The boy had quit baseball, saying he no longer found it fun. He preferred other activities that can fill an 8-year-old’s time away from school.
But while spending this summer with his mother and stepfather in Anaheim, young Jude revealed that he was again interested.
He didn’t really say why, but he offered a hint late one evening in July as he sipped an Icee at his stepfather’s locker at Angel Stadium.
“Blake,” Jude said, addressing Angels relief pitcher Blake Parker. “I’m just so glad you’re in the big leagues.”
“Why’s that?” Parker asked as he tied his shoes and readied to head home.
“Because we get stuff,” Jude said, referring to the drink he had nabbed from the clubhouse kitchen.
Jude appreciates the present. Parker, 32, knows the struggles of the past. Over the last decade, he’s pitched in places such as Hawaii, Mexico and Iowa. Last winter alone, he was claimed off waivers three times.
His surprise season with the Angels started March 22, when he literally started striking out everyone. Between that afternoon and opening day, Parker recorded 17 outs, all strikeouts. Only one hitter he faced reached base. It was spring training, sure, but it was a stretch of dominance typically unseen near the sport’s highest level, and it secured Parker his first opening-day roster spot.
Now, wielding a tight splitter and firm fastball velocity, Parker has 76 strikeouts in 61 innings, a team-best 2.36 earned-run average and a 0.85 walks-plus-hits-per-innings-pitched (WHIP), which is tied for sixth-best among major league relievers.
“The way he pitched in spring training,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, “we didn’t know how he hadn’t been in the big leagues for 10 years.”
Sometimes he was unlucky, sometimes he was hurt, and sometimes he pitched without confidence. Now, as a product of his past, Parker possesses a sense of self-reliance rare among his major league contemporaries.
Rather than purchase coffee each day, he makes his own cold brew, buying beans in bulk, soaking them in water for 24 hours, and filtering out the grounds. He's left with a fresh pitcher every day, and he leaves it in the clubhouse kitchen for all to enjoy.
This spring, he purchased an RV in case he needed to shuttle between triple A and the majors. Rather than sign a short-term lease, he figured he’d just live on the road. Instead, he and his wife, Jordan, along with Jude, have spent the season parked within a mile of Angel Stadium.
To limit their exposure to negativity, at least two of his teammates have deleted their Twitter accounts or removed the application from their phones. Parker embraces it. On a few late nights this season, he has opened the app to respond to fans ripping him, unusual behavior for a pro athlete in 2017. When one fan wrote that Parker had the worst beard he had ever seen, Parker retweeted it without comment to his 4,000 followers.
To another man who complained that Parker cost him $1,000 by allowing a late home run, he replied, “You should quit gambling, it’s a bad habit,” and sent along the national gambling helpline.
“I want them to know that I see them, I hear them, but it doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I guess it gives me my own satisfaction. … I try to be funny with it, and at the same time take the edge off and joke around.”
He acts the same way toward his teammates. In mid-May, as fellow reliever Cam Bedrosian neared a month on the disabled list for an unexpectedly severe groin injury, Parker trolled him.
“Bro,” he began, waiting until Bedrosian looked at him. “Are you ever gonna pitch again this year?”
“Yes, I am,” Bedrosian said.
“When?” Parker asked. “In September?”
Now, his teammates are repaying him. Late-inning relievers often work out later than other members of the bullpen, and last week as Parker took the field for a stretching session in Texas before a game against the Rangers, Bedrosian and Jesse Chavez were headed the opposite direction, having already finished their workout.
“See you in the ninth, closer,” they said in unison, as they headed back to the clubhouse.
In the fall of 2003, longtime St. Louis Cardinals catcher Tom Pagnozzi became a volunteer coach at his alma mater, Arkansas. Parker was a freshman backup catcher for the Razorbacks, and the two took to each other.
Once an All-Star, Pagnozzi hurt his shoulder in July 1998. Doctors informed him he’d need significant surgery to repair his rotator cuff. Facing a lengthy rehabilitation at age 36, he retired. Around Christmas in 1999, he received a call from his former manager, Joe Torre. In New York, Torre had a problem: His ace, Roger Clemens, and his catcher, Jorge Posada, were not getting along. Torre sought a backup to catch Clemens every fifth day.
Pagnozzi endured spring training the following season with six cortisone shots but lacked a long-term cure. At the end of March, the Yankees released him. Over the years, Pagnozzi came to regret not having the prescribed surgery.
“I figured, who’s gonna want me at that stage?” Pagnozzi recalled. “That’s what ended my career.”
He imparted that message to Parker: “Play as long as you can. If you quit at 35, you've got plenty of time to go to work.”
So, no, Parker never contemplated quitting baseball. Shagging batting practice one July day in Minneapolis, several Angels relievers discussed when they planned to retire. Parker told them he intends to play as long as he can.
“I don’t think I ever want to stop,” he said. “There’s no amount of money you could give me. I just love playing the game. At the end of the day, every person that I’ve talked to that is done playing wishes they could come back and play.”
To explain how he proceeded past a decade of scuffling along in obscurity, Parker pointed across the Angels’ clubhouse to Mike Trout, the team’s superstar center fielder.
“He knows, deep down in his heart, that he’s good,” Parker said. “I feel like I’m the same way. Obviously, I’m not on Trout’s talent level, but I know deep down that I am good enough to do this. Even though you don’t think so, I do, even though I’m just a nobody from Arkansas.”
Parker thought of an August night in Washington when he heard a heckler shout to Trout that Bryce Harper was better than him.
“I mean, OK, he never said he was better than Harper,” Parker said. “That’s your opinion. But with him, with anybody, you can’t let that get to you. Because once that starts to diminish your own confidence in yourself, you’re screwed.
“It’s like that quote about the boat, how the water is all on the outside and it stays above the water. Once it gets in, the boat sinks. If you let it all bounce off you, you’ll be fine. But once it affects you, you’re done, slowly but surely.”
A few winters ago, Parker’s parents convinced him to undergo a hair-replacement operation. It did not work as intended, and it left him with a significant scar spanning the back of his head in the shape of a toothless smile. It’s visible when he’s not wearing a cap, and he takes it off each time he takes the mound, showing the scar as he faces second base and prays.
Parker prefers not to discuss the operation, but he understands why people ask. He doesn’t let it flood his boat.
“Here’s what I take away from that deal,” said his father, Richard. “I take the fact that he doesn’t care about the scar; he doesn’t care what happened. He keeps his hair short and he’s not afraid to take off his hat. That’s what I love about Blake. I’m telling you, I love the kid because he just doesn’t worry about it.
“Every time he turns to second to say his prayer, that thing shines, and I see that big smile on the back of his head.”
Designated hitter Albert Pujols has a bone bruise in his sore left knee. Team doctor Steven Yoon examined him onWednesday and administered a lubricating injection into the knee. Pujols, 37, has been cleared to play Friday in Seattle.