Parrs enjoy the journey
CHAMPAIGN — Ask Jordan and Justin Parr for their favorite childhood baseball memory and the 22-year-old twins — who’ve been known to echo each other’s words — come up with responses as distinct as the sides of the plate from which they hit.
For Jordan, it’s those contests of hot box with his two brothers and their dad, Cameron.
Others call the game pickle, but by any name, it resembles the rundowns in baseball when a player is caught between bases. In hot box, the goal is to run from one base to another without being tagged by fielders playing catch.
Since bases aren’t exactly a common household item, the Parr boys would improvise and use their gloves as substitutes.
“We were always playing that game in our backyard when we were kids,” Jordan said recently. “I loved that. That’s my best memory playing baseball with my (family).”
For Justin, it’s those early-evening trips to the baseball diamond in Mossville — a tiny, unincorporated community located between Peoria and Chillicothe — where Cameron Parr would work with eldest son Josh and the twins on developing their skills in the sport.
“It’s 6, 7 o’clock, and we just go throw to each other. Dad throwing BP,” Justin said. “Spending a lot of time picking up baseballs in that outfield (after batting practice). Taking a ton of ground balls at shortstop. Just doing the little things and trying to get better every day.”
Memorable, too, was their post-workout ritual — a visit to the Phillips 66 in Mossville.
“Dad buying us fountain sodas at a gas station,” Justin said. “I’ll never forget that.”
If it’s true that the Parr twins are joined at the hip in many ways, then the sports of their youth — from baseball to basketball to roller hockey — clearly were an original adhesive.
“Everything we did for fun as kids, it was always sports,” Justin said.
Still is, particularly baseball.
Starting with T-ball and continuing through their current careers with the University of Illinois baseball team, the twins have been teammates in the sport for all but two years. After graduating from Illinois Valley Central High School in 2009, Jordan headed to Illinois State and Justin to Parkland College. The next year, both were in Champaign, but again at different schools — Justin at the UI and Jordan at Parkland.
There also was that one summer in which each played for different summer collegiate league teams in different states. Each made sure to keep his cellphone charged.
“We talked pretty much every day during that summer,” Justin said.
Other than that, the Parrs have pulled on the same team uniform throughout their baseball careers.
“It’s been fun,” said Jordan, who joined his twin at the UI in the fall of 2011 after transferring from Parkland. “He’s been the guy who’s gone through all the battles with me.”
The Parrs won’t fight those battles together for much longer. Justin, a senior center fielder, will see his Illini career come to a close when the current team’s season does.
Jordan’s college career could end then, too. Because he redshirted as a freshman while at ISU, the Illini left fielder has one more season of eligibility left. But Jordan also has the option of turning pro this summer — as his 2013 Big Ten Player of the Year brother is sure to do — depending upon developments in the Major League Baseball amateur draft, which begins Thursday.
Either way, the Parrs’ days as teammates — barring an against-all-odds reunion in pro ball — are numbered.
“It’s going to be different for sure, not having someone who you’re so close to on the team,” Justin said.
This impending baseball breakup almost occurred last summer. Jordan Parr was selected in the 26th round of the 2012 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers after hitting .348 and leading the Illini in six other major offensive categories that spring.
Although the round was disappointing to Jordan, the Dodgers offered a signing bonus equivalent to what a 10th- to 12th-round pick could expect, he said. Meanwhile, Justin was bypassed completely in the draft after his batting average fell by 27 points from the previous season.
Justin immediately made it clear to his brother that Jordan should take only himself into account while deciding whether to turn pro or return to school.
“As hard as it was for me, I was just happy for him to have that opportunity,” Justin said. “I didn’t want it to be something like ... maybe my resentment (over not being drafted) would be part of that decision. You know, (where) selfishly I would want him to come back because I had to come back. For me, I just wanted him to make the right decision for him.”
Among the people Jordan went to for advice was Eric Snider. The Illini associate head coach was direct, pointing to areas of Jordan’s game — particularly base running and strike-zone discipline — that needed work. One of the fastest runners on his team, Jordan was 6 for 16 in stolen-base attempts in 2012.
“That’s terrible. That’s atrocious,” Jordan said.
He also had drawn 14 walks, tied for the fewest among the team’s regulars.
“(Snider) didn’t talk about all the positives; he talked about the things I needed to get a lot better in,” Jordan said.
Ultimately, he decided to pass on signing and instead work on becoming more pro-ready. The result? Entering the 2013 NCAA tournament, Jordan was 23 of 26 in steal attempts and had drawn 32 walks.
“It’s really been a win-win,” he said of returning to the UI. “I’ve become a more complete player, and I can’t tell you how thankful I am to be going to regionals with this group of guys. This is by far the most special team I’ve ever played for.”
It’s been a win-win for the other twin, too.
“He thought the right decision was to come back, and I’m really happy he made that decision,” Justin said. “He’s my best friend in the world, so I would like for him to be here this season. And we’ve had a good season.”
If you look closely, you can see the difference. Slight though it may be, the twins are not mirror images from the chin up.
“Their faces, to me, are very different,” Illini coach Dan Hartleb said. “Some people have a hard time, but to me it’s never been an issue.”
Their respective body frames offer clues, too. Jordan is about an inch taller than his twin, and a bit stockier.
When all else fails, catch them in uniform. Justin wears No. 15. Jordan No. 17. Or pay attention when they come to the plate. Justin’s a left-handed batter. Jordan swings from the right side.
When it comes to personalities, however, those who know the Parrs will say these guys are easily distinguishable. And the twins don’t disagree.
“We definitely have unique personalities so it’s not like when (people are) talking to Justin, they’re basically talking to me,” Jordan said.
