BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
PITTSBORO — It’s not every day you have your son stream an MLB game on your phone and feed you pitch-by-pitch updates from the backseat on your family’s drive back home from Emerald Isle Beach.
But when one of your former players gets his first ever start on the mound in a primetime game between two of baseball’s biggest rivals, you have to improvise.
“I got a notification on my phone that morning at 5, 6 a.m.: ‘Austin Brice is going to start,’” said Rick Parks, Northwood’s former baseball coach. “I woke up, and I was like, ‘Oh my god. Austin’s going to start tonight against the Yankees.’”
So on the night of Sunday, August 2, as Brice threw a scoreless first inning (three strikeouts, two walks, 29 pitches) for the Boston Red Sox against the New York Yankees in The Bronx, Parks was cruising through eastern North Carolina on I-40 while his 11-year-old son, Campbell, gave him a play-by-play from the WatchESPN app.
As Brice’s coach at Northwood from 2007 to 2010, and a friend ever since, Parks wasn’t too surprised. He’s seen Brice’s arm talent and competitive drive and work ethic up close for over a decade now.
Still, the confluence of events — Parks is a Red Sox fan, his son is a Yankees fan and they’d seen Brice around just a month earlier in Chatham County — made for a fun moment.
“It’s just cool to see that stuff pay off,” Parks said.
Brice, 28, logged that first MLB start with 110 previous pitching appearances and 10 total season of pro baseball under his belt. It was quite the contrast to his first start at Northwood, when first-year coach Parks plugged the freshman in at shortstop in the Chargers’ 2007 season opener.
“He was as green as can be,” Parks said with a laugh.
It didn’t take long for Brice to settle in, though. He was a “freak athlete,” Parks said, playing all over — center field, second base — and moonlighting as a defender for the Chargers’ men’s soccer team, which was a goal away from winning the 2009 NCHSAA 2A state championship. But pitching was his niche.
“What was always special about Austin was his arm strength,” Parks said. “I mean, it’s something like you’ve never seen before, the way he would throw it across the diamond.”
It led to one of Parks’ favorite stories, too. In 2008, Appalachian State head coach Chris Pollard (now at Duke) swung by a Northwood game to scout Brice. The Chargers were playing at Cardinal Gibbons in Raleigh, and Brice, a sophomore, was pitching lights out. Northwood led 7-1 after two innings.
As Parks recalled: “Pollard walks up to me between the second and third innings and says, ‘Hey, Coach, he looks great. I love him. I’ll call you tomorrow, and we’ll talk more about him. But he’s definitely one of our guys.’ As soon as Pollard left, I’ll never forget, Austin couldn’t throw a strike to save his life.”
Brice, a 6-foot-4 righty, committed to App State but entered pro baseball directly out of high school after the then-Florida Marlins selected him in the ninth round of the 2010 MLB Draft.
Whatever the distance was, Parks still found ways to keep in touch with his former pitcher.
When Brice was playing for the Greensboro Grasshoppers, a Marlins affiliate, Parks was a short drive away. When Brice was on the Cincinnati Reds, the family took a road trip to watch a home series.
And when Brice was first called up to the Marlins’ roster, in 2016, Parks arranged a quick drive to Washington, D.C., where the Marlins were playing the Nationals. Brice told him the team was staying in a Ritz-Carlton hotel — which, in the nation’s capital, still leaves you with three or four options.
Parks chose one at random.
“And damned if we didn’t pick the right one,” he said. “They get back from their game that night, and Austin hadn’t pitched or anything but he was going through the rookie hazing. He was dressed like Lance Armstrong, standing down there in the bar with a bike.”
Most recently, they bumped into each other in Chatham County, where Brice lived with his wife, Krystin, 4-year-old son, Bear, and new daughter, Noa, this spring. Parks and Brice played a round of golf in late June, soon before Brice headed off to train with the Red Sox ahead of the MLB’s restart.
And at the start of the month, Parks, the former Northwood coach, watched Brice, the former Northwood pitcher, make his first MLB start. (As of Tuesday afternoon, Brice also led all Red Sox pitchers with eight appearances; he has a 4.00 ERA and 12 strikeouts against four earned runs and four walks in nine total innings.)
“I was really happy for him,” Parks said. “I know he’s put a lot of work in over the past few years, just always looking for a chance. I was happy to see him get one.”