In July 2015, Jaden Fein, who is the Aztecs’ current star right fielder, was among a group of 40 players from across the country chosen to represent the United States in the 2015 COPABE “AA” Pan American Championships.
The next month, the 15 and under team traveled to Aguascalientes, Mexico, and played in a double-elimination tournament against future professionals from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. Fein started and tripled in the United States 9-5 gold medal game win over Columbia.
“It was one of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve ever had,” Fein said in an interview with the East Village Times last week.
A few months later, in the first semester of his sophomore year at Royal High School in Simi Valley, Fein committed to the Aztecs. “I wanted to stay local (in Southern California),” Fein said about his commitment. “At the time, the majority of schools in California played ‘California Baseball’ where they bunt guys over. When I came on my visit (SDSU head coach Mark Martinez) said, ‘We don’t play that type of baseball. When you come here, you swing the bat. Your goal is to hit doubles and hit the ball as hard as you can.’ That was refreshing for me to hear.”
At the time, it was doubtful he would ever step foot on the Mesa. Fein looked destined to be an MLB draft pick with a six or seven-figure signing bonus straight out of high school. With a gold medal in hand, his college recruitment complete, and his prospects of professional baseball improving, 2015 was a high point in Fein’s young life.
Everything would change on and off the field in 2016. “We used to say,” Candi Fein, Jaden Fein’s mother, reflected this week, “we were glad he was really good at the time he committed to San Diego State because he played so bad (his junior and senior years of high school).” He only hit .260 his final two seasons at Royal High. How did Fein fall from a potential early-round MLB draft pick to feeling fortunate SDSU honored its scholarship offer in only three years?
Before the sophomore baseball season, Fein was struggling through batting practice with his dad. Like most young people, Fein tried to power through the frustrating session. A few dozen swings soon turned into 200. He felt his back starting to go out but ignored it. A few days later, he took the field in a preseason tournament in Redondo, took one giant swing, and his back was done.
X-rays revealed a crack in his L5 lumbar caused by Spondylolysis. Spondylolysis is caused by repetitive movements like swinging a bat. It is common among adolescent athletes. “I was out for six to eight months,” Fein said, “Not doing anything (baseball related) – just doing physical therapy.” He ended up playing a few games in the regular season and all of the playoffs that season. The injury, which Fein has completely healed from, was not close to the biggest challenge he faced that year.
Just six weeks before Fein’s 16th birthday, his world would completely change. His mother had been in and out of the hospital with severe back and hip pain. She was finally admitted to the hospital the first week of July because her kidneys and liver were failing. A week later, on July 9, 2016, she was diagnosed with Stage IV, Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cancer was found in 90% of her bone marrow. She received her first treatment that same day.
This began nearly five months of intensive chemotherapy. Every 21 days, Mrs. Fein would be readmitted to the hospital for 120 continuous hours of treatment. Her final five-day stay started the weekend before Thanksgiving.
“We spent a lot of time in those rooms.” Candi Fein said, “My treatment was through Kaiser, and they really let us turn my room into the living room at home. My family would come. They would bring dinner pretty much every night I was there. J (Jaden) would come in the morning, play his ball, and then come back afterward.”
No longer just a ballplayer, Fein became a nurse to his mom. His mom remembers he would blow up surgical gloves, place them inside of his clothes, and dance just to make her laugh. At home, Fein would wake up early and set his mom up in her lounge chair with whatever she needed for the day before heading out to school.
He also became his sister’s chauffeur. Despite how sick she felt, Fein’s mother insisted on being the person to take him to the DMV to get his driver’s license just five weeks after her diagnosis. Reaching this milestone permitted Fein to shuttle his sister and himself to school, run errands, and of course, drive to and from baseball practices and games.
“He just had to grow up fast.” Candi Fein said about her son. “Other kids had their parents to drive them to practice and bring them things they forgot. He never did that. He had to do it.”
“He was a 16-year-old kid, but he was this adult that just did it all. He was good in school. He knew these were the things he needed to do. My husband always put in his head: ‘we have this end goal, so don’t worry about what everybody else is thinking or saying, just work hard and be a good person.’… he just does that.”
Looking back on the time, Fein points to a seemingly mundane event as an “eye-opener.” His great aunt, dad, grandma, and other family members were sharing dinner together in his mom’s hospital room. They sat there, in their make-shift living room, laughing, talking, and eating together while his mother received treatment. Fein said he learned that despite the difficulty of the situation, his family could still love each other, and together they could fight the cancer. Fein said it made him a better baseball player, but “more importantly a better man off the field.”
“It really puts life into perspective,” Fein explained, “when one of the people you love most is facing that kind of a challenge. It makes the game so small, and it makes you appreciate the little things. That helped me the next couple of years of high school. Even to this day, I’m playing for her and remembering that even when the times are tough – I’m not swinging the bat well – it’s just a game. That’s as simple as it is, and things could be much worse.”
After a three-year detour, Fein looks to be back on the path to the major leagues. A draft-eligible redshirt sophomore, Fein was SDSU’s first Mountain West Freshman of the Year since Stephen Strasburg. Last season, he led the Aztecs with a .348 average in the COVID shortened season. This year, he was named the conference’s player of the year in the preseason and has lived up to the prediction. He won the Mountain West Player of the Week award each of the first three weeks of the season. Fein is currently second in the nation in batting average with a .500 mark on the year.
What sets Jaden Fein apart on the field is also what sets him apart off it. He is the rare person who understands the profound truth that life consists of the little moments each day. If we cherish the little things, the big goals have a way of taking care of themselves. Fein sees himself battling for a spot on a major league roster in five years, but his focus is on his teammates, and all the Aztecs have to play for this season.
Jaden begins each day by contacting his mom just to say hello and see how she’s doing. Though her cancer has been in remission for four years now, any mention of her on-going health issues or doctor’s visits are met with caring questions and worry from her former nurse.
“I am just so proud of him.” Candi Fein said of her son. “He just works so hard. I just want him to be happy, ultimately. That’s kind of all you want for your kids. I’m just glad I am still here, so he doesn’t have to struggle. I know that year was really hard on him … We were already this super close family. This just made us closer.”