By Scott Traweek, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Strength, perseverance and an appreciation for the beauty of baseball were all words of wisdom offered by Ben Petrick, former Colorado Rockies catcher and keynote speaker at Penn State's inaugural First Pitch Dinner.
With the 2013 baseball season less than three weeks away, the Nittany Lions hosted their preseason banquet to honor the success of last year's team along with the potential boasted by the current roster. The turnout was incredible as family, alumni, coaches and players past and present gathered at the Ramada Conference Center for an unforgettable evening.
"There's a lot of excitement going on right now," said former first baseman Jordan Steranka, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 21st round of the 2012 MLB Draft. "Getting everyone together, seeing all the families, all the coaches, all the players and teammates together, it's awesome."
When guests arrived, conversation ensued as former players met with their old teammates and relived the glory days, while freshmen were welcomed into the Penn State family.
"Anytime you get a chance to have people come back and support the program, as a player it's good and it's important for the University and the program in general," said senior shortstop Elliot Searer. "It's a great chance for everybody to come out and, in a positive environment, have a good time with each other."
It was a particularly special moment for the 2012 senior class, who were able to catch up with the coaches and players that stood by them through college.
"Honestly, words don't even describe it," said former third baseman Joey DeBernardis. "This is an awesome event. I got to see guys that I haven't seen for months. This means a lot to me to be back with the guys that I grew up with and roomed with and played with for years."
Following opening remarks, awards were handed out in recognition of last year's standout performers. Joe Kurrasch earned Pitcher of the Year after finishing his final season as a Nittany Lion with a team leading 2.05 ERA and 78 strikeouts. Kurrasch was drafted in the 8th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by the San Francisco Giants.
Senior pitcher Neal Herring earned the Academic Achievement Award with a 3.66 GPA on the year and senior second baseman Luis Montesinos received the Most Improved Player Award.
Finally, Steranka was elected Most Valuable Player following a standout senior season that propelled him through the draft to the Pirates. Steranka led the team in batting average (.363), hits (82), doubles (20), and slugging percentage (.615), and was second on the team in homeruns (11) and RBIs (40).
Head coach Robbie Wine proceeded to announce the 2013 roster and provided his insights into the keys for the upcoming season. The Nittany Lions lost a talented senior class and are seeking a fresh start that began with the hire of outfielders coach Adam White and a new strength training coach to go along with a talented freshman class.
"I think our identity as a team is going to change," said senior pitcher Cody Lewis. "We don't have as many big hitters as we had last year, so we're going to have to just play the fundamentals, put the ball in play and just try to get on base."
Senior pitcher Steven Hill, who notched a remarkable no-hitter in 2012 at Iowa, provided an entertaining speech on behalf of the players, thanking the alumni and families for their support, which was then followed by the keynote speaker.
Petrick's speech was the highlight of the banquet as he told the emotional story of his battle with Parkinson's disease while he was in the Major Leagues.
"His story is incredible and there is so much you can take from it," said junior outfielder Zach Ell. "He never gave up. That was a big thing. He really never gave up."
A standing ovation was followed by awed silence as Petrick began his tale. He dreamed of playing in the Majors and seized the opportunity when he was drafted by the Colorado Rockies.
His dream was cut short when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's following the 1999 season. He played five more seasons despite his illness and announced his retirement from the game of baseball in 2004.
In his fight with Parkinson's, Petrick underwent two Deep Brain Stimulation surgeries, the first of which resulted in extremely negative side effects. After his second surgery, however, Petrick saw a dramatic improvement. His family stood by his side throughout the entire process.
His message was to embrace and appreciate all of life's experiences. The quote he chose to provide the coaches and players before him inspired him when he was a player.
"The [quote] that stood out to me is the one that is about you as a person finding the will inside you to improve," said Petrick. "To get better and work hard and not do it because some coach is telling you to do it, not doing it because your parents are telling you to do it, but doing it because you want to do it."
The quote was one from North Carolina women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance and epitomizes the true meaning of being a champion:
"The vision of a champion is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when nobody else is looking."
Petrick's story and the message he bestowed upon the players will be with them throughout the season and for the rest of their lives.
"It was really inspirational," said junior outfielder Steven Snyder. "I think that as a team it'll help us come closer together and realize what we're playing for and why we're playing the game."