One Day In A Lifetime Of Baseball

7/30/2007 – Daily News Record

From Home to Gym to Dinner to Ballpark Written By Brent Johnson Daily News Record HARRISONBURG — On the surface, Garrett Parker looks just like any college kid on a random Wednesday morning. Still dressed in what he wore to bed, he’s lounging on the living room couch in the apartment he shares with his two roommates. The sink is packed with dishes. A few pots are filled with dirty water. The night before, the roommates tried cooking pierogi on a skillet. Didn’t work. "We set off all the fire alarms," recalls a laughing Parker. It’s 10 a.m., but Parker isn’t headed to class. He doesn’t even go to school here. Like his roommates, the 20-year-old from Oklahoma City University plays for the Harrisonburg Turks of the Valley Baseball League, a summer circuit comprised of college standouts from across the country who travel to Virginia to improve their skills and audition for professional scouts. Their housing is paid for. So are most of their meals. It’s as if their college scholarships were extended from June to the beginning of August to get a free taste of what life would be like in the minors. But to Parker — a blond-haired, taut Texan who greets people with a genuine "sir" or "ma’am’’— this summer means even more. To Parker, the Turks’ closing pitcher, it’s part of achieving a goal that once seemed unattainable: becoming a professional baseball player. First, and most importantly, he had to get past childhood cancer. Then, it took a sudden position change before he finally came within reach of his dream. Now, he’s hoping his time as a Turk will bring him one step closer.  10:17 a.m. Parker’s bedroom is makeshift. His walls are bare, his closet has little more than jerseys, a few shirts and jeans, and a large bucket of sunflower seeds sits on the floor by his cleats. There’s no TV in the room. "I just wanted to come up here to do baseball," says Parker, who was a sophomore last season at Howard Junior College in Texas and will transfer to NAIA Oklahoma City this year. Parker is from Duncanville, Texas, about 20 minutes south of Dallas, and possesses a slight drawl to prove it. Asked if the straw cowboy hat sitting in the living room is his, Parker quickly — but politely — says no. "That one’s garbage from Walmart," he says. "You don’t want to get no cowboy hat from Walmart." Parker says he has the real thing at home: two Stetsons — a straw one that cost $90 and a black felt one that cost about $200. He wears the latter to weddings. Here, he trades a cowboy hat for a baseball cap. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound right-hander has been unhittable on the mound. He has a 0.00 ERA with eight saves and only nine hits in 18 1/3 innings. More surprising than his stats, however, is that he began pitching only last fall. After spending his freshman year as a catcher at Lon Morris College, Parker transferred to Howard in Big Spring, Texas, where his former high school coach — Jay Bob Thomas — was now an assistant. The reason: His status at Lon Morris was shaky because of poor hitting, and Thomas told him he had always wanted to try him out as a pitcher. The result: Parker went 3-1 with two saves for Howard this spring. He started the season as the team’s closer and finished as a starter. Now, he’s transferring again. At Oklahoma City, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics power, he’ll be on scholarship, and Parker’s focus this summer is perfecting his pitching. He even broke up with his girlfriend of two years before making the move to Harrisonburg. "She understands it’s all about baseball right now," he says.  10:50 a.m. Before leaving the apartment, Parker goes through some daily rituals. Like many ballplayers, he’s superstitious. He does his laundry in the morning and brushes his teeth twice to start the day. (Only once at night.) Dressed in a Nike T-shirt and shorts, Parker then heads to the gym. He hops into his burgundy 2005 Toyota Tundra truck, pulling away from the Foxhill apartment he shares with pitchers Josh Moore (Wheaton College) and James Kennedy (Rider). Every summer since buying the team in 1990, Turks owner Bob Wease and his wife Teresa, the team’s operations manager, have spent their own money to put up players in apartments around town. The Weases sublet mostly in neighborhoods occupied by James Madison University students and try to pair players who have cars with those who don’t. Some players live with host families, others with the Weases themselves. The Turks also get summer membership to Gold’s Gym for $50. And Parker makes the most of it, going five to six times a week. The frequent visits are the result of a painful past. Parker said he was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 9 years old and was on chemotherapy until he was 13. He has been in remission for seven years. "I was completely helpless," Parker says. "And I didn’t want to be that way again."  