CALIFORNIA CITY, Calif. — For Pitt-Bradford alumnus Austin Parent, baseball was always his “first love.”
The former Panther catcher and member of this year’s UPB graduating class says his first experiences with baseball were when he was two or three years old playing tee-ball, and he’s stuck with the game ever since.
That passion has led him from his hometown of Gilbert, Ariz., to Pitt-Bradford and now to the Pecos League back in the southwest, where he’s catching for the California City Whiptails.
“It’s been a lifelong sport for me,” Parent said. “I played a little football and basketball, too, but baseball was always my first love.”
Parent spent most of his career as a utility player, but then made the move to catcher his senior year for Highland High School.
That move ended up being a transformative moment for his baseball career, as Parent picked up an offer to join a junior college baseball roster.
So, he was set to join the South Mountain Community College team in Phoenix, but then found out playing time would likely be hard to come by.
“I was committed and I was looking forward to going there, but then I learned that junior colleges over-recruit by a lot to make sure they have their bases covered,” Parent said.
South Mountain brought in six catchers, including Parent, as part of its recruiting class that year. Three of those catchers were former Division 1 players, and the others were all high school graduates that year. In all likelihood, Parent was going to redshirt and sit out his first year at SMCC, something he says he wasn’t wanting to do.
“I kept my ears open, and (Pitt-Bradford) coach Bret Butler knew another high school coach in Arizona and they were in touch,” Parent said. “That coach knew my high school coach, and he gave my coach a call and said, ‘I have this D3 university looking for 2015 catchers.’”
Parent’s coach told him about it, and so Parent went to a tryout that Butler — now the athletic director at UPB — was at, performed some drills and took some swings. Then, Butler gave him the call he was waiting for.
“Coach Butler said UPB would like to have me catch, and I’d start right away,” Parent said. “That’s what I was looking for. I wanted to play, because you can’t get any better when you’re sitting on the bench.”
And with that, the Arizona native was off to Bradford, where his career continued its upward trajectory, and so did UPB’s program.
In Parent’s freshman season, the Panthers amassed just a 13-26 record, but by Parent’s junior year, the Panthers, under the direction of head coach Zach Foster, were above .500 with a 17-16 record that included a 10-8 mark in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference and a berth in the AMCC Tournament.
In addition, Parent was named AMCC Player of the Year and a First Team All-American, thanks to his nation-leading .496 batting average.
The team narrowly missed the AMCC Tournament in Parent’s senior season, but the Panthers did finish above .500 again with a 16-14 (9-9 AMCC) record.
Parent finished his time at UPB with a career .384 batting average, 18 home runs, 115 RBI and 116 runs scored.
“It means a lot to have helped the program, but it wasn’t all me,” Parent said. “But I think I tried to do my best to change the culture a little bit and to instill a work ethic and winning mentality to pass (the program) along better off than when I got there.
“Coach Foster has done the same thing, and he instilled that in me, too. Looking back, I enjoyed all four years.”
Parent’s successes at UPB took him back to the southwest, where he signed to a professional contract in the Pecos League -- an independent professional baseball league -- with the Wasco Reserves before recently being traded to California City.
Thus far, it’s been an adjustment for Parent, as the Whiptails play all but two or three days a month as part of a 65-game season that lasts until early August.
“It’s definitely a bigger grind than at UPB,” he said. “With playing every day, you have to take care of your body. Hydration, stretching and taking care of yourself is important so you can prevent injuries before than happen. Other than that, it’s still just baseball.”
During the season, Parent is staying with a host family that charges no rent and even prepares meals for him.
“(Host families) are the most helpful aspect of playing in an independent league so you don’t spend money on hotels or rent for a couple months,” Parent said. “At my host’s right now, I share a room with two other guys, and we pay $10 or $20 a week for food, and that’s pretty cheap for that sort of thing.”
The end goal for Parent, and for any player in the Pecos League, is to move into an MLB-affiliated system, but typically players that succeed in the Pecos go on to better independent leagues first.
After baseball, Parent plans to earn his master’s degree in sport and recreation management, which is what he earned his bachelor’s degree in at Pitt-Bradford. He’d eventually like to go on to coach at the collegiate level.
“That’s my goal if playing doesn’t work out,” Parent said. “But either way, I’ve always wanted to be involved in baseball, so any way I can do it, I’ll take it.”