The 35-year-old former Rockies' catcher talks about Parkinson's disease, his book, and what he wants people to learn from his story.
Ben Petrick played his last game with the Colorado Rockies on June 30, 2003—a pinch-hit appearance in which he struck out—and ended his major league career in Detroit fewer than three months later. The catcher’s career numbers are hardly legendary: five seasons, 669 at bats, 27 home runs, and a .257 batting average. But those statistics become immeasurably more impressive when you consider Parkinson’s disease had been ravaging Petrick’s body nearly the entire time.
Now 35, the Rockies’ former 1995 second-round draft pick has led a life of quiet accomplishment, disappointment, and uncertainty. He is married with two daughters; he has undergone two deep brain stimulation surgeries (the first, in 2009, resulted in a near-deadly infection); and he has had to cope with not only his own mortality but of that of his father, Vern, a former high school coach who also was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
Petrick is on a significant medication regimen and many of his uncontrolled muscle movements have dissipated since his second deep-brain surgery nearly three years ago. Today, he lives on the same street in Hillsboro, Oregon, on which he grew up. He coaches high school baseball and signed on this year to be a consultant to the coaching staff for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ short-season, Single-A affiliate, the Hillsboro Hops. Petrick talked with 5280 last week about living with Parkinson’s and his book, which he self-published last year.
5280: How did the book come about?
Ben Petrick: I published it last January or February, and it came out of an idea I had when I was recovering from the infection from my first deep brain simulation. I was just in a bad place. Once I kind of got through the worst of it, I was feeling positive about things. Life was crazy. I was renewed. I felt like my faith had pulled me through and helped me recover and keep a positive mind. Honestly, I felt like God was telling me to share my story.
5280: So it’s a hopeful story?
BP: I think so. There are some bad things in there about what was happening to me, but I tried to keep it mostly positive. Where I’m at and where this journey has taken me so far. Who knows where it will take me next? But I’m feeling better now than I was three years ago.
5280: You must have gotten some feedback from people dealing with this.
BP: I got a note from a 17-year-old kid who was diagnosed with early-onset. There are a lot of kids dealing with this. I’ve heard a lot of sad stories, but I’ve also heard a lot of uplifting stories. I’ve gotten lots of emails. It’s been a rewarding venture.
I’ve also been getting stories from war veterans recovering from surgeries. That’s been pretty cool that they’ve found some inspiration in my story about not giving up and focusing on my family. That’s been cool for me, for sure.
5280: What do you say to someone who’s dealing with this?
BP: What can you say other than try to stay strong and be positive and try to focus on the good times? You’re battling this all the time. You’re down about how you feel, but you’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be tough.
5280: You say your faith has helped you?
BP: Yeah. I grew up in the church. I’ve always been a believer, but I wasn’t that strong in my personal connection with Jesus. I felt like I was at my breaking point in the hospital. I felt like it was God saying, "Hey, dude, I can help you out if you just trust in me." That’s where all of this blossomed.
5280: Has that helped you process your life?
BP: For sure. It’s helped my daily life and helped put things in perspective. It helps me when I have those times when my brain starts going toward "What’s going to happen to me in the future?" There’s a plan for me. Don’t worry about it and let it go where it’s going to go.
5280: You considered killing yourself at one point because you thought you were burdening your family.
BP: In the hospital, I was so down and I was thinking about ending my life. My dad put it in perspective. I needed to focus on my one daughter at the time, Makena, to get me through that. I’m coaching baseball now and doing some things, but I’d give up everything to spend time with my kids, if that’s all I could do.
5280: This must have been difficult for your wife.
BP: She’s incredible. Our faith has gotten us through some tough times, but can you imagine being a care partner at the age of 25? You’re envisioning this life in front of you and your husband is already having trouble getting through the day. I can’t say enough about her.
5280: Sometimes, you must feel like you’re….