11:24 a.m. After maxing out at 245 pounds on the bench press, Parker moves over to free weights and talks about his struggle with cancer. It started when he was 9 playing in a baseball tournament. At the beginning of the week, he felt fine. "But at the end of the week, I couldn’t get to first base without breathing, like I had ran like three miles." He couldn’t sleep laying down. His head started to swell. Then, he woke up with a nose bleed one night and ran toward the sink, but he took about three steps and blacked out. "My dad had to do the Heimlich Maneuver on me to wake me back up." The doctors, Parker says, told him he was four hours from dying when they finally figured out his affliction wasn’t a sinus problem. There was a giant tumor in his chest. Parker spent the next two weeks in the hospital and returned for extended stays over the next six months. He had 36 spinal taps over a five-year span. He lost all his hair. His face became puffy. And he lost all but one of his friends. "I hated everything. I had no faith. I had nothing. I tried to stay as up about it as you can. But the fact is: Everything is taken away from you." Two years into it, he hit his low point. "I was at the point where I was sitting there bawling in my room. Just curled up in a ball." That, however, was when it clicked. He started doing crunches, riding a cardio bike, lifting weights. He began playing baseball again when he was 12. It became his motivation. "Everybody on our team wants to play pro ball. The only difference is I have some other reasons behind why I lift so much," he says. If the pros come calling, he’ll jump at their offer. "I’d sign for a pack of bubblegum and a six-pack of Coke," Parker says. "Money’s not an issue. I want to show you can play no matter what. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through."  1:37 p.m. His workout done, Parker heads over to Advantage Physical Therapy — part of the Gold’s Gym complex — to get electro-treatment on his sore elbow. He lives with the knowledge that his cancer can return at any time. Playing baseball, Parker says, is not a risk. And even if it was, he says he wouldn’t stop. Why not? "Because. It’s what kept me going." Bob Wease says the majority of his players have the talent to reach the pros. What separates the sure-things from those with potential is work ethic, he says. David Eckstein of the St. Louis Cardinals had it when he was a Turk. Juan Pierre of the Los Angeles Dodgers had it when he was here. And so does Garrett Parker — which, combined with a fastball that hovers in the mid-90 mph range, should take him far, Wease says. "He’s one of the most coachable players I’ve ever seen," Wease says. "He listens, he wants to learn. He’s always asking questions. … "I think he has a very good shot at playing at a high level. He’s got a very good chance at the big leagues."  2:19 p.m. Parker jumps back in his Tundra and pops in a country music CD — some Pat Green, a little Charlie Robinson. Texas country, Parker calls it. This is the furthest he’s ever traveled away from home to play baseball. Parker only misses Texas during his downtime. He thinks of sitting on his back porch, listening to music. He thinks of fishing and duck hunting. Soon he’ll be back home, if only briefly before school starts anew. The regular season ended Sunday and the Valley League playoffs will be over within two weeks. Until then, there’s life in Harrisonburg. After leaving the gym and arriving back at his apartment, Parker happily discovers that he and his roommates have received their batch of meal tickets for the week. Each week, the Weases give every player cards that provide them one meal a day. They purchase the tickets from places like the Woodfire Grill Buffet, CiCi’s Pizza, Qdoba, Shoney’s and Dominos. In all, Bob Wease estimates that he and his wife — who run a used car dealership on South Main Street — spend about $100,000 a year to operate the Turks, paying for rent, utilities, meals, etc. They also provide the team with food after games, usually homemade. Wease says he and his wife typically break even after raising money from ticket sales, outfield advertisements, sponsors, merchandise and concessions. Although room and board is provided, some players choose to work for extra cash. At least 10 of the 28 Turks had jobs this summer, Teresa Wease says. Their work varies. First baseman David Dennis (Oklahoma City University) gives hitting lessons to Harrisonburg Little Leaguers for $25 an hour. "Just so I don’t have to leech off my parents," Dennis says. "… Enough to eat." Pitcher Chase Sonen (St. Joseph’s College) worked at Heavenly Ham, glazing hams and making fruit salads four or five days a week for $7 an hour. He says he worked from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., then went to the gym, napped and hit the stadium. Pitcher Ian Reinhart (Southern Illinois University) drove cars to auction sites for Harrisonburg Auto Auction one or two days a week, making $60-$70 a paycheck every two weeks. Parker is one of the Turks who doesn’t hold a job. "I told my parents I wanted to get a job here," he says. "They told me to focus on baseball."  