“He has a more outgoing personality,” Justin said. “He’s a little bit more open about certain things, whereas sometimes I’m a little bit more closed and kind of to myself. I don’t mind being alone, and he’s a very social person compared to me. He’s a very good people person, has a great personality.”
For his part, Jordan envies how even-keeled his sibling is in dealing with baseball’s inevitable ups and downs.
“I kind of get a little frustrated at times. He’s always composed,” Jordan said. “Last year, he had a terrible year. It was so frustrating. It was like nothing fell for him. And off the field, he was the exact same kid he is this year with all the success in the world.
“It’s very rare to be able to say that (about a person). Through success or failure, he is the exact same kid. He’s humble.”
Whatever their differences, it’s obvious to teammate Brandon Hohl that the Parrs enjoy a special bond.
“They’re always doing something together,” the Illini senior third baseman said. “They’re always talking. And if it’s in a game, they’re always talking about their at-bats together.
“You hear stories about brothers hating each other and stuff like that, but they seem to be very close, and I’m happy for them for that.”
That closeness has been particularly apparent to Hartleb whenever each twin’s baseball circumstance has veered in different directions. In 2012, it was Jordan who grabbed the headlines, hitting for the 17th-highest batting average in program history. Meanwhile, Justin took a step back from the previous season, followed by the disappointment of being bypassed in the draft.
This year, most of the attention has been focused on Justin, and with good reason. There was his school-record 33-game hitting streak. His chase for a .400 batting average. The national honors: Louisville Slugger first-team All-American; semifinalist for the Dick Howser Trophy (Player of Year), Golden Spikes Award (Player of Year) and Gregg Olson Award (breakout Player of Year). At the same time, while Jordan has put together another strong season, his batting average has fallen more than 40 points from last year’s lofty figure.
“I think they’re good for each other as far as helping each other through the tough times and also being there when they have the successes,” Hartleb said. “I know there wasn’t a bigger cheerleader for Justin when he was going through his hit streak than Jordan.”
Wherever their baseball paths take them, the Parrs will take with them a storehouse of memories and stories to tell.
“We’re going to have some great stories to tell for the rest of our lives,” Jordan said.
One that’s sure to be repeated at future Parr reunions is the time Justin played a game at Illinois Field during his freshman season at Parkland. Hartleb and Snider were on hand, too, to scout the Cobra batter in the midst of a .378 season.
It was an opportunity to impress, and Justin seized it, belting a home run. One problem. In the excitement, he failed to touch the plate. Before the next pitch, the observant opponent stepped on home with the ball, Justin was called out, and his hit reverted to a triple.
That night, then-Illinois State player Jordan answered his cellphone. It was his shell-shocked brother.
“He called me and (then) didn’t talk,” Jordan said. “He told me what happened and then he was speechless. He was really flustered and frustrated.”
Justin’s favorite story about his twin involves the time Jordan became particularly upset after a frustrating at-bat.
“He comes up to me and he goes, ‘You know what? I’m going to hit a frickin’ bomb off this guy,’ ” Justin recalled. “The next at-bat, he hit the farthest college ball I’ve seen. He hit it 400-plus feet easy. It was just a mammo bomb.”
After circling the bases, Jordan headed straight to his brother and exclaimed, “I told you.”
Indeed, Alpha Brother.
“I was like, ‘All right. Cool. Good for you,’ ” a secretly smiling Justin responded. “ ‘Well, I just got a single, so I’m good with that. ‘”
Should Jordan move on to pro ball this summer, the Illini would be without a Parr on the roster for the first time since 2008. Josh, now in his third season in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ minor league system, was the leadoff batter in this family lineup. And unless the only other sibling, younger sister Jessica, is poised to become the first female player in Illini baseball history, there won’t be any more Parrs in the UI lineup.
Well, at least until one of the siblings has a son with the family’s baseball genes. A family, it’s apparent, that’s Orange and Blue through and through.
“I don’t think we have a T-shirt in our house that doesn’t have the Fighting I on it,” Jordan said.
It’s the UI uniform, however, that they treasure most. That, and the chance to share in the wearing with their twin.
“Some people get to play with their brother in high school, but not many people at all get to play with their brother at this level in college,” Justin said.
Said Jordan: “It’s something that makes me extremely thankful. It’s been such a unique experience to be able to come here together at Illinois.”
An experience Hartleb hopes will last deep into this NCAA tournament.
“It’s bittersweet because they’ve had such a great impact on the program and you hate to see them go,” he said, “but you’re also happy to see them go and be successful ... (and) continue to grow as a person on and off the field.
“Hopefully, we have a month or so left together.”
Here’s baseball beat writer JEFF HUTH’s projected starting lineup
for the 2014 Illini baseball team, a list that likely will need to be revised after the MLB amateur draft:
Would redshirt junior, a 26th-round pick in 2012, again turn down chance to turn pro?
Incoming juco transfer from Iowa Western is an athletic talent with all right tools for position.
Had won starting job and was hitting .305 before suffering broken forearm April 5.
Freshman from Streamwood the heir apparent to four-year starting 3B Brandon Hohl.
All-Big Ten first-teamer has pro scouts’ attention after ramping up power at plate.
Redshirt sophomore a two-year starter in field and two-way contributor as closer.
Sophomore seized opportunity to start and turned in All-Big Ten first-team performance.
Why mess with a good thing? Sophomore a .300 hitter who led Big Ten in walks entering NCAAs.
All-Big Ten Freshman Team pick has impressive arm, still work in progress with bat.
Thrust into No. 1 role by injury to Kevin Johnson, lefty ended up Big Ten Freshman of Year.
Entering NCAA tournament, sophomore right-hander had a 13-5 career record.
Illini had won five of seven games started by freshman righty entering regional.
Editor's note: This story was published in The News-Gazette on June 2 while the Illini still were alive in the NCAA tournament.