A walk in the park for Parnell
By Bret Strelow
NEW YORK ó He played third base but rarely pitched his senior year at East Rowan High School, totaling eight innings as the team’s No. 6 hurler.
He continued his career at Charleston Southern, which lost the second game of his sophomore year by a 38-0 score. He posted an 8.86 ERA in his final collegiate season.
As Bobby Parnell exits the lobby of the seven-story Holiday Inn and locates Shea Stadium, his long journey to the major leagues is nearly complete.
He’s approximately 1,000 sidewalk steps away ó 996, to be exact ó from a once-distant destination.
“Playing baseball, you always dream about getting to the big leagues,” Parnell says, “but it’s something off the wall I didn’t expect.”
The path from Parnell’s hotel room to his home ballpark starts on 114th Street, switches to Roosevelt Avenue and follows the route of the “7” train before reaching the outer edges of the stadium parking lot.
The trip takes 13 minutes to complete, and one right turn leads Parnell down the hallway to a New York Mets clubhouse that has locker stalls reserved for the likes of Santana, Wright, Martinez, Delgado and Beltran.
Parnell walked alone to Shea Stadium last Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon in advance of victories against the Washington Nationals. His agent joined him for late-night strolls back to the Holiday Inn.
“The walk over, I have to start focusing on baseball and get my mind right,” Parnell says. “Walking back from the game, it’s a relaxed feeling.
“It’s a good walk.”
Going through glass doors and descending eight stairs outside the Holiday Inn, the facade of 48-year-old Shea Stadium is visible beyond eight lanes of Grand Central Parkway traffic. Portions of an under-construction Citi Field, which will open next season, can be seen to the left of Shea.
Veering right at the bottom of the hotel steps and heading uphill along 114th Street, Roosevelt Avenue is two blocks away. The El Chicano Bar and Restaurant, an accessible dining option for the handful of players who stay at the hotel, sits on the corner of 114th and Roosevelt.
Parnell prefers to arrive at Shea about five hours prior to the first pitch, and reporters enter the main area of the Mets’ clubhouse 90 minutes later.
Lockers line all four walls in the dimly lit room. Leather couches at each end face television monitors suspended above a centrally located table, and “Evan Almighty” plays on the flat-screen set this particular day. A smaller screen offers footage of the pitcher scheduled to start against the Mets that day; another screen provides tape of opposing hitters.
Picturing the clubhouse entrance as home plate and the largest television as the pitcher’s mound, Parnell’s locker is located at the equivalent of third base.
Lockers belonging to most of the relievers run along the left-front wall and jut out farther than two smaller stalls positioned at the end of the row, just a few feet away from a series of bathroom sinks. Parnell and Jon Niese, another late-season call-up, dress at those corner positions.
A Mets logo and “39” accompany “Parnell” on the colorful nameplate. Facing the middle of the room, Parnell can spot Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana to his left or Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado to his right.
“You look up and see all these guys, and you’re like, ‘I’m here. Why am I here?’ ” Parnell says. “You’re kind of awe-struck at times.”
Twenty-four hangers ó bunched together ó hold jerseys, T-shirts and one pair of faded blue jeans in Parnell’s locker. Four different hats, two gloves and a bottle of Listerine fill up space on the top shelf. Two pairs of black cleats, one pair of white tennis shoes and MLB-issued flip-flops cover the bottom shelf.
A pink “Sleeping Beauty” backpack sits atop the lockers Parnell and Niese occupy. The reliever with the least amount of tenure carries the bag to the bullpen each day, and Brian Stokes rid himself of that burden when the Mets promoted Parnell on Sept. 1.
“Sleeping Beauty, we spent some quality time together, but it was time for me to pass her down to the younger guys,” Stokes says.
The bag contains candy bars ó Aaron Heilman likes Kit Kats ó as well as granola bars, nail clippers and first-aid necessities.
Niese’s short-lived conversion from starter to reliever provides Parnell with an escape clause after only a few days.
