Parkinson's disease takes promising catcher out of the game

HILLSBORO, Ore. (AP) Ben Petrick says the most frustrating part of his Parkinson's disease is how it has affected his voice. At times he has trouble speaking and getting his thoughts across.

Yet words aren't necessary for his 5-year-old daughter, who throws her arms around his legs in a hug before dissolving into giggles. Makena has been Petrick's hope on bad days when his mind descends into what might have been.

Only about a decade has passed since Petrick was a promising catcher for the Colorado Rockies. The disease's quick onset forced him to retire at the age of 27.

Petrick's heart never really left the game and this season he jumped as a chance to join the Hillsboro Hops, the short-season Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He's a special coach, counseling players some still in their teens about the ins and outs of professional baseball.

"For me it's great. I can still be part of the game," he said of the opportunity. "They're doing me a big favor. I hope I'm able to give them a little bit back."

Petrick grew up in Hillsboro, and was a star baseball and football player at Glencoe High School. He eschewed college after he was a second-round pick by Colorado in the 1995 draft.

He was first called up to the Rockies in 1999 and had four homers in just 62 appearances at the plate. The next year, he played in 52 games, batting .355.

But Petrick noticed something odd one day while he was typing at his computer. His fingers on his left hand kept missing keys. Somewhat concerned, he mentioned it to a doctor who suggested that caffeine might help.

The problem persisted and it worried Petrick to the point that he sought more opinions. Eventually he was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

About 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson's, which destroys brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical key to the functions that control muscle movement. Patients suffer from increasingly severe tremors and periodically rigid limbs. They can have trouble walking, speaking and writing.

There is no cure.

Petrick was only 22 when he was diagnosed. On the advice of a trainer, he didn't tell the team. The thing about Parkinson's is that its onset can be slow and subtle, he said, and he believed he could still play.

"It became my dirty dark secret," he said.

While Petrick could still hit, the disease began to impact his defense. He had trouble behind the plate, and moved positions. The medication made him exhausted. Eventually he was traded to the Detroit Tigers and his career ended with the Triple-A Portland Beavers.

"I went through a period of time where my symptoms were severe enough that I was in hiding," he said. "I didn't want people to see me all messed up. My vanity was getting the best of me."

In 2009, he decided to have a procedure called Deep Brain Stimulation. But the surgery resulted in an infection that almost killed him.

"I was basically paralyzed. I couldn't move," he said. "I was pretty devastated. Makena, the thought of her being a little girl and having fun every day, and me not being able to be there, was really hard on me. At the same time, it kind of empowered me to get back to being able to be there."

He had another DBS operation less than a year later. The procedure had a profound impact on his Parkinson's, helping him regain some of the movement he had lost, while lessening the muscle jerks sometimes associated with Parkinson's.

The boost gave him a new outlook and he published a book "40,000 to One," based on his fight with the disease. Then the Hops came to town.

Once known as Yakima Bears, the relocated Northwest League team has proven to be popular in the Portland Area, which lost its last professional baseball team, the Beavers, to relocation in 2010.

Petrick, now 36, attended the groundbreaking for the Hops' new stadium with his new daughter, Madison, and a couple of weeks later the team called and offered him a position as a player consultant.

"When you're first getting into pro baseball, it's a completely different world and game than amateur baseball. You're playing games every day, you're facing kids who are all like the No. 1 (player) from where you came from," Petrick said. "They're young. They're thrown into the fire. They're facing good pitchers and there's lots more ups and downs than they've ever had before. So I'm just trying to share what I went through and what I experienced. What I've learned."

Hops general manager K.L. Wombacher owner says the Hops are doing far better than expected attendance-wise, ranking third in the league. This week the team honored Petrick at a Parkinson's awareness night and the game against the Spokane Indians drew 3,282 fans. Among them was former NBA star Brian Grant, who also has Parkinson's.

Makena threw out the first pitch to her dad. Afterward she gave him a hug.

The days of "what ifs?" are largely behind Petrick. He relishes being a husband, coach, role model and father. About the only thing that bothers him is making sure he's understood. He even jokes that sometimes he feels like he's talking like Elmer Fudd.

"This disease wants to crumple you up and have you sit in your house and feel sorry for yourself," he said. "It will do that to you. Unless you fight it."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press