For Chad and Amanda Kuhl, baseball takes a backseat to a cancer fight

For Chad and Amanda Kuhl, baseball takes a backseat to a cancer fight

Almost two decades ago, when Chad Kuhl entered middle school in Middletown, Del., his eye immediately fell on a new classmate.

“I spotted a blond girl, blue jeans, white shirt,” he said the other day, his mind wandering back. “I was all of 10 years old, and I was like, ‘This is the cutest girl I’ve ever seen.’ ”

He said this while that girl — the former Amanda Debus, the current Amanda Kuhl — looked right back at him. “He tells the story better than I do,” she said as 2-year-old Hudson Kuhl picked through a bag of baseballs in the home dugout at Nationals Park. He held one aloft.

“Ball,” he said, and he was right.

This young family is new here, but they are tied here, too. This is where Chad Kuhl is trying to pitch for the Washington Nationals, though his first few starts were rocky and he’s now on the injured list with a toe problem. In any other season, that would be the major hurdle, and there’s still space in Chad Kuhl’s brain to say, “I look forward to proving that I’m a lot better than my first few starts.”

But what do a 9.41 ERA and a stint on the injured list matter when that blond girl in blue jeans is facing a fight for her family and her life? She is 30 years old. On Jan. 20, she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma — breast cancer. Early the next month, Chad signed a minor league deal with the Nationals, choosing Washington because it was closest to the family’s Delaware hometown and support system. And Feb. 22, Amanda underwent a double mastectomy, at which time a biopsy was performed on her lymph nodes. The decision: Have the lymph nodes removed from her left side and begin chemotherapy soon thereafter.

“From Jan. 20 to right now it’s been kind of …” Amanda said, trailing off. “I’ve been saying I’ve just been kind of going through the motions, but I truly have been going through the motions. I haven’t been able to honestly sit down and understand what’s happening. I just don’t have time,” and she looked down at Hudson, scooting away from Chad.

“Trying to be a mom, I just don’t have time. We’re fighting for life as well as living our normal life.”

This is not normal. It is not fair. It is very real. Their story is so intertwined, going back to that meet-the-teacher night before sixth grade. They dated on and off through high school and got serious as seniors. Both went to the University of Delaware and spent Chad’s journey to the majors side by side. After he was a ninth-round pick in the 2013 draft by Pittsburgh, Amanda spent countless hours traveling to Chad’s starts — from Jamestown, N.Y., to Bradenton, Fla., to Altoona, Pa., to Indianapolis.

In June 2016, Amanda was crowned Miss Delaware. Not two weeks later, she got a call from Chad, then in Class AAA.

“Hey, do you think you can get, like, a weekend off?” Chad asked. He was being called up. His first big league start came that June 26 against the Dodgers.

“I had to be there,” Amanda said, and she looked at Hudson. “And other than being pregnant with him, I really haven’t missed a game.”

They got married in December 2019, and they have essentially always been there for each other. So there is a logistical aspect to navigating Amanda’s battle that is unsettling for both of them. Chad wants to be there to support his wife through every step he can, not letting baseball get in the way. Amanda wants to let her husband tend to his career, not letting her health deter him. Her first surgery, for instance, was smack in the middle of spring training.

“She told me not to come,” Chad said. “She said: ‘You’re going to do spring training. You’re not going to worry about me. You’re going to be there.’ ”

As the operation approached, they were texting back and forth. Amanda sent Chad the information from the hospital, the when and the where. He texted: “All right, cool. I’ll take you.” She shot back, “What are you talking about?” He replied with a screenshot of his flight itinerary.

“If it’s possible it was less than a second, she called me less than a second later to yell at me,” Chad said.

“I had some words,” Amanda admitted. “But don’t get me wrong. I was very happy he was there.”

What’s ahead is a summer in which baseball takes a back seat to chemotherapy, to radiation that will follow in the fall. The conflicts ahead are inevitable. Amanda’s first chemo treatment was Friday, which happened to be the day of Chad’s fifth start.

“I have to admit I was praying for rain,” Amanda said. It poured. The game was called. Chad drove his wife from their home in McLean to Sibley Hospital in the District. The next night, Amanda sat in the stands for Chad’s start in the makeup game. She has always been wrapped up in these starts, staying put if things are going well, moving around if the mojo needs changing.

“I had no idea how my body was going to react,” Amanda said. “I was getting tired towards the end of the night. It was interesting — going through my health situation while trying to just be the supportive wife I’ve always tried to be.”

But to be a supportive husband, how is Chad Kuhl supposed to be able to concentrate on pitching? It’s always a bit presumptuous to draw a direct line between off-field issues and on-field performance. But isn’t there a relationship between Kuhl’s 1.955 walks and hits per inning pitched and the fact that his wife — goodness gracious, his 30-year-old wife — has breast cancer?

“Out there, it really hasn’t gone my way,” he said, nodding to the field. “Me, I never want to make an excuse or never want to be saying, ‘Oh, this is because of that.’ It’s just one of those things where …” and he trailed off.

“Our home life is just a little bit harder right now,” he said. “She’s done an amazing job so that everything’s seamless and nothing’s really changed. For me, I know what I need to do to get back on track.”

For Amanda, the fight lies ahead. Through their philanthropic arm, the Nationals are helping raise funds for two local cancer-related charities — Breast Care for Washington DC and The Previvor. The Kuhls are new to this battle. They already have a message to put forth.

“First and foremost: Take the utmost care of yourself,” Amanda said. “Do the self-exams — men and women. No matter what age. I’m 30 years old going through this. And then, if anyone has it in their hearts, please please please donate to the fundraiser page.”

It’s at give.nats4good.org/CancerIsntKuhl. Chad and Amanda Kuhl’s story goes back to when they were kids catching each other’s eye at a middle school orientation. It should last to when Hudson can have his own story about the cute girl on the other side of the room. The baseball doesn’t matter much. The next time Chad Kuhl takes the mound at Nats Park — whenever that is — stand and give him a hand. He needs it, and so does his wife.

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