“I’d rather be carrying a pink bag up here than be in the minor leagues,” he says.
Two police officers direct traffic at the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and 114th Street, and a left turn onto Roosevelt eventually brings the National Tennis Center into view.
Overhead, a Manhattan-bound “7” train picks up speed as it rolls away from the Willets Point-Shea Stadium stop. Below, cars on a crowded Grand Central Parkway creep along at a slow pace.
Parnell walks down the ramp that leads to the home dugout in Shea Stadium, and every player is wearing a white uniform with blue pinstripes on this Wednesday. The hats are bright blue with an orange “NY” insignia.
The Mets gather in right field for a team picture, and Parnell stands on the back row between John Maine and Duaner Sanchez. Maine and Sanchez slap at each other behind Parnell’s back, and Sanchez jokes around with Parnell.
Parnell can’t help but notice Citi Field, with a price tag of $800 million, looming in the background.
“Every day I look up and wonder what that thing is going to look like,” Parnell says.
Parnell changes into the team’s batting practice uniform once he returns to the clubhouse. He goes to the bullpen to work on bunting, and he later shags balls in the outfield. The session ends, and autograph seekers spread out along the seating area that presses up against the right-field line. Parnell and Nelson Figueroa take time to sign memorabilia and pose for pictures.
Parnell slips on yet another cap ó this one features a red, white and blue logo to honor the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11 ó before the game begins. He’s worn four different hats, all of them new, in the last two days.
“In the minor leagues you had sweat stains all over them, and you can’t even sweat in these hats,” he says.
Circling the perimeter of Shea Stadium, a ticket booth appears. Then doors for administrative offices. Around the next corner is Gate C, the entrance for players, coaches and media members.
Only a 180-degree turn is needed to recognize the top floors of the Holiday Inn off in the distance.
The national anthem ends, and Parnell leads a trio of relievers from the dugout to the right-field bullpen. Niese, the pink backpack hanging from his shoulders, files in line behind Parnell.
On this Tuesday, Parnell sits with teammates on an elevated platform beyond the outfield fence before relocating to an enclosed area where he can watch the game on television and study the swings of Nationals batters.
Only a few pitchers remain on the perch when Beltran smacks a go-ahead home run in the sixth inning. Delgado approaches the plate to chants of “MVP!” and endangers several relievers with a shot into the bullpen.
“We’ve been running for our lives when he’s up there,” Parnell says as 30 reporters surround Delgado’s locker.
The Mets win again a day later, and Washington’s Elijah Dukes causes most of the drama. Having already hit a homer, he comes to bat with his team trailing 7-1 in the fourth inning. An inside pitch from Mike Pelfrey infuriates Dukes, who shouts toward the mound.
Mets relievers spring to their feet and align behind the outfield fence. Scott Schoeneweis swings the door open and waits for any sign of trouble, but tempers cool before benches clear.
“You have to protect your teammates,” Parnell says. “It’s funny to see us run across the field probably, but it’s something we have to do.”
The Mets claim a 13-10 victory. Two Washington comebacks cost Parnell, who finally made his long-awaited debut last night, a chance to pitch for the first time.
New York is participating in a heated pennant race, and manager Jerry Manuel continues to rely on tested relievers late in close games.
“At this point in time, we’re trying to get the individual exposure to the major league ballparks and to the New York Mets,” pitching coach Dan Warthen says. “We figure the reason they’re here is they’ll be a big part of our future. That has been explained to Bobby.”
Fans are gathering outside the player entrance and swarming former Mets standout Ray Knight with autograph requests as Parnell prepares to make another late-night walk back to his hotel.
He removes his jersey, and a metallic “23” hangs from his silver necklace. He wore that number as a high school and college player, and he’s beaten long odds to become a major leaguer.
“I never really counted my chickens before they hatched,” Parnell says. “I think Sept. 1 was the first time I realized I could really go somewhere. I’ve always tried to stay humble, and it’s still unbelievable.”