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Starkey: The 'angel' who found Clint Hurdle

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle watches play against the Dodgers on Friday, June 14, 2013, at PNC Park.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013, 10:54 p.m.
 

At first blush, Ben Petrick's final major-league statistics appear unremarkable: 240 games, .257 batting average, 27 home runs.

Now consider that Petrick played 221 of those games while suffering from Parkinson's disease. Consider that he had just 30-percent use of his left hand by the end, and his stat line suddenly seems miraculous.

“I've never run across anything like it, a player who had challenges to that degree,” says Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. “I cannot fathom the depths of it.”

Who could? Petrick's story is almost too unreal to comprehend.

It first entered my consciousness via HBO's “Real Sports,” then through an amazing article on ESPN.com and finally by way of Petrick's book — “Forty Thousand to One” — which I read in one breathless take.

That led me to a conversation with Petrick, a one-time catching phenom with the Colorado Rockies and the only known professional athlete whose career was halted by Parkinson's.

It also led me to Hurdle, who found himself smack in the middle of Petrick's nightmare in the early 2000s — and will be forever grateful for the experience.

Gratitude, astonishingly, emerges as the triumphant theme in Petrick's story.

Here's the basic plot:

• The Rockies drafted the rocket-armed Petrick (6 feet, 195 pounds) out of Glencoe (Ore.) High in 1995.

• He tore up the minors and arrived on Jim Leyland's roster Sept. 1, 1999, as one of the most prized catching prospects in recent memory.

• He doubled off the Pirates' Jason Schmidt in his first at-bat and hit .323 with four home runs in 62 at-bats that month. The baseball world was abuzz.

• A month later, at the Arizona Fall League, Petrick experienced tremors in his left hand while typing. Though just 22, some 40 years from the typical onset of Parkinson's, he knew exactly what was happening.

Here's why: The disease ran in his family. There is no proven genetic link, yet Petrick's father, Vern, had been diagnosed just months earlier, and Parkinson's had ravaged Petrick's maternal grandfather.

The following spring, Petrick's glove began to shake as he set a target. He struggled to grip the bat. A doctor diagnosed him with “Parkinsonism,” a possible early onset version of the disease.

Petrick told a teammate and a trainer but was advised to keep quiet, lest management find out.

That led to several seasons of pure agony, mostly in the minor leagues. Petrick took powerful medication to mitigate his symptoms, even popping pills on the field. He was overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. His body regularly betrayed him, whether by tremors or extreme rigidity.

He was, quite literally, living a nightmare. And living it alone.

All of which led him down a hotel hallway late one night in May of 2000, to Clint Hurdle's door. Hurdle was the Rockies' hitting instructor. Petrick sensed a kindred spirit. The two talked all night.

This would become their ritual. Petrick never told Hurdle about the Parkinson's but opened up about his anxieties, about living in the “prison” of failed expectations. Fans and media, unaware of his affliction, had taken to ripping him.

Hurdle could relate. Alcoholism had derailed his once-promising baseball career.

“I'd never walked in Ben's shoes,” Hurdle says. “But I'd walked in mine, and the shoes pretty much fit.”

On that first night, Hurdle told Petrick, “You're being challenged to live an uncommon life” and told him he didn't have to do it alone.

“In sport, we get wrapped up in, ‘Head down, go hard, I got myself into this mess, I'll get myself out,' ” Hurdle says. “But it's a vicious cycle. For me, it was the numbing, the self-medicating at the end of the night, sometimes just to get rid of the fear and anxiety. Well, it shows up the next morning.”

In his book, Petrick wrote, “I got what I needed from Clint that night, as I suspect many of his players have in the years since.”

Hurdle found, through counseling, that his main issue had been constantly trying to prove himself worthy — on and off the field.

“It was always a war,” he says. “I was always in a battle. Through my recovery, I just got to the point where, you know what? The war's over.”

Petrick's war was just beginning. He continued to hide the disease, even from close friends such as Brandon Inge, his spring-training roommate in 2004 with the Detroit Tigers.

By that time, Petrick not only had a new team but a new position: outfield. He sometimes could not open his glove to field grounders. His throws were often wildly off-target.

Yet, Inge recalls, “Not one time did he ever make an excuse. As I look back, I can't even imagine how hard that must have been.”

There is not space here to do Petrick's story justice. The short version is that he retired in 2004, at age 27, and began what he calls his real life: A harrowing journey through several brain surgeries and nearly death, with an eye toward becoming a functional husband and father to his two young daughters.

Petrick opted for a radical operation called “Deep Brain Stimulation” on the hope it would improve his quality of life. It did, on the second attempt, though the disease remains active and progressing.

The title to the book — “Forty Thousand to One” — reflects not only the odds of getting Parkinson's but also the contrast between 40,000 fans cheering Petrick's first hit and one small girl depending on him for much more important things.

He found the latter audience infinitely more meaningful.

If you read one chapter of one book the rest of your life, you could do worse than the last of Petrick's book, titled “Night Becomes Us.”

During his darkest days, Petrick envisioned himself being able to comfort his toddler daughter were she to awaken in the middle of the night. What torture it was to hear her walking toward his bedroom, knowing that only his wife could respond. He was not physically able.

The chapter describes how, through the radical brain surgery, Petrick finally realized his vision one night when 4-year-old Makena pitter-pattered down the hallway.

Just as he and Hurdle had once done, Petrick and Makena stayed up all night talking. And giggling. And watching “Rapunzel.”

Hurdle, in the foreword to “Forty Thousand to One,” speaks of Petrick as an “angel” who taught him the lesson of grace through adversity. Hurdle put the lesson in practice when he left Colorado peacefully, not bitterly, upon being fired.

I recently chatted with Petrick by phone while he was vacationing with his family on an island outside Seattle. He apologized for his slurred speech and said I could ask him to repeat something if it wasn't clear.

He spoke of how “lucky” he is to have a wife (Kellie) and two girls (Makena, Madison) who love him. He also described the post-traumatic stress disorder that swallowed him up in retirement. Masking his disease for five years while trying to survive in the cut-throat world of professional baseball had taken a terrible toll.

Mixed with Petrick's nightmares were dreams in which he was playing again. Hurdle regularly appeared in them as a calming figure. The two have stayed in regular touch.

“He's a good guy to have in your corner,” Petrick says.

As powerful as the book was, I wanted to hear for myself: What is Petrick's message amid such unspeakable suffering?

He didn't need to repeat his answer. It came through perfectly clear.

“Just be more grateful,” he said.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

 

 

 
 


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