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College | Story | 3/24/2020

Acton keeps positive perspective

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Garrett Acton (Illinois Athletics)

See also: Delivering a dad's dream

Very real adversity – and very real heartbreak, to be sure – attempted to derail the young man’s baseball dreams once before, but Garrett Acton stood tall, showed exemplary resolve and stared it down with a maturity that belied that of a 17-year-old high school senior.

Now, nearly five years later, the University of Illinois record-setting closer is staring down adversity once again, although this series of events are not nearly as tragic as the ones Acton confronted in October 2015.

It was on Oct. 19 of that year when 51-year-old Gordon Acton, Garrett Acton’s dad, died unexpectedly in his sleep at his home in Lemont, Ill. Gordon’s untimely death came just days before Garrett was scheduled to pitch at the nationally prominent Perfect Game WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.

Last week, only days after Acton had closed-out a game that made him the Fighting Ilini’s all-time leader in saves, the senior right-hander and his teammates learned that the remainder of the 2020 college baseball season had been cancelled due to the novel coronavirus global pandemic.

“I’ve already dealt with some uncertainty and adversity in my career,” Acton said last week. “It kind of puts everything in perspective. … We go into every day thinking that we’re student-athletes, we’re invincible, this stuff won’t happen to us.

“It’s one thing to deal with stuff in baseball,” he added, “but there are also plenty of issues that people deal with in life, and at the end of the day baseball’s a game, and we love it.”

The NCAA is granting athletes in its spring sports an extra year of eligibility although there are still a lot of details to be worked out as to how exactly it’s going to be handled in terms of scholarship limits and roster sizes.

Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb told reporters during a conference call last week that he plans on having conversations with each one of his seniors regarding their options but he won’t try to push them in one direction or another.

His players are fully aware of the importance he puts on academics, Hartleb said, calling the opportunity to come back and work towards a master’s degree while continuing to play baseball in the Big Ten a “golden opportunity.”

“I’ll just lay everything out and the guys will have to make decisions,” he said. “… All of the seniors we’re dealing with are very mature, they have very good heads on their shoulders, they’ve done a good job to put themselves in position to be able to come back and go to graduate school.”

Acton graduated from Lemont High School in 2016 after helping the school win Illinois Class 3A state championships in 2014 and 2016. He spent his freshman year at Saint Louis University and his sophomore year at Parkland College before transferring to Illinois for his junior season.

Once in the Big Ten, Acton emerged as the league’s top closer. He saved a national-best and school record 19 games and posted a 2.18 ERA in 30 appearances last season and was named a PG First Team All-American. He was 6-for-6 in save opportunities without giving up a run to begin this truncated season, and his 25 career saves is a program record.

“Garrett came in and did a really good job,” Hartleb said of Acton’s six-out save in what turned out to be the Illini’s final game. “In the crazy game of baseball, it’s really nice to have a guy like Garrett Acton on the back end.”

“If that was my last game, obviously it’s a pretty cool way to go out,” Acton said during the conference call. “At the end of the day if that really was my last game it’s something to be proud of. More importantly, I’m just proud to be a part of this program whether or not I come back.”

Acton wasn’t always a guy who was used out of the back end of the bullpen. He was a starter in high school, and a very good one, earning all-state honors along the way. When he arrived in Jupiter in late October 2015, PG ranked him as the No. 227 overall prospect (No. 72 RHP) in the class of 2016.

Playing for the St. Louis Pirates/Elite Baseball Training club, Acton was called in to pitch the sixth and seventh innings of a pool-play game early in the tournament. He faced seven batters, striking out six and walking one; his fastball sat at 88-91 mph during the outing and touched 93, a high for him at a PG event.

Dozens of scouts watched Acton’s outing that day and they had to like what they saw (he was a 35th round pick of the White Sox in the 2016 MLB June Amateur Draft). But what most of them didn’t know was that Acton was pitching just five days after the death of his dad, to whom he was very close.

“Once I actually got out on the mound, it just became a game again; it’s something that I’ve always done,” Acton told PG last week when asked to reflect on that Jupiter appearance. “But leading up to the outing with my warmup pitches, there was a different level of anxiety, of adrenaline, of nervousness that I had never experienced before.”

That he was able to go out there on that stage and perform with any sort of poise and confidence was nothing short of remarkable. When PG was able to catch-up with him the day after that outing, Acton said that he and his mom, Janette, made the decision to attend the PG WWBA World Championship because it was something his dad would have wanted him to do.

Gordon Acton, a three-sport athlete in high school who played college football at both Eastern Illinois and Purdue before becoming a golf pro, was very much involved with Garrett’s blossoming baseball career and the two had really been looking forward to the event.

“Obviously, it was a tough situation to go in and have to throw (but) that was my own decision,” Acton recalled. “I wanted to go down to Jupiter and throw because that was something my dad and I had been preparing for at the time for months on end. That was my end-goal in sight, kind of capping the end of the fall, really trying to show what I had on the national stage.”

Although the PG WWBA World Championship represents the biggest of PG’s heavily scouted wood bat tournaments, it’s not the only one. Playing primarily with Chicago-based Elite Baseball Training, Acton had already been in Jupiter in 2014 and was also on some pretty big platforms while performing in the Atlanta area, the Phoenix area and in Fort Myers, Fla., along with a couple of stops closer to home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

But Jupiter, to use Acton’s word, was the “capstone” of all that. In the weeks leading up the tournament, he and his dad talked about how important it was to really bear-down on the work at hand while continuing to try to get better every day. And then tragedy struck.

“When everything had kind of played out the days before with my father passing away, I really didn’t know what to do with myself,” Acton said. “Obviously, it’s a tough situation being at the time a 17-year-old kid and having to deal with a parent passing away, and especially one that I was so close with.

“Thankfully I had such an unbelievable support system with my mother and my friends and my coaching staff, both at my high school and with Elite Baseball Training.”

Acton was able to battle through the grief he was feeling that weekend in Jupiter and his baseball career was never really put on hold, due mostly to the courage he was able to muster. This time, in March 2020, his baseball career really is on hold, although he once again promises to make the best of the situation.

He’s treating this hiatus as a sort of second offseason. Acton looks at it as an opportunity to get another full training cycle in and continue to make the necessary physical changes to his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame. On the pitching side of the coin, he’ll continue to work on the same things he was working on with Illini pitching coach Mark Allen, mostly in relation to how he approaches the game mentally.

And, in reality, his options moving forward are enviable. He can opt to return to Champaign as a red-shirt senior and work toward a master’s degree (he majored in finance) or he might be given an opportunity to play professionally, depending on how the MLB Draft plays out.

“It’s something that I’m incredibly proud of,” Acton said when asked about his career to date and the challenges he’s had to face. “I’ve dealt with the personal adversity of losing my dad and then after my freshman year (in college) one of my best friends from high school passed away. …

“With the stuff that I’ve been through in my own baseball career and personal life already kind of puts (the end of the 2020 season) in perspective,” he concluded. “For me, maybe it’s a little bit easier to grasp the gravity of this situation and to be able to cope with it and to understand what I need to do to keep moving forward.”



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