BP: Letting her down. Being the rock tied to her ankle when she’s down in the water. It’s extremely hard. That’s how I really felt like I was before the DBS. But now I feel like I’m a little less heavy. But it’s still a burden.
5280: Is the brain stimulation a life-prolonging surgery, or is it a comfort-of-life thing?
BP: A little bit of both. They don’t know if it’s doing anything to change my brain. But it gives relief from the side effects of medications. The long-term side effects are the uncontrolled movements, like you see with Michael J. Fox—the bobbing and weaving. That’s all medication-induced. The disease is more stiffness and shaking. People get that confused. Before surgery I was either really stiff and not able to move, or I was moving all over the place. This has given me the ability to hold the phone and talk to you.
DBS has been going on since 1999. There are young people with 12-plus years who are having good success. And some people have lived with the disease more than 40 years. Everyone develops differently and progresses differently, so it’s a crapshoot.
After DBS, I’m more relaxed. I was working out all day long before because I was always moving. I’ve put 20 good pounds on with DBS. The one negative is I get fatigued pretty fast and my speech has really [gone] downhill. By the end of the day, 2 o’clock, if I don’t get a nap in, my speech is pretty poor. That’s why I try to have conversations in the morning.
During the day I get around and function, besides my speech, and some unordinary movements. I can be normal for most of the day. I’m just praying it can continue for as long as it can.
5280: In this case, "normal" is probably good.
BP: I try my best not to focus on the bad. My medication’s worked well; the surgery helped. Before, I’d take all my medication before my dose ran out. Then it’d be hard to move, which isn’t good when you have a young kid. The surgery, for now, has helped me be more there. More consistent for my family, which makes my life more positive, which makes it easier to live.
My life is about not having those negative times or as many of those negative times. That’s been good for my overall well-being. Sometimes, I find I’m not even focusing on the disease.
5280: That must be difficult, considering both you and your father are living with it.
BP: Yeah. It’s hard, or maybe harder, sometimes to watch him. Dads aren’t supposed to break down. Dads are strong. To watch him deteriorate from this boisterous, strong guy. To see what the disease has done to him. He’s doing OK, but it’s changed his life quite a bit. It’s tough to watch this.
5280: What do you want your children to learn from this?
BP: How positive their dad was, despite the disease. Hopefully, my kids can grow up and know that, even though there was something wrong with me, I could still get out in public and be positive and not be a daily drag. My daily demeanor, hopefully, is a positive one.
5280: You probably have mixed emotions about your time in Denver.
BP: I enjoyed my time in Colorado. As frustrating as it was not to be playing well, and then I mentally brainwashed myself to thinking that I wasn’t as bad as I was—that the disease wasn’t affecting me as bad as it was. I was kidding myself. It was torturous. I wasn’t playing as I would have liked, and I was still thinking I was able to do it. But I wasn’t able to do it as well.
5280: Do you wonder how you were able to hide things for so long?
BP: Now, I can look back and think that. I see people who’ve just been diagnosed with the disease and what it’s done to them. I was able to hide it. I was fortunate that my disease affected my left side first so my right side—my dominant side—I was still able to throw and not be affected. I could hide the big tremor. I could hide my hand in my pocket or get it so it wasn’t hanging stiff and weird. Or I’d cross my arms and get away with hiding it. By then, I was taking a lot of medication to function, but it was affecting me. The uncontrolled movements started at the end of my career and you can’t hide those.
5280: What do you want people to get out of your story?
BP: I don’t know. I feel like when I was playing baseball, I was a humble dude. I was just doing what I was able to do. I had a God-given ability to play baseball. But I didn’t feel like I was any different of a person. I feel physically different now, but I’m dealing with it like any person would.
You can either bury your head in the sand or you can step up and deal with it. There are a lot of people dealing with the same thing, so I don’t feel special. But maybe for those people who are struggling, who are burying their head in the sand—not dealing with adversity in the way they would like—maybe they see me and can get something out of it and deal with things a little better. Whether it’s Parkinson’s, or anything else.
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