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Strength from Weakness

Tuesday January 17, 2012

Ben Petrick once hid his Parkinson's, but the truth finally set him free
Steve Wulf

ESPN - 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.

Looking back I was the epitome of a duck swimming in a pond. I tried to appear calm and in control, but under the water my legs were going 100 mph. -- Post on Faith in the Game, April 22, 2011.

Petrick comes running back from his SUV with the keys for the Glencoe locker room. In that brief sprint -- and it is a full sprint -- he shows no signs of Parkinson's effects. "Oh yeah, I can still run," he says with a smile.

While he still looks as athletic as in his playing days, he shakes, bobs and weaves ever so mildly as he moves down the hallway, like a top just as the spin begins to slow down. The disease causes a catch-22 in movement disorders. Without medication, people with Parkinson's become slow-moving statues for long stretches of time. With medication, they gain some mobility but experience involuntary movements, a symptom known as dyskinesia.

In the hallways, coaches chat with him about the upcoming football game and the sad state of the current program, and the teachers ask after his mom and dad. The school itself hasn't changed much since he began to fill the trophy cases that are next to the Vern Petrick Gymnasium -- named for his father, Glencoe's longtime athletic director.

His older brother, Rian, and younger sister, Mari Lyn, are also represented in the cases, but Petrick was the child destined for greatness. Rian, who is the principal of nearby Evergreen Middle School, recalls a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos when he was about 11 and Ben was 6. "He started trash-talking me, so I chased him out of the house and around the neighborhood -- but I couldn't catch him," Rian says. "He was faster. That's when I knew he was going to be something special."

How special? In his senior year, as a 6-foot, 195-pound tailback, Petrick gained almost 2,000 total yards and scored 24 touchdowns to lead the Crimson Tide to the 1994 Class 4A State Championship. After the varsity basketball season ("not my best sport," he says), Petrick hit .524 in 25 games with 11 homers, 46 RBIs and 22 stolen bases, and he was named Oregon's 1995 baseball player of the year.

"I first saw him the summer after his junior year," says Greg Hopkins, the scout who signed him for the Rockies. "I thought I was looking at the next Dale Murphy, who's also from Portland. So I was ecstatic when the scouting director called to tell me we got him. He really was a first-round pick. Arizona State wanted him to play football, so maybe teams were afraid of that."

Continuing the tour of the school, Petrick goes back outside into the drizzle -- it is Oregon, after all -- and into the first base dugout of Ben Petrick Baseball Field. Looking out to Glencoe Road way beyond the leftfield fence, he says, "I hit it out into the street once. Baseball was so easy then."

In the 1995 instructional league, the Rockies had their first two picks, Helton and Petrick, room together. "I came from a football background too," says Helton, who was Peyton Manning's backup at Tennessee. "So we hit it off, even though I was coming out of college and he was coming out of high school. Man, every night: 100 sit-ups and 100 pushups. I think that's the last time I did that."

Those first few years in the minors, though, were a scuffle for Petrick. "I remember calling my dad in tears and telling him it was too hard," he says. "Early in the '99 season, I was really struggling at Carolina, and after one night game I refused to go into the clubhouse because I was afraid I might bust it up. So I just lay on the grass, and -- not to get too spiritual about it -- I prayed for some assistance. Suddenly, I felt calm, and I went back in and asked the manager, Jay Loviglio, if I could keep playing. He left me in the lineup, and I hit for the cycle and went on a tear that took me to Triple-A."

That surge helped Petrick secure a spot in the first Futures Game, an event during All-Star week in which he played alongside top minor league prospects like Lance Berkman, Michael Cuddyer and Vernon Wells at Fenway Park. In September, the Rockies called him up, and the rookie became the toast of Denver. "His future could not have been brighter," says Hurdle.

Two months later, while playing in the Arizona Fall League, Petrick tried to type an e-mail and noticed that his left hand didn't seem to be able to keep up with his right.

People often say to me something to the effect of, "Wow, I'll bet your disease gives you a whole new outlook on life." I understand their reasons for saying this. But thanks to two amazing parents, perspective is not something I've lacked. -- May 2, 2011

Vern and Marci Petrick are sitting by the woodstove in the living room of their home, which is on the same street where their two sons live. Vern, 66, is retired, but woodworking, babysitting and Bible study keep him busy.

