The inaugural five-day JM23 Classic at Tempe Diablo Stadium went off without a hitch from Sept. 15-19, with a champion crowned on the final day of the tournament.
But as exciting as it was for many fans to watch live sports for perhaps the first time in months, that was all secondary to the main goal: honor the legacy of former Perry baseball player Jacob Medina of Gilbert, who died in May at age 19.
“Without embracing sadness, you can’t celebrate the joy,” said Emery Miller, Jacob’s longtime friend and organizer of the event. “The people in the ‘Jacob Strong’ family, we’ve embraced a lot of sadness in the last 19 months. But to now be here and see me and Jacob’s vision come to life, it’s beyond words. It gives me goosebumps.”
Emery and Miller had come up with the idea of the 24-team tournament in December to raise funds for a family in need.
Still in remission at the time from his first battle with leukemia that resulted in a lengthy stay at Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Jacob threw out the idea of hosting an entire league to raise more money.
“This is classic Jacob,” said Miller, smiling at his orange “Jacob Strong” bracelet. “He says, ‘I like the idea, but what if you did more?’ I think it goes to show how Jacob was. He wanted to help people by doing it in the very best way possible. But I was like, ‘dude, who is going to run the league? We are all in college.’
“He never settled for good enough. He always wanted perfection, especially when it came to helping others.”
As Miller and his non-profit organization, Team Emery, began finalizing plans for the tournament in February, Jacob’s health once again began to decline.
He beat leukemia in just 33 days in March 2019. After his physical therapist raised concerns once again a year later in March 2020, tests revealed the cancer had returned, this time at an accelerated rate.
Even then, however, Jacob’s mindset never changed. He was confident he could beat it. His parents, Mike and Krystal Medina, said the chemo treatments were too harsh on his organs.
Before his passing, Miller decided he wanted all proceeds from the tournament to go toward his family. Additionally, he wanted to honor Mike, Krystal and Jacob’s younger brother, Casey.
The three joined Miller on the field the final day of the tournament. They stood near home plate, where “JM” and “23,” Jacob’s initials and number, were written in white chalk.
“The support is just awesome,” Mike said. “It’s been overwhelming. We are going through a pandemic right now, but people here think this is more important than that. I think all of this goes to show how special Jacob was. People don’t even know him, but they hear his story and they just want to participate.”
The three were then gifted a custom blue wooden bat with Jacob’s initials engraved in white. Mariah Meredith, Jacob’s nurse at PCH, presented the gift.
“When I got a message asking to come, there was no way I could turn it down,” Meredith said. “I felt very honored and Jacob made me feel like a special person in his life.”
Jacob was described as a happy-go-lucky kid with an infectious smile who loved Air Jordan shoes and helping those in need.
Austin Kowalchuk, Kenzie Jones, Abby Cabner and Anthony DeAndrea were some of the many who volunteered to help run the tournament.
They recalled on several occasions going to his house when he was battling cancer for the second time. He always appeared strong and told them if they needed anything, he was there.
“He always thought of others before himself,” Jones said. “No matter what condition he was in, no matter how he was feeling, it was always about other people before himself.”
Jacob’s desire to help others through difficult times never went away, even as he was at his worst. One of the most notable came from one of his old classmates now enlisted in the military.
“He told us he was in his darkest moment but out of the blue, Jacob texted him and said he wanted to check on him and see how he was doing. Jacob was in a hospital bed at the time,” Krystal said. “He told us Jacob saved him.”
Miller and the Medina family believe Jacob made more of an impact in 19 years than many people make over more time.
“Jacob was the kind of kid that even though I hung out with him for 19 years, it wasn’t enough time,” said Miller, fighting back tears. “Knowing Jacob was humbling. Knowing him made me a better person.
“This event, this is Jacob. This is his community. It takes a special young man to bring this many people together for a great cause.”