Parkinson's Benches Petrick, But He's Far From Out

Mar 22, 2012

If Ben Petrick's career had gone the way the scouts expected, he'd still be in his prime — a star baseball player, maybe even a megastar. He came up to the majors as a catcher for the Colorado Rockies in 2000 with speed, power, a fine arm and maybe a better head for the game.

But the year before, at just 22-years-old, he learned that he had early-onset Parkinson's. He struggled to hide the symptoms, but, frustrated by his shaking and growing lack of mobility, he retired in 2004. Petrick has since focused on coaching, parenting and giving motivational speeches.

Petrick talks with NPR's Neal Conan about living with Parkinson's, and his love for the game of baseball.


Interview Highlights

On discovering something was wrong with his body

"I was about a month and a half from my first September call-up, it was in the Arizona Fall League, and I just woke up one day and did my normal thing and got on the computer. And I went to email somebody and started typing and I was mistyping. I thought that was kind of strange, so I kind of held my hands in front of my face and did a little hocus focus, wiggled my fingers. And my left hand was not responding to me nearly as well as my right hand. And so I was just taken aback by the fact that I couldn't do it.

"And there was a little tremor there, not a big tremor. But the fact that my father had been having a tremor for the previous six to seven months, [and] he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, was in the back of my mind. So I was concerned right away."

On his baseball career, post-diagnosis

"I was significantly slower ... but I still managed to take the bat in the right spot at the right time and had a pretty good year that year. And then the next year, it kind of started getting more worse. And then, you know, catching was difficult. I wasn't able to get my glove to the ball when I wanted to. And so the difficulty started then. But I was so brainwashed. I was determined to just put the disease in my back pocket and just focus on baseball, that I didn't really realize that the disease was having the effects on me that it was.

"And so, yeah, I just tried to keep charging along, playing the game I love and tried to make a career of it. And then when I realized it was getting bad, I knew that my days were numbered. It was about 2002-2003 ... I was taking all the medication that I needed to be, but with Parkinson's, you want to try to hold off on the medication because of the long-term side effects.

"... So I was taking way too much to play a game. I realized that I needed to focus the rest of my life. ... I just retired and tried to regroup and get in a better medication regimen and enjoy the rest of my life, which I'm doing now."

On his life, post-retirement

"I'm enjoying ... doing private lessons and helping out with the varsity baseball team at the high school that I went to. So I get around where I can. And now, things are great. I'm doing well now, after having a second brain operation to relieve my symptoms, and it's been pretty good.

"... I mean, you know, heck, I was wondering if I was ever going to get married, having this disease. And I was lucky enough to twist a girl's arm hard enough to where she wanted to marry me. She's been a special person in my life, for sure. And you get married and you're going, do you want to try having kids? I mean, because what does the future hold, you know? What kind of a dad am I going to be, what things can or can't I do.

"... [My elder daughter] Makena was born, and she's been amazing. And what a transcending moment, for me, just kind of refocusing my life on her and becoming the primary caregiver for her. So, it's been awesome."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

If Ben Petrick's career had gone the way the scouts expect it, he'd still be in his prime - a star baseball player, maybe a megastar. He came up to the majors as a catcher for the Colorado Rockies in 2000 with speed, power, a fine arm and maybe a better head for the game. But the year before, he learned that he had early-onset Parkinson's at age 22. Petrick kept the diagnosis secret for as long as he could but had to retire from baseball in 2004 and learned to live with an incurable disease.

We want to hear from those of you whose young careers were sidetracked by disease. How do you adjust? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ben Petrick joins us now from his home in Hillsboro, Oregon. Nice to have you with us today.

BEN PETRICK: Hi, Neal, good to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, you're obviously dealing with Parkinson's, a neurological disorder that robs you of your physical skills, but I wanted to ask you about another moment in your life. I saw you play when you were in double-A as a New Haven Raven coming up. And there was a moment back in, I guess, '98, '99 and it seemed it all came together for you. And I wonder if you could describe for us what it felt like to put it together?

