January 11, 2012

CATCH-22:

Strength From Weakness (Steve Wulf, ESPN: 360)

In the living room of a lovely home at the end of an oak tree-lined lane in Hillsboro, Ore., Ben Petrick inserts a disc into the DVD player. His wife, Kellie, has taken their 4-year-old daughter, Makena, upstairs for a nap, giving Petrick the opportunity to flop into his easy chair and fast-forward to the moment he wants you to see.

The video is of June 29, 2001, and Petrick is batting sixth as a catcher for the Colorado Rockies. With one out and nobody on in the top of the seventh as the Rockies trail the Diamondbacks 3-0, Petrick puts a perfect swing on a 2-2 fastball from Randy Johnson, launching the pitch into the leftfield seats at Bank One Ballpark for his ninth homer of the season. It's a thing of beauty.

But that's not what he wants to show you -- Petrick is not one to brag, even if he did go deep off a future Hall of Famer. No, he wants to show you what happened after he hit the home run. "Watch as I run around the bases," he says. "Look at my left arm. It's not in sync with my right. It's just sort of hanging there."

He has other video evidence: a quaking left hand as he gives the target behind the plate, his difficulty removing a shin guard off his left leg after a double and a left leg spasm just before he goes the other way off CC Sabathia. Petrick played 240 major league games, with at least 221 of them coming after young-onset Parkinson's disease began to take over his 22-year-old body in 2000.

The Rockies saw so much potential that they gave Petrick a $495,000 signing bonus after drafting him from Hillsboro's Glencoe High School, near Portland. He didn't disappoint after his September 1999 call-up. Having already torn through two levels of the minors, Petrick hit four homers, drove in 12 runs and batted .323 in 19 games. "Think Buster Posey with speed," says Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who met Petrick as a minor league hitting instructor and later managed him in the bigs. "He had five tools, six counting his ability to handle pitchers."

"He could've been one of the best catchers ever," says Brent Butler, a Rockies infielder who roomed with Petrick. "I'm not just saying that. I truly believe it."

"He had no ceiling," says Rockies executive vice president Dan O'Dowd, the general manager who ended up trading Petrick to the Detroit Tigers in 2003 because he wasn't quite living up to his potential. "I only wish I'd known."

Who could have known? Who could have known that a player some considered a potential Hall of Fame catcher, a player who represented the traditional sense of NEXT in sports, would have his future stolen from him by an incurable disease that rarely afflicts people as young as 22?

How good was Petrick? Go back and look at his stats. In those 240 games for the Rockies and Tigers, he hit .257 with 27 home runs and 94 RBIs while trying to control the symptoms of Parkinson's, which include tremors, rigidity and slow movements. He was not only tough enough to be a catcher, the most demanding position on the field, but also athletic enough to play centerfield when he wasn't behind the plate.

"Looking back, I am amazed at what he accomplished," says Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, who was Colorado's first pick in the 1995 draft, the year Petrick was taken in the second round. "It's hard enough performing at the highest level of this game, which he did. On top of that, he had to fight off a disease that robbed him of his physical ability. And on top of that, he had to play under the tremendous pressure of hiding the effects of that disease."

Helton pauses. "You know what, though?" he says. "I'm more impressed by what he's done with his life since."

As it turns out, Ben Petrick lost one gift and found another.

Posted by at January 11, 2012 6:51 AM
  

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