"We have so many memories," says Vern.

"Great memories of all the kids," says Marci. More than a few of them fill the den next door. With all the trophies, plaques and photos, it's practically a Petrick Hall of Fame.

"When you're a coach, you dream one of your players is going to reach the top," says Vern. "So imagine how I felt when the one player I helped to the top turned out to be my son. What a blessing."

The Petricks talk a lot about blessings, but as plentiful as those have been, they can also count a few things on the other side of the ledger. Rian's wife, Melissa, has multiple sclerosis, and Mari Lyn's infant son just had corrective surgery on one of his lungs. Then there's the specter of Parkinson's. In November 1999, just as the Rockies were penciling in Petrick as their catcher of the future, doctors diagnosed Vern with the disease.

Petrick and his friend, editor Scott Brown, maintain a website called Faith in the Game. In a tribute to his father called The Astronaut (Aug. 26, 2011), Petrick wrote: "He was revered at our high school. But as his health declined, kids he was in the midst of disciplining literally just ran away from him because they knew he couldn't catch up. Eventually, he had to retire from a job that fed his soul, years before he'd hoped to."

Shortly after Petrick's e-mail incident -- which he shrugged off -- he noticed a light tremor in his left hand when he picked up a glass. He brought it to the attention of his team's trainers, and when he went to Denver for an off-season workout, the Rockies team doctor ran a battery of tests for tumors, multiple sclerosis and other likely culprits. They all came back negative, which was reassuring, but by the time spring training in Tucson, Ariz., rolled around, Petrick was experiencing additional symptoms and becoming increasingly frightened. In May, movement-disorder specialists in Denver gave him some hand mobility tests and told him he had a "Parkinsonism," a symptom of the disease but not necessarily the disease itself. After all, he seemed too young even for young-onset Parkinson's, which accounts for only 5 percent of all cases of the disease.

At first, his tremors were mild, especially compared with his father's. But the symptoms worsened month by month, confirming his darkest fears. As Petrick says, "My fate was sealed."

First identified by English physician James Parkinson in 1817, Parkinson's disease remains as insidious as ever. A progressive, neuro-degenerative disorder, Parkinson's causes dopamine-producing cells to die off in the brain region that controls movement, eventually resulting in physical ramifications, such as tremors and frozen stretches. While the disease is life-altering, it's not life-ending or even life-shortening. Medications can alleviate the symptoms, although the disease will eventually progress beyond them. Parkinson's sufferers often refer to themselves as being either "on" -- the meds have kicked in, giving them some time for normal, if shake-filled, activities -- or "off," at which point they become immobilized.

While it's not strictly a hereditary disease, it's likely not a total coincidence that father and son have it. Both could have been genetically susceptible to the unknown environmental trigger of the disease, be it a toxin, virus, bacteria or something else entirely.

"You can think of Parkinson's as a mystery that we try to solve," says Dr. John Nutt, who treats the Petricks and cofounded the Parkinson Center of Oregon at Oregon Health and Science University. "Or you can think of it as an adversary that we may not be able to beat but that we can outwit."

Vanity and insecurity filled me by the time I reached the Major Leagues. Whenever I struggled, I wondered, How must this look to others? What will others think of me when they find out I've failed? … You can imagine, then, what being diagnosed with Parkinson's at age 22 must have done to a psyche constructed on a foundation of sand. -- May 31, 2011

Petrick is enjoying himself immensely as he scarfs down some pizza and Cold Stone ice cream while watching Game 6 of the World Series. For one thing, he knows and played with a lot of the Cardinals and Rangers. For another, he more or less predicted the two teams would be in the Series when, on his blog in July, he asked this theological question: "What might happen if Josh Hamilton plays against Lance Berkman in the World Series this October? Both are devout, so whom does God favor?"

On this night, Berkman and the Cardinals are favored in rather unbelievable fashion, with St. Louis winning 10-9 in 11 innings. "Was that a great game or what?" Petrick asks, before succumbing to off mode.

Ten years ago, Petrick was not about to go so quietly. Parkinson's was attacking his control of the muscles and nerves that make hitting and catching 85 mph sliders possible, but he clung to his career like a baseball bat. He so desperately wanted to preserve not just his dream but also the dreams of his family and friends.

