Fallen firemen a driving force for pitcher Bobby Parnell
By Mike London
In the visitor’s clubhouse at Milwaukee’s Miller Park, Bobby Parnell reverently pulled on a New York Mets uniform.
Butterflies danced in his belly, but the lean right-hander dressed stoically among millionaire celebrities who were preparing for a Labor Day game with pennant-race implications.
Parnell stared in silent awe at his gray No. 39 road jersey. He studied the orange and blue “New York” across his chest, the perfect leg-stripe and the bright blue bill on his black cap. Then he headed for his new residence ó the bullpen.
On his first day in the big leagues, Parnell’s thoughts were partly about $400 million Miller Park and the proper grip on his changeup.
Mostly they were about Justin Monroe, a 19-year-old firefighter who died in a March blaze at Salisbury Millwork.
The Mets’ roots are in the blue Brooklyn Dodgers and orange New York Giants, franchises that represented the Big Apple in the National League until they joined a second California gold rush 50 years ago and relocated.
Parnell’s humble roots can be traced to hunting, fishing, Staton Field, Newman Park and fire stations.
Parnell was invited to Spring Training by New York and reported in mid-February to the complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
On March 7, he received word of the raging blaze that claimed the lives of Monroe and 40-year-old Victor Isler.
“I tell you, it was the worst news I’ve ever gotten in my life, and it hit me hard,” Parnell said. “It just tore me up. Justin and I were hunting and fishing all the time this offseason, and we were close. As soon as I heard, I came home.”
Parnell’s father, Bob, is Salisbury’s fire chief.
Bobby has spent countless hours at the station. He’s driven trucks to calls, although he’s never had to pit his courage and a water hose against an inferno.
Parnell and Monroe spent peaceful times in the woods as well as the station, and the conversation often turned to baseball.
“Justin told me he wanted to see me play in the big leagues,” Parnell said. “Justin and Victor ó they’ve been kind of a driving force for me all year.”
After returning to Spring Training, Parnell faced the regular lineup for the Florida Marlins. He fanned Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez, a sign he wasn’t far from completing an improbable journey from role player to major leaguer.
Parnell was on terrific high school teams at East Rowan. The 2002 Mustangs went 21-4 with a lineup that included third-round draft pick Cal Hayes Jr., Division I signees Drew Davis, Julian Sides and Spencer Steedley and D-II signees Nick Lefko and Michael Gegorek.
The most surprising signing from the group came when Parnell got an offer from Charleston Southern.
As an East senior, Parnell played third base, batted .283 and was the No. 6 pitcher. He threw eight innings.
East coach Guy Wirt, like Jeff Safrit before him, noticed the way balls sizzled across the infield when propelled by Parnell’s loose right arm, but Parnell couldn’t throw consistent strikes and there were never enough innings to go around.
Parnell rarely pitched, but he played first base for the state championship Rowan Legion team that went 43-2 in 2002, and he was still eligible for Legion ball in 2003 following his freshman year at Charleston Southern.
Rowan coach Jim Gantt gave him a shot as Rowan’s closer. He went 2-2 with three saves and 45 strikeouts in 31 innings.
But Parnell never shined at Charleston Southern. His ERA as a junior was 8.86, and opposing hitters clobbered him at a .330 clip.
But the draft is about talent, not stats, and each team had Parnell somewhere on its board in 2005.
The Mets had him highest. He went in the ninth round ó 269th overall.
New York offered $65,000. Parnell signed as soon as he could grab a pen and headed to Brooklyn for rookie ball. Many thought that was the last they’d hear of him, but he was an all-star for the Cyclones.
He struggled at low A Hagerstown in 2006, but he got back on track at St. Lucie in an advanced A league and was an all-star in 2007.
Parnell finished that year and opened the current season at Double-A Binghamton.
Still shaken by the fire, he started miserably and was 0-2 with a 7.15 ERA after five outings. But he began challenging hitters again and became an all-star for the third time. His record was 10-6 when he was promoted to Triple-A New Orleans.
His mark at New Orleans was 2-2, including an eye-catching start against the Iowa Cubs in which he retired the first 12 hitters he faced ó nine on strikeouts.
“I had a chance to watch their hitters five days and saw how aggressive they were,” Parnell said. “I got them to expand the strike zone, and I got strikeouts from guys swinging at balls.
“I couldn’t tell a real big difference between Double-A and Triple-A, but Double-A hitters will miss a few mistakes. In Triple-A, whenever you make a mistake, it gets hit hard.”
It goes without saying National League hitters miss even fewer mistakes and hit them harder still, but Parnell has a chance because he’s added an improved changeup to his sharp slider and crackling fastball.
“I’ve always had the changeup, but I got away from using it for two years,” Parnell said. “I’ve gotten that pitch back this year, and I’m confident I can throw any of my three pitches for strikes now.”
Spring Training discussions with mound artists Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez helped Parnell refine changeup mechanics and his mental approach.
“Two great guys who will sit down and talk to you about anything,” Parnell said.
Parnell, who struck out 91 batters at Binghamton this season and another 23 at New Orleans, is still pinching himself hourly, but his big-league dream is real.
“I didn’t expect this,” he said. “I played with so many great players ó Drew, Cal, Nick ó I never thought for a minute it would be me that got this opportunity.”
The Mets return home this weekend, and Parnell, who turns 24 on Monday, hopes for a relief role against the Philadelphia Phillies.
If he’s called upon, memories of the fallen firefighters will accompany him to the mound at Shea Stadium.
“Their initials will always be in my cap,” Parnell said. “I think about those guys every day, and I feel like they’re right here with me.”