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Former Rockies' catcher Ben Petrick refuses to let Parkinson's disease defeat him

Monday August 20, 2012

Patrick Saunders

Denver Post - Come Aug. 29, former Rockies catcher Ben Petrick will stand in front of a crowd of 250 people, bare his soul and share his message of hope.

He will tell them about playing in 240 major-league games, with at least 220 of them coming after Parkinson's disease began assaulting his 22-year-old body in 2000. He will tell how the promising baseball career of a golden-boy athlete was over at age 27.

He will candidly recall awful moments when his medication wore off and he would sit, zombielike, in a chair. He will talk about how it sometimes takes five minutes to maneuver a flight of stairs.

He will tell them that his father, Vern, a legendary high school coach in suburban Portland, Ore., also suffers from Parkinson's, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that eventually results in severe physical symptoms, including muscle tremors and slowed speech.

He will tell about undergoing two deep brain stimulation surgeries in hopes of controlling his Parkinson's symptoms so that he could be a better husband and stay-at-home father. He will tell how infection from the first surgery nearly killed him, and explain why he chose to go though the brain stimulation again.

Most of all, Petrick — who inspired great expectations by hitting four homers, driving in 12 runs and batting .323 in 19 games during his rookie call-up in September 1999 — will stand up in front of the Parkinson Association of the Rockies and talk about the promise of life.

"To be honest with you, it's just something that I have to do," Petrick said from his home in Hillsboro, Ore. "I don't feel like I'm more special than anyone else, so I guess it's hard for me to think that I'm unique or an inspiration to others. I'm just trying to live my life and do the best I can with what I've got."

What he has done is write a book titled "Forty Thousand to One." It's a collection of his blogs from the website faithinthegame.com. Here is a sample from an April 22, 2011, entry:

"I would not dignify Parkinson's with my emotions. It had stolen my career, my money, my body, my father's body, my parents' golden years, and a large measure of joy in daily life from my entire family. But it would not take my toughness."

There are two meanings behind the book's title. First, 40,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson's each year, though most are over the age of 50. Second, Petrick keenly observes that he went from playing baseball in front of crowds of 40,000 to being a caregiver to an audience of one — his beloved first daughter, Makena.

Petrick's wife, Kellie, has been with her husband every step of the way. They dated for six years before they were married in Hawaii and took a honeymoon cruise to Alaska. That came shortly after she received her master's degree in education from the University of Oregon and after he had retired from baseball.

Kellie knew, of course, that her husband had Parkinson's, but she still wanted to build a life with him. Now they have two children: Makena, who's about to turn 5, and Madison, who was born Jan. 27.

"Living with this is a learning experience, for Ben, for all of us," said Kellie, who is a third-grade teacher at her old elementary school in Hillsboro. "I think the first thought for Ben was, 'Oh, my gosh, this is happening to me?' Then you kind of pop your own bubble and face it and go on. You have to.

"Learning all of this and seeing what Ben goes through has not been an easy process. There are days when we get frustrated with the little things, like days when he can't move as fast as he wants.

"But I think what Ben is trying to tell people now is that they need to remind themselves to stop and smell the roses. We've come to realize that getting up in the middle of the night and soothing your kids back to sleep is actually a golden moment. We need to live every bit of it."
While Petrick provides a humble self-assessment of how he's handled a life turned upside down, those who know him express admiration.

Rockies first baseman Todd Helton, who was Colorado's first pick in the 1995 draft, the year Petrick was taken in the second round, said "Ben's shown incredible courage."

But even more than that, Helton said Petrick never allowed Parkinson's to strip away his love and compassion for others.

"He was a great teammate and an even better person," said Helton, who roomed with Petrick during instructional-league ball in 1995. "He's the kind of guy you would want your daughter to marry."

Petrick is quick to tell you that his life has not gone according to schedule. There has been physical pain, periods of bitterness, doubt and anger. But through his faith in God, the love of his family and belief in himself, he is living, not just going though the motions.

"I'm proud of the fact that I haven't taken a negative attitude to it all," he said. "I haven't just holed up in a room somewhere and thrown a pity party. I'm proud of the fact that I am staying out there and in the open. I am trying to engage in life just like I was before."

As he writes in "Forty Thousand to One:"

"I'd only wished for two things in life: to be a pro ballplayer and to be a father. Parkinson's took one of those. I wasn't going to let it have both."

Thriving With Parkinson's

What: The Parkinson Association of the Rockies will host a free educational event dedicated to empowering those living with Parkinson's disease and their care partners.
When: Wednesday, Aug. 29, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Lunch at noon. cq
Where: Mile High Station, 2027 W. Lower Colfax Ave., Denver. cq
Who: Former Rockies catcher Ben Petrick shares stories from his new book, "40,000 to One." Petrick was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2000 at age 22. cq
Registration: Event is open to the public and free to attend. There is limited seating and registration is required by Monday. For more information: ParkinsonRockies.org, or call 303-830-1839.


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