, while getting his body game ready, he was also able to share his major league experiences with a group seeking the same type of success. “We talked about mindset,” he says. “Things like, why did you throw this pitch at this point or go over game planning and providing as much wisdom as I could. It was refreshing, but being the same age or older as some of the coaching staff was a little unnerving.”

He made his first minor league appearance on May 5. Then on May 29, he got the call, and despite the final score, the crowd cheered Hendriks the entire time.

I knew I was gonna come back but it was still a wow moment just for the amount of people that came out,” he says.  “I didn’t expect it to be that kind of potent, that kind of the raw emotion that came out when I came into that game. And that was something that was that was really really cool to be a part of.”

He appeared in only five games last season, but his return all but solidified the awards he would later receive. In addition to the Jimmy V award—named after the late college basketball coach Jim Valvano, he was awarded the MLB Comeback Player of the Year, .

Winning the Jimmy V Award means that Hendriks’ name is forever etched with these brave icons. He takes the responsibility that goes with the award very seriously.

“If I’m now able to impart any wisdom on one person or get someone who may not have anything to do with cancer reaching out to someone who they know does, that’s a mission success,” he says. “You’re looking to just change one person’s life for the positive and if that’s me talking and then getting someone else to engage with somebody else, and then they start talking and then it’s it gets somebody else engaged. That’s all I can ask for.”

By spreading his story, Liam Hendriks hopes that others will jump onboard the idea of making their stories more vocal, even it’s just talking to family or friends. What he’s learned from battling the disease is that the best therapy may just being forthcoming with your struggles.

“The main idea for anybody with cancer or who knows someone with cancer is don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to show them how much you’re struggling or [talk about] your side effects. Talk about your treatment plans. The one thing I’ve noticed really is the more you talk about what you’re going through, the easier it gets.”

Overcome Huge Challenges, One Small Challenge at a Time

By signing with the Red Sox, Liam Hendriks is set on being back on the mound on Aug. 2, which would be one year to the day in which he underwent elbow surgery. With the team’s full support behind him, he’s confident he’ll be available for the team toward the later half of the season when the Red Sox, 78-84 last season, are hopefully in the midst of an American League playoff run.

“Hopefully it goes smoothly and I can push it a little bit which is well my mindset. It’s like you give me a date. I’m going to try and beat that date no matter what it is.”

It’s been a matter of mindset that’s helped Hendriks become one of baseball’s superstar closers, as well as proudly earning his spot as a global spokesman for cancer awareness. He and his wife are also known around the league for their charitable work, donating thousands of dollars toward animal rescue, ALS, and other noteworthy causes.

“As soon as you set your mind to something, you take away any ceiling you may have, and you’re like, I can do that, who’s going to stop me” he says. “I’m physically able to do that. So let’s go ahead and let’s try it.”

For Hendriks, it comes down to hard work and doing it his way. He looks at each challenge as a series of incremental steps, like marking dates on a calendar and checking off each victory. It’s a formula anyone can use in order to attain their end goal, whether it’s getting in shape or fighting cancer.

“Have a goal in which you’re able to beat little increments to get there,” he advises. “Don’t choose a marathon if you haven’t run before in your life, but try walking for 10 minutes today, 20 tomorrow, then turn it into a 10-minute run. That’s all you need to do.”

By his track record, there’s little question as to whether Liam Hendriks will return to the mound. The fun part now is watching his journey and cheering for him to hit his summer target. With the Red Sox all in on his skills, Hendriks is now all in on completing his latest—and probably far from final—challenge.

“The stress is gone and now all I need to focus on is getting back stronger and healthier than ever with one of the most highly regarded training staffs across MLB.”

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