Petrick opens up about living with Parkinson's

Former Rockies catcher was diagnosed in 2000 at age 22

May 13th, 2020

DENVER -- Before picking up the phone one morning a couple weeks ago, Ben Petrick picked up his feet and ran wind sprints near his Hillsboro, Ore., home.

It was a good day in his constant fight against Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system with which he was diagnosed 20 years ago and which shortened a promising career as a catcher with the Rockies.

“I work out almost every day to try to stay fit and make my muscles stay relaxed,” Petrick said. “I try to stay as upright as possible. This disease tries to bend you over until your back is messed up. Then the disease compounds everything and makes you unhealthy overall.”

In this year, is there something to be learned from Petrick?

The Rockies drafted Petrick in the second round in 1995. He debuted on Sept. 1, 1999, with an RBI double off the Pirates’ Jason Schmidt -- to drive in Todd Helton -- as part of a 2-for-3 performance with two walks. Baseball America ranked him the Majors’ No. 35 prospect going into 2000, an indication that he was primed to be the Rockies' catcher of the future.

It was in 2000, his official rookie year, that his Parkinson’s diagnosis -- rare at 22 -- put a frightening damper on his budding career. The diagnosis came not long after his father, longtime high school teacher and coach Vern Petrick, began fighting the same disease. Still, the younger Petrick played 240 games over five seasons with the Rockies and Tigers while keeping his condition secret.

“Mine started in my left hand," said Petrick, now 43. "I had a very small tremor and a slow, stiff kind of feeling -- kind of like putting your hand in ice water for a few minutes. Then, you pull your hand out and try wiggling your fingers. That’s how it feels, minus the cold.

“I got diagnosed in 2000 after having symptoms for seven months. I did a great job of learning how to tuck my hand in my pocket or cross my arms.”

A former high school football and baseball star, Petrick managed to bat .257 with 27 home runs and 94 RBIs for his Major League career, even after the disease turned his body against him. Even with the pain, stiffness, occasional shakes and difficulty with coordination, he not only caught in 165 games, but played 34 games in left field, 17 in center, three in right and four at first base. It wasn’t until 2004, after playing 43 games with the Tigers in '03, that Petrick retired and revealed his condition.

The challenges have been extreme at times.

His book, "Forty Thousand to One," co-authored with Scott Brown and published in 2012, details a pair of brain surgeries -- one that didn’t work, one that did for a while. Like many Parkinson’s patients, he went through years of trial and error with medications, but now has a Duopa pump that allows medication to bypass his stomach and travel straight through his bloodstream to his brain. His father passed away in January 2019 at 73 years old.

But Petrick has had his victories.

Petrick's book has served as inspiration and information to fans, his old teammates and colleagues and fellow patients. Petrick raises money by selling his book and merchandise such as hats, shirts, stickers and bracelets through his website, Strength Through Weakness. His Instagram account, @strengththroughweakness, highlights his career, honors his three daughters -- Makena, 12, Madison, 8, and Bailey, 5 -- and shares revealing posts about his fight. He even serves as a part-time coach with the D-backs’ Class A Short Season affiliate in Hillsboro.

Petrick is grateful to actor and fellow Parkinson's patient Michael J. Fox for his tireless fundraising, and for setting an example by not being afraid to share his experiences with the disease.

But Petrick pauses to consider if his story can serve as inspiration to a world dealing with loss and frightening change during the current pandemic.

“I don’t know if I’m the one to ask the question to,” said Petrick, who posted on Instagram on March 31 that his doctor suggested he self-isolate because of his swallowing issues and the respiratory damage that COVID-19 can cause. “My view is it stinks to have this virus out there and everyone having to hunker down. There are a lot of similarities between dealing with Parkinson’s and the virus. We didn’t choose to have the virus out there. I didn’t choose not to be able to walk or talk very well or have a shaking hand when I try to write.

“I am not an expert on either subject. But what I have learned is if you sit around and mope and have a negative mindset, then getting through hard times with adversity will be much more difficult. As hard as it can be to get through on negative days and get out of a funk, you have to find a positive thing to focus on.

“Plain, but not always simple.”

Even the career successes weren’t simple. A career highlight for Petrick was a homer off Hall of Famer Randy Johnson on June 29, 2001 -- an impressive shot to left field at Arizona -- that became complicated as he trotted the bases.

“As soon as the ball came off my bat, whether I hit a ground ball or a home run, my thoughts instantly went to pumping my left arm faster so it wouldn’t be too off rhythm,” he said. “As I jogged around the bases, I could have a little celebration in my head about hitting a home run against the same Randy Johnson I watched dominate as a kid.

“But Parkinson’s doesn’t take a break. It’s always with me.”

On an Instagram post, Petrick shows the homer from three angles. In the third, the camera follows him around the bases. No one would have known how hard he was working to look natural.

These days, there’s no keeping his Parkinson’s under wraps. The advancements in treatment and medication give him hope. He does his part with exercise, such as running, weights and the Beach Body Workout -- all to keep as much of the overall fitness and balance that his body can pull away from Parkinson’s.

“I am really proud of the fact I was able to fight it, and not just quit as soon as I got diagnosed,” Petrick said. “But that’s just how my parents raised me. We all will have things in our life that we don’t want to happen. It’s how you handle it that says a lot about you.

“But sometimes, I don’t feel like that. I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish I could see what would have happened if I was able to keep playing and stay healthy. But when I say that, I’m like, I had the chance to play. Not many people get a chance to play and live out their dreams. I was one of those kids that lived out a dream.”

And he sprints. Thinking about how it looks, and what might have been, is out the window. His feet are moving and he’s fighting through a condition determined to stop him.