By Jim Carnett
6:57 PM EDT, March 11, 2013
I was led quite by accident last week to peruse a pair of highly absorbing memoirs.
That's the nice thing about being retired. You have time to indulge your reading passions, from selections on the latest bestseller lists to enduring works you've long wanted to dust off.
Last week's two memoirs were written by authentic American heroes who've lost successful careers to unfortunate circumstances.
My first read was retired four-star Gen. Stanley McChrystal's weighty tome, "My Share of the Task." McChrystal describes in detail episodes and controversies of his 35-year military career. A "soldier's" general, he frequently went on patrol with his troops to better understand their challenges.
McChrystal, the son of a general, commanded U.S. and NATO troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wrote a memoir that offers exceptional insight into a complex life. The book is as suffused with historical particulars as a memoir I read years ago by another general, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant's book became the standard for excellence in autobiographical prose. McChrystal's is in good company.
McChrystal handed President Obama his resignation in 2010 after an unflattering article about him appeared in a national magazine. It was a national tragedy.
The second read was a poignant work by former Major League Baseball catcher Ben Petrick. Titled "40,000 to One," the book looks at a career that might have been one for the ages had it not been disastrously short-circuited.
Petrick, who played for the Colorado Rockies and Detroit Tigers, has written a spare but profound little book about a career that ended at least a decade too soon because of Parkinson's disease. I finished the thin tour de force in several hours and longed for more. At 35, Petrick has figured out more about life than most people twice his age.
Parkinson's is a degenerative brain disorder with no known cure. It causes nerve cells to die or become impaired, and patients exhibit such symptoms as tremors or shaking, slowness of movement, rigidity or stiffness and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gait, cognitive problems or muffled speech.
How Petrick was able to continue playing professional baseball while suffering from Parkinson's is mind-boggling. The disease relentlessly robbed him of his physical skills but, in the end, transformed him from a talented athlete into a compassionate human being and gifted writer.
"Ben Petrick could've become the best catcher in baseball, and maybe one of the best in history," writes ESPN's Steve Wulf. "But … he lost one gift only to find another."
The Hillsboro, Ore., native was diagnosed in 2000 at age 22 following his rookie season in the big leagues. He was 40 years younger than the prototypical newly diagnosed Parkinson's patient. Coincidentally, his father, Vern, was diagnosed seven months earlier, at 54.
My dad was diagnosed with Parkinson's at 75. I was diagnosed at 61.
Petrick played parts of five Major League seasons — 240 games. He hit .257, slugged 27 home runs — including a prodigious blast off Randy Johnson — and had 94 RBIs. Only upon retiring in 2004 did Petrick publicly disclose his illness.
The young author's words cry out for notice. Here are some pearls:
" … Grit was my currency, not talent."
" … I knew in my heart that my ability to play the game was a gift, not a promise. It was something given to me in a moment of grace."
" … In an instant, the body that had been my greatest asset became my greatest liability."
" … I'd always envisioned myself fading into immortality. Instead, all I did was fade."
" … I'd only wished for two things in life: to be a pro ballplayer and to be a father. Parkinson's took one of those. I wasn't going to let it have both."
" … I refused to speak of my illness, let alone indulge it with tears. I would not dignify Parkinson's with my feelings. It had stolen my career…but it would not steal my toughness … I would not let it make me cry."
" … Each day, I get a little stronger about being weaker."
Petrick has much to teach us.
JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.