On the day he turned 17, Walker Buehler, accompanied by his girlfriend and his mother, went to the basement of a family friend’s house in Lexington, Ky.
Buehler gave a tattoo artist a baseball with his favorite handwritten inscription on it, a note from his late uncle.
Thirty minutes later, Buehler glanced in the mirror at his first and only tattoo with on the left side of his torso that read in identical script, “Always do your best U Pig.”
“I didn’t want my kids to get any tattoos. I don’t have any tattoos,” said Tony Buehler, Walker’s father. “But [when] I saw my kid got that tattoo, I started crying.”
Tony Buehler said his brother gave Walker that baseball when he was 10 or 11. “Before we had any idea what Walker would become,” Tony said.
What Buehler has become is one of the best young pitchers in baseball. When he starts for the Dodgers on Sunday, the day he turns 25, he will take a 9-1 record and a 3.23 ERA into a matchup with the Washington Nationals.
“He was like my best friend growing up,” Buehler said of his uncle. “When I found out he was terminal with cancer the last time I saw him, he wrote that on a baseball.”
It’s a baseball he still owns.
Described by his younger brother Tony as the life and the best of the family, Matthew “Pig” Buehler overcame stark odds as a child.
Matthew was 12 when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system whose victims are often between the ages of 15 and 30.
“It’s just not something that we talk much about anymore. My dad was the younger brother, so I’m sure watching your older brother go through that was tough for him,” Walker said. “In a lot of ways, it made our family closer. We still keep him very close.”
Matthew underwent three years of pediatric cancer treatments that left him with a diminutive stature compared with his schoolmates.
“My brother never physically developed,” Tony said. “Those are the years you’re supposed to be maturing. My brother was athletic, as was I. He never got to live out what middle school and high school was about because he was dealing with cancer.
“It didn’t stop him. He was as competitive as they come. He was the trainer on the soccer and basketball team. He still wanted to be involved.”
Matthew earned the nickname “Pig” from friends Joe Kelly and Ty Burdick.
“He was really small in high school and he fell asleep outside of their high school under a tree,” Walker said. “So, they started calling him Piglet, like from ‘Winnie the Pooh.’ So, when he grew up everyone called him Pig. His obituary read ‘Matthew “Pig” Buehler.’ That’s what we all call him.”
Said Tony Buehler: “The name stuck. If you ask all three of my kids what his name was, they would say Pig. That’s all they knew him by. They couldn’t say his name was Matt. He was Uncle Pig and a treasure.”
Walker Buehler’s relationship with his father involved a lot of athletics. His relationship with his uncle was different. Uncle Pig couldn’t take part in physically demanding athletic activities, so he and Walker created memories in other ways.
“In a weird and phenomenal way, I was always jealous of their relationship,” Tony said. “Because Walker lit up when he was with Pig. They had a special relationship. The freedom my brother had to take him go-karting and do fun stuff. He gave Walker experiences I wasn’t able to give my own kid. Walker got to enjoy and appreciate what his uncle was all about.”
Walker’s fondest memories with his uncle happened while go-karting. He recalled an instance where he was an inch shorter than the required height to drive by himself.
“We went to the bathroom and started stuffing my shoes with toilet paper. The guy let me through, and my uncle winked at me,” Walker said with a laugh. “He was a really fun-loving dude. Obviously, he was given a second chance at life and people tend to be like that. Lots of laughs. We just enjoyed our time together. I got 12 years with him, so I’m pretty lucky that way.”
In his mid-30s, Matthew was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, a cancer of epithelial tissue, the cells that cover the surface of the body’s organs. Whether his earlier bout with cancer was responsible for him developing cancer again later in life remains unknown to his family.
Matthew died in 2005, weeks shy of his 38th birthday.
“Walker was very lucky to know my brother for as long as he did. [Matthew] certainly impacted his life. He was always there for Walker,” Tony said. “He never had any kids of his own because of the cancer treatment. Walker was like his kid.”
Throughout his career, from being drafted in the first round in 2015 to making his first All-Star team his season, Buehler has made sure to keep his uncle’s memory alive.
Before he pitches, he traces the letters “P-I-G” into the mound. Even when he’s not pitching, the straps on his Nike cleats are embroidered with “Pig” in bold red font.
“When you have the ability to do little things like that, it’s kind of a cool thing for me. The fact that [other people] can’t really see it doesn’t matter to me. It’s on there,” Walker said. “Everything I always thought I would do if I was able to do it, I’ve done.”
Last November in Lexington, Buehler hosted a charity golf tournament to benefit the Kids Cancer Alliance.
“It’s all based on him. Pediatric cancer is something that he fought through,” Walker said of his uncle. “That was always going to be the first thing we did if I ever was able to do something like that. It was a good time. I think it’s awesome to be able to give back that way. It’s very special for my family and I.”
Tony Buehler is proud of his son’s numerous baseball accomplishments, but he’s even more impressed with Walker’s character and actions off the field.
“It’s great when I get on Facebook and see my kid walking around Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and he’s doing it with such a great heart,” Tony said. “That’s the whole premise behind Walker’s foundation and raising money for kids cancer research.
“Walker has a platform now and he can do really good things like raise money. He made this decision. He’s going to use his platform in his own special way to remember his Uncle Pig.”