PETRICK: Well, I tell you what, in New Haven that year was actually not a good year for me. '99, the year after, it was when it all kind of came together. I was able to kind of figure out the offensive stuff and then combine some of my defensive skills. And when it all comes together, boy, it makes the game feel really pretty easy because it's not an easy game, for sure, when you consider that three out of 10 times you get a hit, you're considered, you know, an all-star.

CONAN: Yeah. You're going to Cooperstown. Yeah.

PETRICK: It's a tough game. So - but that year in '99 it all came together for me, and I had a great year. And it was just - I don't know - there's nothing - not a lot better than being able to (unintelligible) baseball field and playing the game you love and reach the big leagues.

CONAN: I do remember talking to some of the pitchers. I was doing play-by-play for the Bowie Bay Sox, and they did not like pitching to you. So you can bury that in your memory book, too. But it was that fall, I guess, you were sent to the Arizona Fall League, which is where the very top prospects go to hone their skills. Is that where you first discovered that you may have some problems?

PETRICK: Yeah. I was about a month and a half from my first September call-up, it was in the Arizona Fall League, and I just woke up one day and did my normal thing and got on the computer. And I went to email somebody and started typing and my - I was mistyping. I thought that was kind of strange, so I kind of held my hands in front of my face and did a little hocus focus, wiggled my fingers. And my left hand was not responding to me nearly as well as my right hand. And so I was just taken aback by the fact that I couldn't do it.

And there was a little tremor there, not a big tremor. But the fact that my father had been having a tremor for the previous 6-7 months, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, had - was in the back of my mind. So I was concerned right away.

CONAN: Concerned - it must have been, in fact, the bottom of your stomach dropping out. It must have been an oh-no moment.

PETRICK: For sure. I mean, it definitely was one of those moments. Yeah. Everyone have those moments where they realize their mortality, and that was one for me. And I was - it was tough. I mean, I felt right away there was something serious wrong with me, and I didn't know where to go. I talked to the trainer for help. I was, like, what's wrong with this (unintelligible) he was like, you know, I don't know. So that kind of started the, you know, the trips to the doctor's office and trying to figure out what tests to do to figure things out. And it wasn't until May that following spring that I went and saw a movement specialist in Denver, and they diagnosed me with Parkinson's.

CONAN: You still had a pretty good year though.

PETRICK: Yeah. I did all right. I mean, my disease, when it was at its onset, it wasn't that - to me, it wasn't terrible. It was, I mean, I was significantly slower when I was (unintelligible) but I still managed to take the bat in the right spot at the right time and had a pretty good year that year. And then the next year, it kind of started getting more worse. And then, you know, catching was difficult. I wasn't able to get my glove to the ball when I wanted to. And so the difficulty started then. But I was so brainwashed. I was determined to just put the disease in my back pocket and just focus on baseball, that I didn't - I really realized that the disease was having the effects on me that it was.

And so, yeah, I just tried to keep charging along, playing the game I love and tried to make a career of it. And then when I realized it was getting bad, I just - I knew that my days are numbered. It was about 2002-2003 that I was like, oh, my days are numbered. I was taking all the medication that I needed to be - but Parkinson's, you want to try to hold off on the medication for - because of the long-term side effects.

CONAN: Yeah. And, yeah, it's no fun at all.

PETRICK: No. So I was taking way too much to play a game, than I realized that I needed to focus the rest of my life and stuff I did. I just retired and tried to regroup and getting the better medication regiment and enjoy the rest of my life, which I'm doing now.

CONAN: And I said you retired as a player, but you're still involved with baseball.

PETRICK: Yeah. I'm a - we had another game canceled. It snowed in Portland, Oregon, today so - but, yeah, I'm enjoying the, you know, doing private lessons and helping out with the varsity baseball team at the high school that I went to. So I get around where I can. And now, things are great. I'm doing well now, after having a second brain operation to relieve my symptoms, and it's been pretty good. So...

CONAN: How about your dad?

PETRICK: He's hanging tough. I mean, he's a trooper. He's a - he's at home which is just, about two houses down from mine, probably listening to this (unintelligible). He's doing good.