His immediate problem was that the lifestyle of baseball does not lend itself to the recommended regimen of prescription drugs. To control the Parkinson's symptoms, he began taking Requip, a drug that tricks the brain by mimicking dopamine. But long hours at the ballpark, day and night games, time zone changes and buses and planes made any sort of routine impossible. Plus, the Requip made him sleepy. "So there I was, popping pills like sunflower seeds, trying to stay awake as we go over the scouting reports of the other team, trying to pretend nothing was wrong," Petrick says. He wasn't so much deceiving his teammates as he was deceiving himself.

While most people in the Rockies organization were unaware of his situation, Petrick did confide in a select few people. Keith Dugger, the Rockies' head athletic trainer now and an assistant then, knew about Petrick's symptoms and that he took medication, but he never knew the extent of the disease or had experience dealing with it. Plus, his priority was always Petrick.

"Although we work for the team, there is a confidentiality between us and the players not unlike the doctor-patient relationship," says Dugger. His roommate Butler and a few other players also knew, but as Butler says, "When someone would notice him shaking or carrying his arm funny, Ben would totally downplay it. Besides, he was performing at a high level."

That was the thing. Even though, as Petrick points out, "there were 10 other catchers in the organization waiting to take my job," there's a place on a major league team for someone who can work and block the plate, run like a deer and hit home runs off the likes of the Big Unit. Petrick was also immensely popular with his teammates, thanks in small part to his barbering skills. "Basically, I gave crew cuts," he says, "but I was pretty good at it." (Helton begs to differ. "There was one spring when I didn't take my hat off," he says.)

As for his meds, let's not forget the era in which he played. Quite frankly, Petrick wasn't the only Rockies player taking drugs. The difference was that the others were making themselves better than they had a right to be, while he was doing it to be normal. At one point, underwhelmed by Requip's effectiveness, he switched to another drug, Sinemet, that proved more helpful. Even though he always passed his annual physical, Petrick's trusted few occasionally noticed a delayed reaction. "When he was catching, the high inside pitch would sometimes get by him for a passed ball because he couldn't get his glove hand up in time," says Dugger.

Petrick recalls other incidents that nearly blew his cover. In one, a sliding opponent spiked his left forearm, causing his left hand to shake so badly that he refused to remove his glove. In another, he took a pitch off his helmet. During the concussion test, "you have to put your hands out in front of you, spread your fingers and touch your nose," Petrick says. "But I couldn't spread the fingers on my left hand. I had to use my right hand to pry it open while trying to act normal."

Petrick wasn't normal though, even if he couldn't admit it, and he blamed himself for his shortcomings. In a telling 2005 story in The Portland Tribune, Petrick described his state of mind as a player when "things didn't click." He would ask himself, "Was it the disease or was it my skills or a combination?" He wasn't the only one ignoring the elephant in the room. "We denied the impact: 'Hey, Ben, you're in a funk, you'll turn it around,'" Rian admitted.

In hindsight, says Nutt, "I am amazed that he was able to accomplish as much as he did." At the time, the Rockies could see only that he wasn't the full-time catcher they thought he would be. In July 2003, still thinking Petrick's symptoms were minor, the Rockies traded him to the Tigers for righthanded pitcher Adam Bernero. The Tigers were given his medical file and asked about the tremors during his physical. But because the symptoms weren't noticeable -- he had taken his meds -- he passed the exam, as he always had.

His stay in Detroit lasted only 43 games, though he did hit four homers and make two sensational outfield plays -- throwing out Frank Thomas of the White Sox at the plate from center and going over the wall in left at Detroit's Comerica Park to rob Twins infielder Chris Gomez of a home run. However, Petrick felt increasingly guilty about deceiving his teammates -- "that maybe by me playing I was making our team worse," he says.

By the following spring, with his dyskinesia worsening, Petrick was released from a minor league contract after he went 0-for-10 to start the season with the Tigers' Triple-A affiliate, the Toledo Mud Hens. As he drove back to Oregon, he made up his mind to quit -- until he got an offer from the Padres' Triple-A affiliate in Portland. Though he managed to hit two more homers, the struggle had become too much. In May 2004, Petrick announced his retirement and openly revealed that he was suffering from young-onset Parkinson's.

