Matthew (Matt) Espinoza’s favorite memory with his teammates was when the Rams scored a win, thanks to a walk-off hit by Joaquin Ballesteros, in the first game of the 2020 season.
“We won, we celebrated, and that was the week I left to go to Houston to find out how many chemo sessions it was going to be,” said Espinoza, a first baseman and junior business major.
Espinoza went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for his latest round of treatment. It was less than a year since he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in late May 2019; he had surgery last fall to remove the mass as he started his first year at Texas Wesleyan University.
Espinoza had transferred from Frontier Community College in Illinois and due to the cost of treatment, chose to look for university that was close to home to save money.
“I don’t know if the first time, I kind of took it as an eye opener,” he said. “Made me want to work harder because can’t take anything for granted. Then the second time, with the chemo treatment, I knew I was mentally having to get my mind right and beat it.”
Melissa Espinoza, Matt’s mom, said he went in for a biopsy which confirmed that a mass had metastasized to his right lung last December, making his testicular cancer stage three.
“So, [the mass] was not there back in May and it was just going back for his protocol, six-month follow-up, and we were just thinking, it’s just gonna be a follow-up and were just gonna get to do what the doctors recommend,” she said.
She said that at that point he was sent to do nine weeks of aggressive chemo treatment. While Matt was very sick during that time, he still wanted to go to the baseball games whenever he could. She said his teammates, as well as head coach Bobby Garza and assistant coach Kelly Shoppach, were incredibly supportive.
“We thought, in December he was getting ready for spring baseball and we thought this was behind us,” Melissa said. “We couldn’t have been as supportive as they were and that’s what kept him going. If you don’t have that what are you going to have?”
Garza and the rest of the team were shocked to hear the news.
“To think that something like this is something that he has to go through at such a young age was very hard to hear,” he said.
Garza said they were looking forward to having him play because of how well he was practicing in the fall.
“Matt instantly became a leader the moment we started working out as a team and really showed huge leadership characteristics and a lot of the players rallied around him,” Garza said. “Then it really just flipped, once he found out there was a mass, then we tried to do everything we could to be there for him.”
Pitcher Gabriel Sequeira said he and the team found out around Jan. 12, 2020 before a team meeting with the coach.
“I went up and gave him a big hug, and I told him like, “Hey, you’re not alone through this fight,’” Sequeira said. “I know how tough he is, how strong that dude is both mentally and physically, I knew he was gonna beat it.”
Ballesteros said he feels Espinoza has done nothing but show positivity. Even when he’s not playing, he’s still trying to create chemistry and just be a great guy and a great teammate.
Sequeira said there was a deeper connection for him at the same event.
“Like he didn’t know that I had put his name on my glove and that I put him next to my uncle because he had passed away recently too,” Sequeira said. “I didn’t the same for him and I opened up to him about that.”
Both players and Garza mention that the team stays connected through a group chat that lets them know all of Espinoza’s updates throughout this journey.
Garza said his favorite memory with Espinoza was when he sent out a picture of him wearing his Texas Wesleyan Rams baseball hat and letting the team know about his last chemo session.
“I think today is his last chemo session,” Garza said on April 7. “So, just communicating with him and the team about his weekly updates, weekly progress. He has kept us updated nearly every week.”
Matt’s father, Albert Espinoza, said the journey has affected his family quite a bit and has brought them closer together.
“I just want him to be able to be healthy, be a healthy young man, find the woman of his dreams, have the kids and just raise them,” Albert said. “He’s got a story to tell, whether it’s to his kids, or anyone – to the next young man that has to go through this.”
Albert said he would love for Matt to continue to play baseball, but the main focus would be for him to get well and accomplish anything he wants to do.
“Just to have him accomplish whatever it is that he wants to do, that he graduates from Texas Wesleyan and goes on to have a long life is my expectation for him,” Albert said. “That’s what I would want him to do you know, I mean baseball is second to life for me.”
Matt said his goals were to get back on the field as soon as possible and be the best teammate and player he can be.
“I practice on the days I feel good, and on the days that I don’t feel good I go to practice and try to help out,” he said. “I work on the little things such as daily work and communication with my teammates.”
On April 29, the Espinoza family received good news: The tumor became scar tissue and will continue to be monitored.
“It’s good news, but I want it to be better,” he said. “I want anything in my body to be clear and I want to come back stronger than before.”