CONAN: He's doing good. As I understand it, you have a daughter.

PETRICK: Two daughters. I have a four and half year old and an eight week old.

CONAN: Oh, congratulations on the new daughter. But you must, inevitably, be worried about them too.

PETRICK: Yeah, of course. I mean, you know, (unintelligible) I was (unintelligible) getting remarried. Having this disease. And I was lucky enough to (unintelligible) she wanted to marry me. She's been a special person in my life, for sure. And you get married and you're - do you want to have a child and kids? I mean, because what does the future hold, you know? What kind of a dad am I going to be, what things can or can't I do. And so - but we chose (unintelligible). Makena(ph) was born, and she's been amazing. And what a transcending moment, for me, to just kind of refocusing my life on her and becoming the primary caregiver for her. So, it's been awesome.

CONAN: We're talking with Ben Petrick, once a promising baseball player whose career was cut short by early onset Parkinson's. We'd like to hear from those of you whose careers had to be changed by disease, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll start in Portland, Oregon, with Paige(ph).

PAIGE: Hi, this is Paige. How's it going, Neal and Ben?

CONAN: Good.

PETRICK: Good, Paige.

PAIGE: Ben, my sister actually went to school with you, and I went to school with your sister at Glencoe.

PETRICK: No kidding.

PAIGE: Yeah. I just want to tell my story. I was a competitive swimmer in high school. And I was - I intended to go to the Olympics. I was going to swim the English Channel. I was diagnosed at 14 with fibromyalgia. And I have discovered it was a hypermobility of the joints disorder. And it's really just changed my outlook on what my future holds. And I've discovered that it's been a very back and forth process. I'm about - I'm 29 now, so it's been 15 years or so. But there will be days when I think I can do anything. I can jump back in the pool. I actually wanted to be a zookeeper, as well, and that's something I've had to kind of set aside because of my physical problems.

And it's a battle every day to, kind of, know what I can, what I'm capable of with my physical state and constantly having to, like, reprogram your dreams and your goals.

CONAN: Paige, was there, I mean, of course, there was disappointment. Was there depression?

PAIGE: Absolutely. Yeah, definitely.

CONAN: And, Ben Petrick, I understand one of the distinctive differences between early onset Parkinson's and, well, the more normal age, which is far later about 58, as I understand it, but that depression is greatly associated with early onset.

PETRICK: Yeah. I mean, it definitely can be. It's something that I've come across. I've been fortunate to, kind of, steer clear of depression. But I've come across a few parts, and there's people that have dealt with depression. I'm sorry, Paige, to hear of your struggles. It's never fun to deal with any kind of illness. And, I mean, I think I probably found that - with me, that if I can just try to have those good days and just focus on those and, like, so when I have a bad day that I just try to sort of finally get through that bad day and stay focused on positive days.

PAIGE: Exactly.

PETRICK: That for me, for the reason that that's been (unintelligible) that kind of keep me going and doesn't help, I mean, it definitely helps that I have a little girl at your side. You know, I want to be a good example for her. So that kind of pushes me through tough times as well.

CONAN: Paige, thanks very much for the call. Good luck. Maybe you guys get together at the next Glencoe High School reunion.

PETRICK: Yeah.

PAIGE: That would be great. Thank you.

PETRICK: Take care.

CONAN: We're talking, again, with Ben Petrick, who's the author of "Forty Thousand to One," with us from his home in Hillsboro, Oregon. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. Let's go to Scott. Scott calling from San Francisco.

SCOTT: Yes, Sir Neal. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yeah, you're on the air. Go ahead.

SCOTT: Yeah. Hi. I can't be - I can't say enough thank you to you and the screener for getting me through, because I have chills, literally, right now, down my back, because I've got a lot of similarities with your guest. I played at Yale Field for four years until - '87 to '91. I was a pitcher at Yale. And then my senior year, job locked up on Wall Street because I knew I couldn't go any farther with the baseball, which was my childhood dream. But I wanted to just set it down and move on with my life. And I had two little lymph nodes sticking out of my neck. And long story short, day after graduation, the team nurse had - prior month or two - assured me it was mono, and then they ruled out everything else.