While that was that for baseball, the rest of his life beckoned. And that life involved Kellie Starkey. The two attended the same high school but were four years apart. They didn't meet until her senior year; the following fall, the Rockies called him up. "So here I am," he says, "a major league rookie in love with a beautiful hometown girl, when all of a sudden, my body starts telling me something I don't want to hear."

"I remember Ben saying he didn't think he could ask Kellie to marry him with Parkinson's and all," Marci Petrick says. "And I said, 'Why don't you let her make that decision?'"

So shortly after she received her master's degree from the University of Oregon and he retired from playing, Kellie and Ben married in Hawaii and honeymooned on a cruise to Alaska. "I knew what I was getting into," says Kellie, who is a third-grade teacher at her old elementary school. "Well, maybe not everything."

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. -- April 22, 2011

When Petrick totters into a burger restaurant and slides into the booth, the sideways glance of the waitress seems to say, "Do I need to cut this guy off?" He takes the waitress off the hook by ordering a soda as he, Kellie and Makena decide what to order for dinner. Petrick notices these things, but they no longer bother him.

"I remember a conversation I had with Michael J. Fox," he says. "I asked him if he minded the stares in public, and he said -- pardon my language -- 'F-- vanity.'"

In the years right after his retirement, Petrick helped with the Glencoe football and baseball teams and became active in Parkinson's causes. "I could still nearly hide my symptoms from people when I was off," he says. But the dyskinesia got worse in part, he says, because he had taken so much medication in hopes of prolonging his career. He became as frustrated with the disease as he had with baseball in those early years in the minors. There he was, the Golden Boy of Hillsboro, afraid to go out in public, in need of help to tie his shoelaces. As he's written, "I was suddenly, acutely aware of the fact that I'd left town as an object of everyone's envy and returned the object of everyone's pity." Or, as Kellie says, "He had gone from being defined by baseball to being defined by Parkinson's."

The disease is so frustrating and baffling that unlikely causation theories abound. One idea that gets floated is that the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria that causes Lyme disease also causes Parkinson's. For a while, Petrick pursued some alternative treatments in that area. "We have had some disagreements," says Julie Carter, another of his doctors at OHSU, "but we also feel that it's important that our patients feel in control of their treatment."

Another theory is that Parkinson's is somehow stress-related -- "Ben did put a lot of pressure on himself," says his mother -- and it is true that stress can temporarily exacerbate the symptoms. Nutt maintains that the theory with the most evidence is that Parkinson's is somehow related to pesticides and herbicides. As far as Petrick is concerned, "My interest in the cause has less to do with my case than it does in helping to find the cure."

After Makena was born in 2007, Kellie encouraged Ben to pursue deep brain stimulation to improve his off time and increase his on time. Another top-level athlete with young-onset Parkinson's, cyclist Davis Phinney, the first American to win a stage of the Tour de France, had undergone DBS and recommended the procedure to Petrick.

In DBS, a surgeon implants an electrode into the part of the brain where the nerve signals are generating the Parkinson's symptoms; the patient is kept awake to provide feedback to make sure that the precise brain target has been stimulated. Two years ago, Petrick underwent DBS at the Stanford Medical Center, and the procedure went startlingly well. "I was on, but without medicine," he remembers. However, while recovering at home, Petrick went into a series of seizures and had to be rushed to OHSU, where doctors discovered an infection in his brain and had to remove the electrode. He spent the next several nights surrounded by family and friends. Rian still chokes up over that time. "Such an awful period," he says. "My little brother, who was our big hero … we didn't know if he was going to make it."

Erik Aartsen, Petrick's best friend, who is a system engineer, grew up on "Petrick Lane" and felt like part of the family, so he offered to take one of the night shifts. "He was in such pain that he was in tears, sobbing, standing on the bed," Aartsen says. "And this was not a guy who ever gave up. Ever. Then he grabbed my hand, and he asked me to pray with him.

"Suddenly, he calmed down. I felt a sense of relief come over me too."

Each day, I get a little stronger about being weaker. -- Sept. 19, 2011

Makena has to get dressed before she goes off to a rehearsal for a school production of "The Wizard of Oz" -- typecast, she plays a Munchkin. Before she leaves, she climbs on Petrick's broad shoulders, and they laugh together as she hangs around his neck and tries to tickle him.

It's a thing of beauty.

