PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) Dustin Ackley and his 7-months-pregnant wife were about an hour from stop No. 2 in their cross-country trek from Michigan to Arizona for the start of spring training when her water broke outside Oklahoma City.
The Seattle Mariners' left fielder also had two dogs in tow, so the couple acted quickly to figure out the best plan. It was approaching midnight on Feb. 18. Ultimately, Ackley dropped Justine at the hospital and he stayed with their pups. When she called about 7 a.m. the next morning, he returned to the hospital with less than 15 minutes to spare.
Parson Bennett, a remarkably healthy 5 pounds and 12 ounces, joined the world almost six weeks early - with a birthplace far from what they'd expected. Now out of the infants' intensive care unit, Ackley hopes mom and baby will join him in Arizona over the coming days.
''We were going to make about three stops on the way out and Oklahoma City was where we were stopping the second night,'' Ackley recalled Saturday morning before a rain-altered day of baseball work. ''She wasn't due until the end of March. Definitely it was a pretty big surprise. We were planning on getting out here and having to worry about him maybe coming when the season was getting ready to start, so that was what we were more worried about. We weren't really thinking, `Oh, he's going to come during this road trip.' Pretty crazy trip, for sure.''
Little Parson has been off oxygen for a few days and moved from an incubator into a more normal hospital bassinet. That gives Ackley some comfort given he had to leave his wife, who now has his mother with her for support, and first baby to join the Mariners on time. His son had improved enough that he felt he could go.
They began their annual 2,000-mile, 30-hour trip in Lapeer, Michigan, outside Flint. They stopped in St. Louis the first night. From Oklahoma City, the original itinerary included a night in Albuquerque before pushing on to the Arizona desert.
''It was definitely a surprise,'' Ackley said.
His wife had been due in late March. At first, they weren't sure if she was just experiencing a late-stage pregnancy symptom. They quickly switched hotels so Ackley (and the dogs) could be closer to where she was in the hospital. He had to leave the canines in the car when he went in the next morning for the birth.
For the 27-year-old Ackley, seeing his son with tubes and needing assistance because of the premature birth was the hardest part. Now, he is counting the hours until Parson can be released and come join dad's baseball life. Baseball at least provides a daily distraction.
''He's finally off oxygen as of three days ago now. He's taking a bottle,'' Ackley said. ''I think now he's going to start putting on some weight here, so that's going to be good.''
While manager Lloyd McClendon and the Mariners certainly would have understood the circumstances if Ackley, who batted .245 with 14 home runs and 65 RBIs last season, had to delay his arrival for a day or two, he is happy and thankful everything worked out the way it did - realizing full well things could have been far different if they hadn't been as close to a major city.
''I'm good,'' Ackley said with a smile. ''At first it was pretty scary. That was really tough, but before I left he started progressing really nicely and I felt comfortable getting out here. Now it seems that every day he's getting better and better. I feel really good about that. Even though I'm not there with him, it's more important that he's healthy and doing the things he needs to do.''
Notes: Ace Felix Hernandez kept things loud and lively - as always - on a gray morning. ''Ladies and gentlemen, attention!'' he yelled through a bullhorn. ''Position players, in the cage, 9:30. I'm out!'' ... McClendon said Saturday the competition for starting shortstop between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor will take all of March, much the way it did for that spot last spring with Miller and departed Nick Franklin. ''As we speak now whoever our shortstop is will hit ninth,'' McClendon said. ... How would he feel about getting 2,000 total innings from his starting pitchers? ''I'd be on cloud 9!'' he said. ''It means you have five starters.''