Tournaments | Story | 10/25/2015

Delivering a dad's dream

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

JUPITER, Fla. – Every one of the more than 1,800 players in attendance at this year’s 17th annual Perfect Game WWBA World Championship has their own reasons for being here, their own motivations for wanting to perform well; their own sense of purpose.

St. Louis Pirates/Elite Baseball Training team member Garrett Acton from Lemont, Ill., finds his reasons, his motivations and his purpose in the memory of his father, Gordon Acton, who passed away in his sleep just last Monday, Oct. 19, at the age of 51.

Grief-stricken, Garrett Acton made the decision with his mother, Janette, that the best way to honor his dad was to follow through with the plans they made together to be at the PG WWBA World Championship. Gordon Acton would not have had it any other way.

“His and my goal this whole time was to come down here and play great – that’s what I had worked hard for all year,” Garrett said early Sunday morning with a voice of maturity beyond most 17-year-olds. “It was both of our goals, not just mine, so it was a big deal for me to come down here.”

On this Sunday morning at the Roger Dean Stadium Complex, Acton was almost overwhelmed with the encouragement heaped upon him by his Pirates/EBT teammates, and there are nearly 30 of them. They hooted and they hollered, they jumped and they joked, and consistently offered Garrett pats on the shoulder and the back while he took a few minutes to speak to Perfect Game.

“You never know how people are going to react when they get into a situation of loss,” Elite Baseball Training founder and head coach Justin Stone said. “When you think of a kid at that age losing someone as impactful as a parent, I think the important thing in Garrett’s mind is to be around extended family.

“Baseball can be something that is very comfortable for kids, and this is a team that the kids have been together a very long period of time, and we do say that within our organization that this is a family.”

Acton got his moment in the spotlight – his moment to perform in front of dozens of MLB scouts – on Saturday afternoon in a pool-play game against Palm Beach Select from right here in Jupiter. The Pirates/ EBT led 6-0 after two innings – that was the final score – and Stone handed the ball to Acton to pitch the sixth and seventh innings.

Jacob Matheny is a teammate of Acton’s on this Pirates/EBT team, and is also the son of St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. At the conclusion of the game, Mike Matheny came up to the tower on the Miami Marlins’ side of the complex to speak with PG officials about a matter unrelated to the game, but then offered an observation.

“We were honored to have Mike Matheny come up to the tower, and before he left he preceded to tell us that that he had just witnessed something pretty amazing,” Perfect Game President Jerry Ford related. “He said he had just watched a kid that topped-out at 93 mph and had probably just thrown the best game of his life less than a week after losing his father.”

It was, indeed, a stellar outing for Acton. He struck out the first batter he faced in the sixth, walked the next guy, and then struck out the next two hitters. He capped it off by striking out the side in top of the seventh, using a fastball that sat 88-91 mph and reached 93.

“I was really just trying to focus on getting my job done and going out and doing the best that I could for my team,” Garrett said. “I wasn’t really too worried about the scouts; I wasn’t really too worried about whether or not I could throw harder than the next guy. I just kind of wanted to do my thing out on the mound.”

And, make no mistake, Gordon Acton was right beside him on the mound: “I felt him there spiritually and I tried to take everything that he’s taught me and put it to work out there,” Garrett said.

Gordon Acton was a three-sport athlete at Bolingbrook High School and played football at both Eastern Illinois University and Purdue University. He became a golf professional after college and was the general manager at Highland Park Country Club at the time of his death.

“His father was one of those guys that never missed a game and was very involved in Garrett’s playing career throughout,” Stone said. “Garrett said even after the tragedy that he worked out that day because his dad would want him to; he came here and pitched because his dad would want him to. The way you saw him perform was a real heartfelt tribute to a really good person.”

Garrett said he felt as if he owed it to his father to perform to the best of his abilities because of the huge role Gordon played in his development.

“He was kind of the one who helped me with everything and if I needed to learn something he was there to teach me,” Garrett explained. “He made sure I had every resource that I needed to get better and I definitely wouldn’t be here without him.” Garrett then glanced around the playing field and looked into the dugout at his teammates, and a look of contentment came to his face.

“This has been very therapeutic, being able to come here and being able to kind of get my mind off the situation,” he said. “It’s great to be around some of my best friends and play the game I love at a great event.”

Garrett Acton has been involved with the Chicagoland-based Elite Baseball Training for two years, and Stone has watched from a front-row seat as the 6-foot-2, 210-pound right-hander with a 3.96 GPA at Lemont Township High School has developed into an NCAA Division I pitcher (Acton has committed to Saint Louis University).

Stone said what he appreciates most about the progression and improvement is he’s seen in Acton’s game is just how steady it’s been. He credits a lot of that to Garrett’s strong work ethic which was impressed upon him by his dad.

“He’s high-character, high-energy and he’s just a real fun kid to be around,” Stone said. “He’s one of those guys that if he wasn’t here at this tournament, you’d miss that smile in the dugout and you’d miss him picking up his teammates; you would feel that loss of him not being around.”

It’s not as if Acton came out of nowhere. He pitched for Elite Baseball Training at the PG WWBA Kernels Foundation Championship in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, earlier this month and helped his team finish 4-1-0 after a loss in the quarterfinal round of the tournament. Armed with a fastball that touched 92 mph, he was named to the all-tournament team.

This is Acton’s second trip to Jupiter; he got to throw a couple of innings here a year ago with a St. Louis Pirates/Midwest Mets Scout Team squad that finished 2-2. Acton was named to the all-tournament team at both the 2014 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship and 2014 16u PG World Series.

“The relationship has been great,” he said of his association with Elite Baseball Training. “The resources (at EBT) are incredible and being able to work with Coach Travis (Kerber) our head pitching coach, he’s been great; I’ve learned a ton from him. Without those guys I wouldn’t be committed (to Saint Louis) and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play in these Perfect Game events.”

And now the people in the organization are helping him through the most difficult time in his young life. As awful as this last week has been, he’ll always be able to look back on his stellar performance at the 2015 PG WWBA World Championship and how the experience helped to lighten an incredibly heavy load.

“There was a huge sense of relief,” Acton said when asked how he felt emotionally after his outing on Saturday. “I was kind of nervous and really anxious to throw because of what had happened (with my dad). I felt like there was some pressure on me because I didn’t want to throw bad because this was me and my dad’s goal to come down here and play well … and I was very relieved to know that I did.”

One thing’s for certain, Garrett Acton will never have to go it alone: “Through everything I’ve learned from him, he’s always going to be there for me,” he said. “Whatever I do, he’s going to be there.”

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