Rice University is a small school located in southwest Houston, Texas. It’s a baseball school through and through. They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament 17 straight years, they’ve been to the College World Series seven times, and they won a National Championship in 2003. Rice was also home to Padres prospect Josh Geer before the majors, before minor league ball, before winter league, and before cancer.
In June of 2005, Geer went from college star, to minor league prospect. He was drafted in the third round, 98th overall, by the San Diego Padres. While he wasn’t officially signed until July 1, 2005, Geer became a professionally ball player that day. It’s what every little leaguer dreams of, but for Geer, that dream would soon change by a nightmare that put life and baseball in perspective.
Geer began his amateur career in junior college. After pitching for two years at Navarro College, he moved on to play for the Rice Owls. Geer missed Rice’s National Championship season by one year, and made his debut for the Owls in 2004. Geer was the conference player of the year for the Navarro College Bulldogs in 2004 and helped them win the 2003 conference championship. With Rice, Geer performed well enough to get noticed by a number of clubs before ultimately being scooped up by the Padres in the third round.
Geer began his professional career with the Eugene Emeralds of Low-A ball. He pitched in seven games and posted a 3.69 ERA. He wasn’t dominant, but he had enough to earn a promotion to Fort Wayne the Padres Single-A affiliate in Indiana. He pitched five games for them to the tune of a 4.25 ERA. While he did not get much action in that first year of pro ball, he had shown the Padres front office something because it wasn’t long before Geer would find himself in Lake Elsinore after yet another promotion.
The 2006 season was split between the Tin Caps of Fort Wayne and the Storm of Lake Elsinore. In 12 games with the Tin Caps, Geer posted a 3.12 ERA, the best of his career to this point. He made the transition to High-A in Lake Elsinore and pitched in 15 games. His ERA suffered, and he posted the highest earned run average of his career at 4.96.
Despite the lackluster performance in High-A ball, something about Geer’s stuff had the Padres intrigued. They promoted him to Double-A at the start of the 2007 season. Before the 2007 was done, Geer found himself in Triple-A, just a short hop away from the majors.
John Conniff of MadFriars.com had this to say about Geer’s rapid movement through the system:
"Every time Josh Geer, 24, is promoted I’ve written that since the three pitches that he throws, two-seam fastball, changeup and slider, are slightly above average, the next level may be the one where the hitters finally catch up with him."
It was a sup rising ride for Geer, but the real surprise was yet to come. As he pushed through the minors, working his way ever so close to the major leagues, Geer, like every other ball player around, was subjected to numerous day games under the scorching heat of the Texas League and the Pacific Coast League. That sun exposure would soon prove overwhelming for Geer’s body.
It wouldn’t happen overnight. Instead, countless games, some under the lights and some under the sun, took their toll. Along the way, Geer became a major league pitcher. On August 30, 2008, Geer made his major league debut. Geer pitched five strong innings in the debut. He gave up five hits, two runs, and five strikeouts.
For the 2008 season, Geer pitched in five games and put up a 2.67 ERA. He returned to the major league club in 2009, but found the road much more difficult. In 19 games, including 17 starts, he got lit up. Geer posted a 5.96 ERA.
The bright lights and big stage of the major league club would have to be out on hold. Geer’s poor performance had him back down in Triple-A for the 2010 and 2011 season. However, by January of 2011, Geer had more on his mind than baseball. He felt a lump on his neck. Like most guys, he let it go. He figured he would just get it checked out in March when he reported for spring training.
"I noticed that I had a little knot on my neck in January, sort of between my neck and my shoulder. I just figured I would get it checked out in Spring Training. You couldn’t even see it unless you ran your hand over it."
Geer talked to Corey Brock of Padres.com during his recovery in the summer of 2011. The lump in his neck was skin cancer. A melanoma of the lymph node.
Geer had surgery early in the Triple-A season to remove the cancer and was sidelined the rest of the year. The good news was the cancer looked to be completely gone. The bad news was the 25 staples left in his neck after the surgery. The first step in recovery was waiting, letting the surgical wound heal, and making sure the cancer was gone for good. The second step was rehab.
Now, with all that behind him – the surgery, the cancer scare, and the rehab – Geer has returned to spring training, returned to the Padres, and returned to his new normal. He will always care about baseball, but his perspective is forever changed.
"It has opened my eyes a lot more. I realize just how fortunate I was to have my family around me, my friends. To have that support and to have people praying for me. You look at life differently. I’m very fortunate. I’m very blessed in many ways."
Baseball can be distracting, uplifting, and painful. For a cancer-survivor like Josh Geer, baseball, as he is reminded by his recovery, is just a game. Life is more than the game, but that doesn’t mean he won’t go out and be competitive. That doesn’t mean he won’t work to make it back on the major league roster. It simply means if he doesn’t, Geer will be able to deal with it better. However, his story is one worth following and one worth rooting for.