And I - my father - it was just a haunted day. I drove up the night after graduation parties and hats in the air and all that fun stuff. And my father and I, in a very cold, lonely morning, drove up to Yale-New Haven Hospital, and I just - they brought me down on a table. And then, you know, a couple of days later after the biopsy, it was Hodgkin's lymphoma. And then luckily, it was stage one, but it's the most rare cell type. So subsequent years, I worked on Wall Street and got all the toxic treatments, including a bone marrow transplant eventually, and had to work full time, for most of it, until the bone marrow transplant.

And here's the real funny part - and I'll be very brief because I know you got to get other people. But I knew the mortgage derivatives I was trading for my firm - I won't mention - in 1995, six, seven were being manipulated in the computer model. And so I kept a file because I knew I was going to get - going for a bone marrow transplant. And if I survived it, I was going to come back, get my last bonus, and then turn it in - the stuff into the FCC and the General Counsel, my firm. Long story short, after that, the firm paid back $110 million, and I just wanted anonymity and I resigned after my last bonus and opened up a landscape nursery in Connecticut. So it's been a tough journey.

And a couple of things your guest touched me on - and I'd love to get his feedback on one thing that might really help me - is, one, how he gets up every day. And he didn't say it in these words, but when he was playing and even now today, he gets up and it's like a clean slate. And he tries to run through that brick wall, whatever challenge he's facing that day. And I had my couple bouts of depression, because I put off the grieving after the four problems with it, and it hit me hard. But I'm on my feet, and - I wound up getting married and I, too, have twin girls or twins - girls, a twin six years old. Unfortunately, because my disability, the long-term effects from all the toxic treatments have sort of got me down a little bit.

CONAN: Well, let's ask Ben Petrick how...

SCOTT: Yeah, go ahead. I'm sorry.

CONAN: ...he gets through that wall in the morning. I should explain, by the way, Yale Field where Scott pitched, Ben Petrick played there as a member of the New Haven Ravens. That was the home field for the AA Easter League team there. But, Ben Petrick, go ahead.

PETRICK: Hey, you know, like I was saying with the previous caller. You know, we all have our tough days, and there's no doubt that I have days where, you know, I get up and my first thought is, oh, man. Do I have to do this again today? So, like, there's no doubt that's there. But I think, you know, there's just something inside me that I try to keep on the positive, you know? Like, I mean, it can be difficult, no doubt, at times. And as long as I don't focus my main thoughts on those negative feelings and the negative what-ifs and, well, that stuff, and I try to turn myself to positive. I just tell me, well, to kind of get through it.

And, I mean, and I know this is - that what I have is an incurable disease and I know it can (unintelligible) tough times ahead, but I don't want to focus on that because that just will then make me kind of down or something. I try to really focus my attention with positive things and the things that I can control and, I mean, not to (unintelligible) go do it. And I think my faith has been key, in as far as, you know, realizing that I'm - I just thought there's a higher power that's going to take care of me no matter if that's good or bad, whatever, and just (unintelligible) on that. So, that's all I have to say.

CONAN: Scott, good luck to you. Thanks very much for the phone call.

SCOTT: OK. Can I ask one quick question of your guest?

CONAN: It has to be real quick. We've just got a few seconds left.

SCOTT: It will be one sentence. People ask me that - how I get up and do it every day when they see my situation at home, because my marriage has suffered quite a bit. So my question is, have you ever told people when asked about that resolve? The only thing I can think of is it's like akin to - perhaps if you could imagine backing a wolf into a corner, and it's got two choices, basically, and it's pretty simple. It can either cower and quit or it's got to fight its way out every day.

CONAN: Well, Scott, I'm afraid we're gonna have to leave it there. But, again, thanks very much for the call, and good luck to you. Ben Petrick, thank you very much for your time today, and we wish you the best of luck as well.

PETRICK: Thanks, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Ben Petrick played for the Colorado Rockies, and later the Detroit Tigers, diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 22. He's the author of "40,000 to One." He joined us from his home in Hillsboro, Oregon. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.