Bobby Parnell speaks at Rotary Club

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 25, 2011

By Mike London
Bobby Parnell has pitched in 115 big league games, but addressing a room packed with Rotary Club of Salisbury members on Tuesday was a tougher assignment than throwing a 3-1 fastball to Chipper Jones.
“I was up there sweating,” the New York Mets reliever admitted with a laugh. “Really nervous. I took one class on public speaking in college, but this was a lot tougher than pitching.”
Fortified by a hearty meal of chicken and dumplings — his personal favorite — Parnell handled himself well, speaking clearly about his surprising journey from struggling college hurler (he was 6-15 in three years at Charleston Southern) to ninth-round draft pick to making the Mets in 2008.
Brooklyn was Parnell’s first stop in the minors.
“Yeah, Brooklyn was a little bit of a pace change from Salisbury,” Parnell said.
Parnell, 26, won just twice in his limited high school pitching career at East Rowan. He’s doubled that total in the big leagues, a Cinderella story that’s an inspiration to every local player.
Before Parnell took the podium, Bob Parnell, Salisbury’s fire chief, offered a highlight film of his son that he’d produced and edited.
It had its moments.
First, lefty J.D. Drew sits down after being handcuffed by a 98 mph heater.
Next, the dreaded Albert Pujols, best hitter in baseball, appears on the screen.
“Pujols,” Bob Parnell whispers reverently.
No problem. The future Hall of Famer is jammed by a Parnell fastball and looks human. He taps a meek bouncer that third baseman David Wright gobbles up.
Rotarians roar approval.
The screen switches to an extra-inning game at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, and Carlos Lee, who has 331 MLB homers to his credit, flails at a 99 mph two-seamer that bores right in on his hands. “El Caballo” stares out at Parnell and shakes his head.
Next, Houston rookie Brett Wallace looks stunned as Parnell fools him with a changeup. But then, even Parnell’s change is no picnic. It arrives at 94 mph.
Houston youngster Chris Johnson takes a 101 mph fastball from Parnell for a called strike, then swings helplessly at his next offering. The radar gun says 102, one of the swiftest pitches in baseball history.
“Hi-Test!” barks the play-by-play man. “Six up and six down for Parnell.”
Johnson trudges to the dugout. Rotarians cheer.
The biggest applause comes when Parnell, more accomplished as a hitter and fielder than a pitcher when he toiled for the Rowan County American Legion team (he played first base for the 2002 state champions), loops a single to left field for his first base hit in the majors.
That baseball is retrieved as a souvenir for Parnell’s trophy case and tossed into the Mets dugout. Parnell’s teammate Livan Hernandez immediately pretends to lob the keepsake into the stands.
“Ah, Livan’s a practical joker,” Parnell said. “That hit was a thrill. There was a bigger smile on my face than you could see on the video.”
After the film and the speech, Parnell comfortably fields questions from the audience. The Rotarians are somewhat less demanding than the New York press.
The question everyone is dying to ask, but no one does, is “how can a human being throw a baseball 103 mph?”
Basically, Parnell was born with a gift. He’s worked diligently to refine it and improve it and take care of it, but the bottom line is humans firing baseballs at 103 mph are one in a billion.
Right now, that club includes Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman, L.A.’s Jonathan Broxton, Detroit’s Joel Zumaya, Texas’ Neftali Feliz and Parnell. That’s about it.
“I didn’t really have a pitching coach in college and I was throwing like 89 to 92,” Parnell said. “But I’ve gotten great coaching with the Mets, and I’ve picked up Velocity gradually as my mechanics improved. Just a little every year.”
Parnell throws his fastball 81 percent of the time, and with good reason. On those days when he’s in that 100 mph zone, he can just “throw it toward the white,” as he puts it, and get guys out.
But there are other days, when he’s “only” throwing 92-93, and his location has to be much crisper.
There are wonderful days when his fastball rides and runs, but there are others when it comes in arrow-straight. He doesn’t know until he gets on the mound whether he’s got it or not.
Parnell has spent five years trying to improve his “feel pitches,” — his changeup and slider — to elevate them to the same level as his fastball. He’s tinkered with curveballs. Now he’s experimenting with a split-finger.
His fastball is so formidable most of the time that the Mets will likely entrust him with the vital role of pitching the eighth inning this season.
He’s ready for that, and it’s the first time since he broke into the majors that he’s had a chance to prepare mentally for a defined role.
“I’ve always just done what the team needed and I’ve been on the fence a lot of times,” Parnell said. “If we were short on starters, I started. If we needed a reliever, I relieved. This year, I know I’ll be in the bullpen.”
He spent the first few months of this offseason primarily as a “couch potato,” but he’s been working out seriously since Jan. 1.
He likes new Mets manager Terry Collins.
“He’s a good guy, a baseball guy, always talking baseball,” Parnell said.
Parnell’s also likes Josh Thole, who could be the regular catcher. Thole was selected four picks after Parnell in the 2005 draft, and Parnell’s spent lots of time with him.
“We’re comfortable enough with each other that he can tell me one of my pitches stinks, and we won’t use it that day,” Parnell said. “We’re on the same page.”
Parnell had a 2.83 ERA in 41 relief efforts in 2010 and allowed only one homer. He’d like to close eventually, and that opportunity could come his way in time.
A dozen Rotarians came up to shake hands with Parnell before they exited, and Parnell embraced former Rowan Legion coach Jim DeHart, who was patient with Parnell when he was still trying to harness his great gift.
There were a few autograph requests, and Parnell, who threw the last pitch by a Met at Shea Stadium before it was replaced by Citi Field, cheerfully complied.
“I’ll always be the answer to that Shea trivia question,” Parnell said with a grin. “Probably the only trivia question I’ll ever get right.”
He made a good impression to the local folks on Tuesday, still as humble and down-to-earth as he was that summer day in 2005 when a shy, nervous kid boarded a plane bound for Brooklyn.
Even if he couldn’t throw 100 mph, there’s little doubt Parnell has the stuff to be successful in life.
He’d make a really good fireman.