So is this, a passage from "Night Becomes Us," which Petrick posted a few months after undergoing his second DBS procedure a year ago at OHSU:

My 3-year-old daughter's voice woke me up at 2:30 last night. It was a moment I'd been waiting for since the day she was born.

At night I don't take any medication for my Parkinson's disease … ceding to my wife all nighttime duties, as I lay there, useless and feeling like not much of a man.

Most fathers think about walking their daughters down the aisle. I only dreamed of walking mine back to bed. …

Since my DBS surgery, I have improved enough so that off medication I am still able to walk around, get food and drinks, and do the little things my daughter might ask of me. But I hadn't had the chance to do the one thing I'd always wanted to …

Last night, I woke up and heard my daughter walking down the hallway. The sound of those footsteps sent me into action. I got up and walked to our door, where I met her with a "Shhhh." She had her little turtle night-light, which was emitting tiny glowing spires that set off her sparkly Tinker Bell pajamas. Her hair was a massive confusion of yellow curls. Just looking at her for the first time in that "confused middle of the night" moment, I felt my heart lift.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Can't sleep," she replied. "Just can't."

I stuck my hand out and enveloped hers, and escorted her back to her room.

I lied down with her, nose to nose. "Close your eyes," I said. "Try to go back to sleep with me."

She followed my example for about two minutes. Then for the next hour she tickled my face as I pretended to sleep.

I ultimately surrendered and made my 4:30 a.m. march downstairs, this time with her in my arms. We got some cereal, folded our bodies into my chair, watched Tangled, and for two hours were a thicket of giggles.

There were many times that I resented the perspective Parkinson's gave me. But now I thank God for it. There is no way I'd understand the awesomeness of a seemingly fractional moment like this without this disease; without having my first DBS surgery fail to the extent that I almost lost it all. This is why I feel that God is at work in my life …

There we sat in our glowing house as night became day. I smoothed her hair. I smelled her neck. I heard her laugh. I closed my eyes. And I said, "Thank you."

Funny how life echoes. A horrible night at the plate in Double-A followed by a renewed sense of purpose. A horrible night in the hospital followed by the epiphany that there was still so much to live for. Despite the disastrous consequences of the first DBS, Petrick decided it was worth the risk to try again. While he still takes medication, the quality of his off time has improved immensely. "Prior to surgery, it would literally take me five minutes -- and it was a labored five minutes -- to go from our bedroom to the chair downstairs," he says. That's no longer the case, with his mobility increasing threefold when he's off and his dyskinesia becoming much less severe; the only downside is a tendency to slur his words.

So what's next for Petrick?

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, two men climb through the stands, up onto the roof and into the press box of Hare Field, Glencoe's football stadium. Petrick and Aartsen, an old teammate, are there to tape the school's game with visiting Forest Grove. They could be home watching Game 7 of the World Series instead of filming a battle in the drizzle between a pair of 2-6 teams, but this is what they do every week to help restore their alma mater to its football glory. "Not exactly 'Friday Night Lights,'" says Petrick.

The important thing is that he's out and about again. Last March, the Petricks traveled to Arizona for spring training to catch up with some of the teammates he had been avoiding for years. "Seeing how well he's doing, watching the three of them together was ... well, it was pretty cool," says Helton.

He's a full-time dad of a young girl who knows a great deal about Parkinson's. "She'll sometimes tell people, 'Daddy's off now,'" Petrick says, with some pride.

And he's also a full-time son. "In a weird way, it's kind of nice that my dad and I both have Parkinson's," says Petrick. "We understand what we're going through, what the on and off cycles are like. You should've seen us this summer. We built a redwood deck together, and if anybody walked by and saw us shaking and walking around like we were drunk, they wouldn't have known what to make of it."

Father and son have something else in common -- a positive attitude in the face of a disease that would entitle them to feel sorry for themselves. "I might have Parkinson's," as Vern likes to say, "but Parkinson's doesn't have me."

"We light up every time the Petricks come into the office," says Nutt.

With better treatments and the increased pace of research, maybe Petrick can stay one step ahead of this degenerative disease. He always was fast.

Then there's Faith in the Game, which he started last April, and an e-book. Both have led to numerous speaking engagements, helping him find a voice he never knew he had.

Oh, and one more thing:

Kellie is due in January.

http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=120106/BenPetrick