There’s a photo Austin Hernandez keeps on his phone.
In it, he’s just removed his helmet, unleashing untamed, shoulder-length hair.
In it, he’s a split second from crossing home plate after a three-run, game-winning home run in the first round of the 2016 CIF postseason.
In it, he sports his staple billion-watt smile as his West Ranch baseball teammates, just out of focus, wait to mob him.
The photo captures the unbridled joy of the moment, not so much the painful journey to get there: the doctors’ visits, the stomach pain, the surgeries.
Hernandez’s Crohn’s disease went misdiagnosed for roughly two years. His smile never left. His teammates were there waiting.
A DH’s diagnosis
In 2014, at a Las Vegas baseball tournament West Ranch normally attends, Hernandez was feeling abnormal.
No, it was more serious than that. These were the worst stomach pains of his life.
Hernandez’s mom, Melissa, drove him the 267 miles back to Santa Clarita and then to urgent care.
Doctors couldn’t decipher the problem.
Over the next month, sharp abdominal pains continued, sometimes coupled with headaches or nausea. One day Hernandez blacked out, leading to a trip to the emergency room and a week in the hospital.
Finally, a doctor told the family that Hernandez had ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease.
“We were high-fiving. We were glad it wasn’t cancer,” says Hernandez’s father, Dan. “(We thought), ‘We can cope with this.’”
For a while, medication did temper Hernandez’s symptoms, but shortly before he began his junior year, the pain returned.
Hernandez missed the end of summer ball. He missed months’ worth of school the first semester of junior year, sometimes due to doctors’ visits, sometimes because the pain was too great.
“He went from getting nothing but A’s to getting his first B,” Dan says, “and that crushed him.”
West Ranch players tried to salve the pain, sometimes bringing cookies from Lady Di’s to the teammate they’d nicknamed “Smiley.”
Wildcats Jason Drees and Nico Valdez brought Hernandez the latest Madden football video game for his Xbox One.
“It just showed me that they really cared about me,” Hernandez says, “and wanted me to get better.”
In all, Hernandez saw countless doctors, five or six different specialists and had two surgeries.
“The kid never shed a tear. He never complained. He’s just a tough kid, you know,” Dan says.
Finally, the perseverance paid off.
In early March 2016, a doctor corrected Hernandez’s diagnosis. The then-junior really had Crohn’s disease, a different inflammatory bowel disease that needed a different treatment.
Hernandez went on a medication called Remicade that required him to sit through four-hour infusions four times a week in the beginning (he now goes once every two months).
The impact was obvious. Hernandez felt stronger.
Meanwhile, he worked his way back into the baseball groove. He played sparingly over the Wildcats’ first 14 games. He attended practice when he could and encouraged his teammates from the dugout.
Then, during the Santa Ana Elks Tournament, the first week of April, Hernandez returned for good.
In the tournament’s first game, he went 4-for-4 with a home run and two RBIs.
In the second game, he went 3-for-4 with another home run and three RBIs.
“The spark he gave was unreal,” says West Ranch pitcher Timmy Josten, whose team went 5-0 to win the tourney title and build momentum for a torrid stretch run.
“Once we hit that spring break, there were two or three guys who caught fire,” says West Ranch coach Casey Burrill. “We are talking Doug Gragg stepping in for an injured Will Chambers, Danny Luevano shoring up third base and Austin Hernandez going off.
“It was just hit after hit after hit. Those three guys took what was a second- or third-place team maybe and pushed it to first place and deep into the playoffs.”
The Wildcats won 17 of their final 19 games to win a share of the Foothill League title with Valencia and advance to the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 1 playoffs.
In 25 games, Hernandez finished with a .362 batting average, four home runs and 22 RBIs.
“The greatest athletic moment for Melissa and me as parents was to watch him against Mater Dei when he hit the three-run home run,” Dan says of Hernandez’s game-winning blast in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. “I never cried at any sporting event, but we hugged and looked at each other and said, ‘If this has to be the end of his baseball career, this is amazing.””
It wasn’t the end.
Hernandez shifted from designated hitter to second base for his senior year and hit over .300 again.
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Asked recently inside West Ranch’s home dugout if he planned to play at College of the Canyons in the fall, he said he wasn’t sure.
His future, though, feels brighter now that he knows what he’s dealing with and has it under control (currently, there is no cure for Crohn’s disease).
What would he tell someone dealing with the hardships he went through?
“I would say just never lose hope, just keep pushing through it,” he says. “As bad as it might be, just be who you are. Be confident in who you are and let nothing change that.”
Just keep smiling.