2:40 p.m. Making use of their meal tickets, Parker and Moore meet catcher Mike Pericht (St. Joseph’s College) and pitcher Ryan Ellison (Troy) for lunch at the Woodfire Grill. Parker loads his plate with chicken strips, rice with gravy and green beans. He washes it down with sweet tea. Unlike many athletes, the lean-as-a-celery-stick Parker doesn’t have a special diet. He loves steak and Italian dishes, and tries to eat food that provide him with energy. As for downtime? Sometimes, Parker will go to Massanutten Resort’s water park. Or he’ll fish, play catch, talk. But mostly, he and his teammates just hang around. After all, there’s all that baseball. Parker says he’ll have played 100 games this year by summer’s end. The Turks alone account for 44 regular-season games, played from Haymarket (an hour-and-a-half northeast of town) to Covington (an hour and 40 minutes south). Parker arrived in Harrisonburg just a week after the college season ended in May and will begin training for Oklahoma City’s season shortly after the second-place Turks (28-16) finish up. "It’s bang, bang, bang for the summer," Parker says.  5:12 p.m. Parker typically heads to Memorial Stadium for batting practice around 5 p.m. for a 7:30 home game On this day, he stands to the right of home plate, using a fungo bat to hit grounders to infielders between second and third base. Soon, Parker gets into his stretching routine, running sideways along the right-field line. As the game creeps closer and the players put on their uniforms, Parker and his teammates gather around the dugout and sign autographs for a few young fans. Fame is coming in small doses. "I never signed autographs before," Parker admits. "I never learned an autograph. … I kind of made it up on the fly. It changes a lot."  8:56 p.m. Usually, players are Turks for only one summer before moving on to other circuits or another level of baseball. A few, like David Dennis, return for a second year. Knowing that, the question is obvious as the Turks are leading Covington 3-1 in the bottom of the sixth on July 18: Does winning even matter in a league where improving your personal performance is the main goal for players? "I don’t feel like I’m here playing for myself," Parker says. "I feel like I’m here to pick up the guys on my team. And they feel the same way. Ask anybody and they’ll tell you the same way."  9:06 p.m. The Turks are still up 3-1 in the seventh when Parker heads out to the bullpen in right field and begins tossing with fellow pitcher Ashur Tolliver (Arkansas-Little Rock). The ball makes a loud pop as it hits Tolliver’s glove — even with Parker 90 feet away. "He can bring it pretty good," catcher Pericht says, sitting to the side. It’s hard to believe Parker is still a pitching novice. But these are the moments that have hurried his progression: sitting in the bullpen, absorbing what he can from his fellow hurlers. This summer’s lessons have already paid off. Parker — who throws only a fastball and slider, but is working on a two-seam fastball and a changeup — says he wasn’t a strikeout pitcher in college this spring. But now, he throws for power. He has struck out 22 hitters in his 18 1/3 innings for the Turks. "When he throws, he sticks with one pitch," Pericht says. "[But] he can usually blow it by him. As long as he has his control on, he’s legit."  9:28 p.m. It’s the bottom of the ninth now and the Turks are up 4-1. But Parker isn’t pitching. Ryan Ellison has been dominant and Wease — who manages the team as well as owns it — leaves him in. But then, with two outs, there it goes: a home run blasted over the left-field fence. Parker takes off his red Turks jacket and begins firing his warmup pitches in the bullpen. "If the next guys gets on, you’re real hot," Reinhart, the St. Joseph’s pitcher, tells him. The next guy hits a single through the left side. "You’re hot," Reinhart says. A serious glare sets in Parker’s greenish eyes. He’s ready. But never mind. Ellison strikes out the next batter. Harrisonburg 4, Covington 2. "That’s the game," Parker says without a hint of disappointment before he speeds back to join his teammates near the dugout.  10:01 p.m. As most of the Turks enjoy a post-game meal of homemade chicken alfredo in front of the concession stand at the stadium, Parker eats near the dugout. He’s sticking around to throw long toss with assistant coach Mark Percosky. Some players go out to the bars after games, Parker says, but he doesn’t — not being 21 and all. Once he’s done throwing, Parker says he’ll head to his apartment, shower, call home and turn in at about 12:30 or 1. "We’ve got a heavy schedule this week," he reasons. And baseball is the only thing that matters this summer anyway.