Phillies' Diekman holds memory of his mother close

Billie Diekman with her son Jake. She died at 57 after suffering a heart attack in 2007.
Billie Diekman with her son Jake. She died at 57 after suffering a heart attack in 2007.
Posted: May 12, 2014

NEW YORK - Before Jake Diekman walks to the bullpen, the place where he honed a twisting motion to generate the hardest fastball thrown by any lefthanded reliever in baseball, he will ascend the dugout steps Sunday and join a line of his Phillies teammates.

The public-address announcer at Citi Field will ask fans to remove their hats.

Diekman does not remember the last thing he said to his mother, Billie, before she suffered a heart attack Feb. 4, 2007, and died in a Nebraska hospital. For years, it tormented him. That is why phone fights with his father now linger no more than five minutes before one calls the other to apologize.

Diekman will hold his red cap across his chest.

His mother always wanted him to attend the University of Nebraska, and he signed a letter of intent shortly before she died. But, six months later, when the Phillies drafted him in the 30th round, he bolted for Florida and a professional career. The sting at home was still too great.

He will lower his head when the anthem starts.

Billie Diekman never saw her son, the one who emerged from Wymore, Neb., a town too small for a high-school baseball team, pitch in the majors. That is fine, Diekman says; she has the best seat every night.

The words will overflow the stadium, but Jake Diekman will not hear them.

He visited a therapist in Nebraska two winters ago, and it was not until then that Diekman accepted it. The anger of a 20-year-old college kid morphed into the positive outlook of a 27-year-old major-league reliever.

"Oh, say, can you see . . . " and this is the moment Diekman treasures.

"I talk to her every day during the anthem," Diekman says. "It's like 2 minutes and 15 seconds we have to ourselves every day."

Sunday, in some ways, will be harder for Diekman. He will see pink everywhere, a reminder of how much everyone cares. This will be his eighth Mother's Day without his mom. But time sealed those wounds; it strengthened his memory.

"You cherish the 20 years you had with the person," Diekman says. "That's what is fun about holidays now. We'll bring up stories. We'll laugh our asses off. 'That's so Billie. That's unbelievable.' "

Billie Diekman loved to watch her son pitch. It was her husband, Paul, who roamed the small American Legion fields of the Plains to relieve stress whenever Diekman took the mound. "Nuh-uh," Billie told Paul. "Sit down." And he did.

"She was my biggest fan," Jake Diekman said. "She was the best person."

The lanky lefty played golf at Wymore Southern High School because baseball was not a varsity sport there. He spent the summer after his senior year pitching for Wymore's American Legion team while working 40 hours a week at a lawn mower factory with his father. That was enough to push Diekman to nearby Doane College for a year, and then Cloud County Community College after.

Billie - born in California but relocated to Nebraska for work - started a company, Earthbound Promotions. She acted for the local theater company; Diekman loved her wit. But this business transferred Hollywood to the Midwest. She scouted areas for various movies that needed to shoot scenes in the Plains. She even appeared in one, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, a 1995 film starring Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes. Billie played a florist in one scene. Diekman and his brother, Brian, were guests at the filming.

She worked through heart problems until a stroke on Thanksgiving night in 2004. Diekman helped his mother take a nitroglycerin tablet to treat the chest pain. The nearest hospital was 12 miles away. It was quicker for him to drive her than call an ambulance.

Diekman accompanied his mother three or four days a week to rehab. After he left home for college, his father relayed medical updates. Then, before practice at Cloud County on Feb. 4, 2007, Diekman's coach pulled him aside. Paul called; he needed to go home, two hours north.

"I've had calls like that before," Diekman said, "but she was fine every time."

A week after Billie died at age 57, Diekman returned to school for baseball. "I almost didn't even care if I got drafted or not," he said. He decided to attend Nebraska in the fall because that's what she wanted.

"I didn't have time to really mourn," Diekman said. "A week later I was on the baseball field again, which I should have been. That was a great escape from everything. But then every weekend when we didn't play, I would drive home and do nothing. I started drinking a lot by myself."

Some who grow up in Wymore stay to farm. Others work in the factories, like his father, who maintains his job to this day. So Diekman signed with the Phillies two weeks after they selected him with the 923d overall pick because it was a way out.

The Phillies offered good money and a fresh start. His first stop was the Gulf Coast League.

"I think deep down I just wanted to get away from everything," Diekman said. "That was like six months later. People would still talk about it and ask me how I'm doing."

Diekman's rise in the Phillies system commenced once he adjusted his mechanics to throw side-arm. His 96.3-m.p.h. average fastball velocity this season ranks among the fastest of all relievers. His 27 strikeouts were fourth entering the weekend. His skill-set - a funky lefthanded delivery with dominant stuff - could create a lengthy career.

Paul Diekman visits his youngest son when the Phillies are in St. Louis or Chicago. Billie isn't around to stop his pacing, but father and son laugh about it now. They talk every day, usually during Paul's lunch break at the factory, even if it is for only a few minutes. The loss of Billie brought them closer.

"He's not just like a father to me," Diekman said. "He's my best friend. It's awesome."

Diekman bought his father a house in Beatrice, Neb., right next to his older brother's. He returns to Nebraska every winter. Sometimes, he talks to a therapist about his family's loss. "You can't hold it in," Diekman said. "You're going to blow up someday."

It hurt until Billie's next lesson: Diekman started to appreciate the little things. The game slowed down when he had fun. He invoked his mother's spirit rather than avoiding it.

"The drive and determination she had for all the projects she did, how hard she worked, the dedication she had for her job," Diekman said. "It really paid off. It really came to me. I thought, 'If I have a job, I want to put in the time and dedication like she did.' "

That is how Billie Diekman's legacy perseveres. It is why a young man from tiny Wymore, Neb., will cherish Sunday's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a baseball stadium in New York with his own lyrics.


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb

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