In many ways, Jackson McClelland is like every other minor league pitcher. The 23-year-old, 6-foot-5 righty is trying to get better every day, reaching for his goal to pitch for the Toronto Blue Jays. But he’s also thinking about home as his baby nephew, Tristin Timothy Parks, fights for his life. Born with congestive heart failure, Tristin survived a rough week after being born on January 7, 2018, bouncing from hospital to hospital until landing at Loma Linda Children’s University Hospital where he awaits an organ donor and heart transplant that can save his life.
For Jackson, 2017 was a monumental season. In a recent interview with Blue Jays from Away, he called it a “whirlwind,” starting with the Lansing Lugnuts, dominating there before heading to Dunedin where he was a dominant closer, the “McCloser,” helping the Dunedin Blue Jays to a Florida State League co-championship. He then was named to the roster of the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League where he was able to win his second championship of the year in the AFL.
In his full season, McClelland had a stellar 1.34 ERA and 1.08 WHIP, striking out 42 batters in 53 2/3 innings with 18 walks and 15 saves before posting a 7.20 ERA and 1.50 WHIP over 10 innings with eight strikeouts and two walks in the Arizona Fall League. Not only were his numbers much improved over his 2016 numbers in Vancouver but the word got around that McClelland’s velocity was up considerably. I saw him throw about 92 miles per hour in spring training that year but by the end of the season, he was hitting 97 mph on the radar gun. That, combined with his bulldog mentality, has brought him to the attention of those following the Blue Jays minor leagues.
But in addition to Jackson’s stellar performance on the field, he benefited from another steadying presence. Accompanying Jackson as he went from Lansing to Dunedin to Arizona were his parents, Tim and Michelle. Tim had just retired as a unit chief of the California Fire Services and he and Michelle decided to sell their house in Cherry Valley, California, buy an RV and travel the country with their son as he worked towards his big league goal. Michelle McClelland said that they were “enjoying retirement and enjoying the outcome of the 20 years of our lives, watching him grow from a four year old playing T-ball up to actually getting into the pros and then, last year was miraculous, he just made leaps and bounds into being a true prospect.”
Jackson was a 15th-round pick of the Blue Jays in the 2015 draft out of Pepperdine University. While he had enough money from his bonus to pay off one of his student loans and buy a car, he, like many minor leaguers, was living day to day on the meagre paycheque. By traveling with him and providing him a home in the family RV, Tim and Michelle McClelland were able to both ease the financial worries that many minor league ballplayers have and also give him a “mental refresh” when he came home, allowing him to “mentally unplug from baseball” for couple of hours each day.
The family separated before the championship game of the Arizona Fall League because Tim, a cancer survivor (which is quite common for fire fighters) needed to return to California for open heart surgery. Jackson admitted that it was a “distraction,” and that his “focus wasn’t 100% on the fall league” at that point.
Once the offseason came around, however, there was the excitement of Jackson getting a new nephew too look forward to. That excitement was muted when, on January 7, 2018, Tristin Timothy Parks, the newborn son of Jackson’s sister Kourtnee and her husband Mike, was born five weeks early with an enlarged heart that was only working at 10% of its capacity.
It was a harrowing time for the family. “As the first 24 hours progressed, we were told twice that we needed to gather up our family and say goodbye, that he wasn’t going to make it,” Michelle said. Tristin was moved hospitals four times, eventually ending up at Loma Linda, where they pioneered heart transplants in infants in 1984, putting a baboon heart into a baby and laying “the groundwork for future transplantation in infants worldwide.”
Once baby Tristan arrived at Linda Loma, he received some of the best care that could be provided and, according to Michelle, “right now it’s simply keeping him stable and prepared for when the day that his transplant could possibly come.”
According to the family, the technology has progressed so far that once a donor is found, the blood type doesn’t need to be matched and most children who receive transplants as infants go on to live a full and complete life. “The doctors told my daughter, if you’re going to be born with this issue, this is the time in history that you want to be born,” Michelle said.
“Leaving for Florida wasn’t easy,” Jackson said, “But at the same time, there’s not a lot I can do for him except for pray and be there as best as I can.” Jackson gets updates via a group texting thread frequently. “Every day after practice or a game . . . the first thing he does is head straight for the clubhouse and grab his phone, because we have a thread where everybody’s commenting.”
Jackson’s living situation in 2018 is “really, really fluid right now,” with both of his parents back in California while Jackson is living with his teammates in Florida. “We’re all waiting to see what happens with Baby Tristin before we make any hard, concrete decision on what we’re going to do this year.”
Friday was a difficult day for the family, showing that Tristin isn’t out of the woods yet. Michelle McClelland told me that Friday “was the first time I ever had to call [Jackson] in the middle of the night and wake him up because [it] was the closest we had come to losing Tristin. He had started bleeding for some reason, it was internal bleeding and it came up and out through his breathing tube . . . and blocked it so he was suffocating. That was the worst that we’ve had.”
Tristan is still waiting for a transplant at the time of this writing. The McClelland-Parks family is committed to getting the message out that choosing to donate organs is a difficult but worthwhile decision to make. “We’re asking them to look past their own grief at the moment and save another life. We’re asking them to face what we’re trying to avoid. It weighs heavy on your mind,” Michelle said.
Jackson wants to leave people with two thoughts to take away from this ordeal. “The players have lives off the field and bad stuff happens to them too” and he also echoes the sentiment of his Mom about the importance of organ donation. “Tragedies happen but if some kind of good can come out of it by helping save another person’s loved one, that’s a really huge deal and a really selfless thing for anyone to be doing.”
To donate to the McClelland-Parks family’s Gofundme campaign to help out the family while Kourtnee and Mike struggle to take care of Tristin, please click on this link.
Be an organ donor. In Ontario, visit www.beadonor.ca. Check your local agencies to find out how to donate in your area.
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