CONCORDIA, Kansas — Zach Engelken will fulfill a lifelong dream Saturday, July 22 when the Kansas City Royals host the Chicago White Sox as he will toe the rubber inside Kauffman Stadium to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Organ Donation and Transplant Awareness Night.
Engelken, a 31-year-old native of Vermillion, Kansas, is no stranger to a pitching mound. He was a dominating high school pitcher at Centralia High School in the early 2000's where he posted a 28-2 record with 303 strikeouts versus 39 walks.
The 6-foot-2 right-hander is not your typical first pitch guest of honor.
"Everybody keeps telling me to throw (the first pitch) hard, but I don't know," Engelken said. "I'm definitely not going to lob it in there. I'll put something behind it."
Armed with a mid-80's fastball and impeccable control, Engelken was able to play collegiately for Cloud County Community College (2004-06), where he earned All-Conference Honorable Mention as a freshman, before finishing his career as a starting pitcher for Washburn University (2006-08).
Getting the best of collegiate hitters is a difficult task. But if you ask Engelken, nothing compared to the battle he started on Valentine's Day in 2016, nearly eight years after he'd recorded his final strikeout.
"I just thought I had pneumonia," recalled Engelken about his first of what would be many trips to the KU Medical Center. "It just led from there and I got sicker and sicker. I put on 40 pounds of water weight and went into liver, kidney, lung and heart failure all pretty much at the same time."
Engelken was scheduled for LVAD (Left Ventricle Assist Device) surgery on March 24, 2016 to relieve the pressure on his organs — a bridge to buy time before he'd need a heart transplant.
It'd be three months after the LVAD surgery until Engelken could move on his own again, and another seven months until he received the call on January 17, 2017 that a heart had been found.
"I was pretty calm most of the drive there until they started to bring me back (into the operating room)," Engelken said. "Then it hit me that this was really happening."
Engelken's surgery would be a success, but he wasn't out of the woods yet in what had now been a year-long fight. Five days after he left the hospital he was readmitted for another nine days to battle a "R2 moderate rejection" to the transplant.
As Engelken described it, the initial rejection was just a "bump in the road." He left the hospital for good and quickly resumed an active lifestyle as he began walking up to five miles a day, just four weeks removed from his last hospital stint, and returned to work construction for his uncle in Seneca.
The frightening ordeal turned into an eye-opening experience and motivation for Engelken, who has since set the date to marry his fiancé, Jennifer Melvin, next June.
"I'm not going to waste it," said Engelken, referring to his new lease on life. "I get out and do basically what I want and I try to seize the opportunity when something comes up. I don't like sitting around anymore."
It's why Engelken couldn't say no to the chance to step on to a big league baseball diamond this July. And though it won't be Salvador Perez who catches Engelken's first pitch, the man behind home plate will be an All-Star in his own right as it will be Engelken's cardiologist, Dr. Andrew Sauer.
"It's pretty amazing what Dr. Sauer has done for me and it means a lot for him to step behind the plate," said Engelken, who joked Sauer is a little worried the former collegiate pitcher may have a few bullets left in him. "I think he's more scared than I am because he doesn't want me to 'knock his block off.' That's what he told me."
Engelken added he hopes, as the Royals promote organ donation and transplant awareness inside "The K" that evening, that people realize the impact they can have by registering to become organ donors.
"Get out and register to be an organ donor. It's out there and people need it," Engelken said. "That's all I'd ask for. I know it can be a touchy subject. But you never know who will need an organ. I know at my age I never thought I'd need one."