For many, the current pandemic might be the most monumental part of their life’s story, but for Delta College pitcher Jackson Vaughan, it’s just another chapter in a life filled with determination and – for 36 minutes – a life without a beating heart.
Diagnosed with a rare form of stage 4 liver cancer when he was 3, his first and biggest battle was one he doesn’t remember much of, aside from the orange and purple popsicles and chocolate milk. Undergoing chemotherapy and a first, unsuccessful liver transplant, his life could have been over very easily at an early age.
Put on a machine to replicate the liver’s functions, he would end up going into cardiac arrest. For 36 minutes, he was without a heartbeat until the doctors, with the help of epinephrine, were able to get his heart going.
Miraculously, with no signs of brain damage, he was then able to get a successful second transplant.
“I was 7 or 8 when I first started (playing baseball) and I went straight into pitching machine,” said Vaughan, who got a bit of a later start playing the sport compared to some of his friends. “To be honest I was pretty bad. I always was picked last at everything, but I always had a good time.”
Listed generously this past season at 5’8” on the roster, his size doesn’t immediately make you think he is an intimidating presence on the mound.
That frame doesn’t show a heart and determination much bigger than his body — on and off the field.
“My sister is the smart one in the family and she was valedictorian,” said Vaughn about his older sister, Ali Vaughan. “I knew I wasn’t as smart as her, but I knew that I could work harder than anyone in my class. Freshman year I got a B but it didn’t count towards being valedictorian so I was like ‘all right, I am never going to get a B in high school again.’ I worked really hard, did all the extra credit I could, I showed up every day, and made sure I was the first one there and the last one to leave and it ended up working out for me.”
Vaughan was successful in following in his sister’s footsteps and became the valedictorian at Bakersfield High School for the Class of 2018.
His hard work on the diamond also paid off, turning him from someone that was always picked last to one of the top players in the league, with a pitching style similar to former San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, who he became a big fan of.
“I like to say that I am fake athletic,” said Vaughan. “Pitching, I have gotten pretty good at and it is not from anything but pure hard work. If you look at me I’m 5’6 whatever, and at the end of the day, no one really wants a 5’6 baseball player. But if I apply myself, I can make myself really good and change people’s minds.”
At the same time he was having great success while in high school, his size played a factor in many doubting he would be able to play at the Division I level in college.
“When people started telling me I couldn’t,” said Vaughan about when he started to believe he would be able to play Division I baseball. “I have always been doubted. When someone says ‘you can’t go D1,’ it is like ‘well, I beat cancer and I kind of beat death, so I can definitely go D1.’”
Making the most of one of his last chances to impress college coaches he made a good impression on the coaching staff at the University of California, Santa Barbara and committed to the Gauchos. There, he would seemingly be set to make NCAA history by reportedly becoming the first liver transplant recipient to play Division I baseball.
That history is still waiting to be made and will take place next season at a different school.
“I played in two preseason games and then two days before the start of the season I was cut,” said Vaughan about his time at UCSB. “They had brought in 60 guys for a roster size of 35 and I was the last to leave. It was an interesting situation that I was not fond of.”
Moving on from a bad situation, he would transfer and play this past season at Delta.
“It felt like a family atmosphere,” he said. “At Delta, I had an immediate connection with everyone. It was just such a really cool experience to go from something where I was in a pretty depressed state of mind to have a bunch of great dudes that had my back and were ready to go to war with me.”
Before the season ended abruptly, he appeared in a total of nine games for the Mustangs and had a 1.50 ERA as he allowed just two runs and four walks while striking out 24 batters in 12 innings.
“He has such a bulldog mentality and such a competitor out on the mound,” said head coach Reed Peters about Vaughan’s season with Delta. “He just gets such an exceptional spin rate on his fastball and he gets a lot of swings and misses.”
One of Vaughn’s old hobbies included making baseball bats, but with his fastball leading the way, he has now been focusing on making his opponents bats swing and miss.
“It has the perception that it is going faster than it is,” said Vaughan who has been working on his fastball and has seen it climb into the low 90s. “My fastball spins very efficiently and it’s not something that you see often. It has a lot of life to it, spins well, and really is my go-to pitch.”
As much as he has been known for his ability to fight and work hard, he considers himself a different person on the field compared to when he is off the field.
“A lot of times when I first meet people I’m not very eccentric or outgoing,” he said. “I’m honestly more shy and a little bit awkward but when I go out on the mound it’s almost like I can let go of everything that is giving me trouble and kind of let all my emotions out. It’s a place where I can be whoever I want. I’m not the 5’6” person that people can pick on out there. I’m the very, very aggressive pitcher that is trying to kill everyone that is at-bat. I’m not really an angry person, but out on the mound I can seem that way.”
While many are having a tough time adjusting to not being able to go about their previously normal everyday activities it is a time that is set for someone like Vaughan to thrive.
“It’s another bump in the road,” said Vaughan. “You grow from adversity. You learn new things about yourself. It’s honestly kind of fun to figure out what I can do with limited resources and I am making the most of it. Made my own little mound, got a net, and started chucking.”
Back in December, he committed to the University of the Pacific so he will be staying in Stockton and heading down the street to continue his baseball journey next season while studying biology.
While he is set to make history next season when he pitches in a game for the Tigers, he dreams of playing professionally someday.
“I’m going to keep playing as long as I can,” said Vaughan.