Bobby Parnell sits in the first-base dugout at BB&T Ballpark, roughly 40 miles from his hometown of Salisbury, where he lives now as a right-handed reliever for the Charlotte Knights.
Most players on the Knights’ roster live near the ballpark. Parnell commutes to uptown Charlotte each morning, down Interstate 85, a trek he knows well.
He sees familiar faces. He visits his alma mater, East Rowan High. He might pass Newman Park, where he helped the Rowan County American Legion team to the 2002 state championship, or the Salisbury Fire Department, where his father, Robert, has been the fire chief since 2004.
Parnell has lived here his entire life, returning each offseason of his 13-year professional career. Yet, since joining the Knights in early June, such memories feel more precious.
“This is where I’m going to grow up the rest of my life and raise my children,” Parnell said. “This is where people have helped me along the way and have allowed me to pursue this career.”
And it’s here that he plans to get it back on track.
At 32, Parnell is no longer the pitcher who established himself as a reliable reliever for the New York Mets from 2010-13, when he posted a 2.79 ERA and a strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine innings before being derailed by injuries.
Finally healthy again, he looks to continue writing the script of his somewhat improbable journey – one that he hopes includes a triumphant big-league return.
Harnessing his potential
Whenever he discusses Parnell, East Rowan baseball coach Brian Hightower reiterates the same tale – the one about Parnell, then a high school third baseman, making a diving grab and his throw beating the runner to first base.
Few doubted Parnell’s arm strength. However, he pitched just eight innings his senior year.
“His arm was live,” said Hightower, who coached at Statesville High when Parnell was at East Rowan, “but he didn’t know where it was going.”
Parnell ultimately went to Charleston Southern. Once there, he made the transition to the mound.
During his first two seasons, he registered a 5.80 ERA. As a junior in 2005, it was 8.86. Still, with a a 6-foot-3 frame and an upper-90s fastball, the Mets picked him in the ninth round of the 2005 Major League Baseball draft.
Parnell made the strides the Mets hoped for and reached Triple-A in 2008. His MLB debut came that September. Then, after some middle-relief work and stints as the closer in 2011 and 2012, he earned the closer job full-time for 2013 after an injury to Frank Francisco, who appeared in six games for Charlotte in 2014.
On July 25, 2013, Parnell recorded his 20th save. At the time, he was just the 13th pitcher in franchise history to record 20-plus saves in a season.
Parnell, once a third baseman whose throws often ricocheted off the first-base fence, was maturing into the pitcher the Mets thought he could be.
“I felt like I had been throwing well for several years,” Parnell said, “and felt like I could’ve done it for several years.”
One thing after another
Parnell can’t pinpoint what caused it. But one day, he woke up, his neck hurting and pain rushing down his right arm.
Doctors diagnosed him with a herniated disc. He underwent surgery on Sept. 10, 2013 to fuse two discs in his neck, bringing an abrupt end to his breakout campaign.
“I remember being in the doctor’s office and hearing, ‘You’re going to have to have surgery,’” Parnell said. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m not. I’m going to get through this. We’re going to figure out a way.’ I tried to rehab it for several weeks, and I just couldn’t finish the year.”
He spent the offseason recovering. By late December, he was cleared for baseball activities, but didn’t participate in any rigorous throwing until spring training.
Parnell entered the 2014 season still as the Mets’ closer. In his first regular-season appearance since his surgery, he blew a save in the season opener.
During spring training, Parnell said he had noticed a slight drop in his velocity and some control issues, occasional symptoms of an medial collateral ligament (MCL) tear. His Opening Day performance prompted a return to the doctor’s office, where he received yet another dooming diagnosis.
The Mets eventually placed Parnell on the disabled list with an incomplete MCL tear. A week later, he underwent Tommy John surgery.
“Those were a tough couple of months,” Parnell said.
He toiled through 14 months of rehab, mundane exercises and a slow climb up the Mets’ minor league system. When he returned to the majors in 2015, he found success, allowing just one run over his first 13 appearances. But it couldn’t be sustained, as he allowed 16 earned runs over his next 17 outings.
At the pinnacle of his career, Parnell was a bright spot for the Mets, who never won more than 79 games from 2009-14. In 2015, during the club’s playoff push, he was just looking for some semblance of his old self.
Ultimately, as the Mets made their run to the World Series – which they lost to the Kansas City Royals – Parnell watched from home, left off the roster.
“I don’t know how difficult it was for him,” Robert Parnell said, “but I know it was heartbreaking for us.”
‘A lot to give’
Entering last season, Parnell said he was finally healthy again. However, he still searched for the comfort of baseball that he used to have.
He signed a minor-league contract with the Detroit Tigers and allowed four runs in 5 1/3 big-league innings. His fastball averaged 94.9 mph in those frames, a significant drop-off from the 97 mph he averaged from 2010-13.
But as he worked out last offseason, he said he felt he could put some strength behind the ball. After a stint with the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Royals’ Class AAA affiliate, Parnell has shown signs of that since signing with the Chicago White Sox and being assigned to Charlotte on June 6.
In six games, he has blown two saves with the Knights, surrendering eight runs. But in his other four outings, he’s held opponent scoreless. His fastball is hovering around 97-98 mph.
Parnell sees his parents about twice a week. They occasionally visit BB&T Ballpark, and they traveled to Durham for last weekend’s series against the Bulls.
But as much as he enjoys being home, Parnell still hopes to continue his journey.
“I feel like I’ve got a lot of baseball left in me and a lot to give to baseball. ...” Parnell said. “I owe it to a lot of people who have helped me along the way and who have believed in me and kept pushing me and are allowing me to do this.
“I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can.”