How pickleball — yes, pickleball — is reuniting some Florida Marlins baseball champions
Updated: Oct 20
BACK IN OCTOBER 2003, when he was winning two World Series games for the Florida Marlins, 25-year-old pitcher Brad Penny had no reason to think that in 20 years he’d be playing a whole new ballgame — one with a peculiar name.
“I didn’t know what pickleball was,’’ he said. “I’d never picked up a paddle.’’
After retiring from baseball in 2016, he discovered the sport of pickleball through his pastor, Jimmy Holbrook of Overland Park Community Church near Penny’s home in Stilwell, Kansas. Not only did Penny get hooked, he blossomed into a competitive pickler and an enthusiastic ambassador for one of the fastest-growing sports in the country.
Penny, 45, is one of at least 115 retired professional athletes — including a few of his 2003 champion Marlins teammates — on the roster of PBX Pickleball, a league launched four months ago by Clearwater-based Sports Facilities Companies to connect former sports stars with the pickleball community.
From Golden State Warriors legend Rick Barry and Detroit Red Wings star Kris Draper to Atlanta Braves ace John Smoltz and Florida Gators/Ohio State Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer, PBX players come from all major sports.
Plans call for tours of former athletes going up against each other via solo or pair teams, in pro-ams, at fantasy camps, and with business people at “corporate experiences.”
Several mini-events have been held this summer to promote the new league. Earlier today, Oct. 17, in Arizona, Penny participated in PBX’s first Pro-Am with former athletes including baseball stars Luis Gonzalez, Jeff Cirillo and Tino Martinez, Olympic gold-medal swimmer Breeja Larson, NFL quarterback Jake Plummer and pickleball star Ryan Sherry.
Fifteen spots were made available to the public for that first pro-am, which featured a round robin format. At $800 each, all 15 spots sold out and included breakfast and lunch with PBX players along with photographs, autographs and pickleball swag.
“I love it. I'm addicted to it,’’ said Penny, who said there are tentative plans for a PBX Pickleball event in West Palm Beach in December.
With roots going back to 1965, pickleball is played with two paddles (one for each player) and a hard plastic ball (similar to, but different than, a Wiffle ball). It combines elements of tennis, ping pong and badminton. The object is to hit the ball back over the opponent’s net.
Sounds simple enough. But the competition can be intense.
“There's a misconception that it's an easy game to play,’’ Penny said. “It can be, but the tougher the competition the tougher it's going to be.’’
Retired pitcher Kent Mercker, one of several PBX ambassadors, said he envisions the league eventually hosting events with sports themes tied to cities, like a match at Boston’s Fenway Park between two former Red Sox baseball players and two former Bruins hockey players.
“I think this will give us an opportunity to not only compete and have fun but also kind of answer that age-old question of which sport has the best athletes,’’ he said, adding that he sees pickleball being an Olympic sport one day.
Mercker, who won a World Series ring with the 1995 Braves and tossed a no-hitter in 1994, said he isn’t surprised that PBX’s roster includes so many prominent retired athletes.
“I know it's fun for former (major sports) players because the one thing they miss is the competition,” he said.
“Many retired guys I talked to kind of laughed when I first talked about it, but they are starting to get into it. It is amazingly fun.’’
Of course, having a professional sports background can be an advantage for budding picklers.
“Most of us have decent hand-eye coordination, which is a big part of this, so it doesn't take us long to figure out what to do. It’s just a matter of getting out there and doing it,’’ Mercker said.
Still, no matter what sport the athlete played in his or her prime, there’s an adjustment to the nuances of pickleball.
“I didn't play racquet or paddle sports growing up,” said Mercker, who started playing pickleball about three years ago. “I'm learning all this on the fly. I’ve still got a long way to go but I think I am getting better every time I get out there.”
Then there are PBX pickleball players like former Marlins star Jeff Conine, who was a top junior racquetball player before focusing on baseball. After retiring from baseball, he went on to complete triathlons and marathons.
Mercker said he saw Conine play earlier this year.
“Within 15 minutes, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, this guy’s going to be amazing in a month,’’’ he said. “He even made a comment to me. His goal is to be the best player in PBX and he doesn’t want to get beat.’’
“I’ve played with Conine. He’s a great pickleball player,’’ he said.
As a PBX adviser, Penny helped recruit Conine and few other 2003 Marlins teammates, including Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Derrek Lee and Carl Pavano.
Aside from trying to land dinks in their opponents’ kitchens, (pickleball, like baseball, has its own distinct lingo), Penny said it will be fun for the former Marlins to see each other on the PBX tour and reminisce about the 2003 championship run led by manager Jack McKeon.
“That was a real fun time. Everybody got along. Jack knew how to piss us off just enough to make us better,’’ said Penny, who won his two World Series starts that October and was penciled in to pitch Game 7.
There was no Game 7 because Beckett blanked the Yankees 2-0 in Game 6 to win the championship.
“It would have been fun to pitch Game 7,’’ said Penny, who has the pitching rubber from his Game 5 victory at Miami’s Pro Player Stadium, “but man I’m glad it was over in Game 6.’’
Beckett, who retired after the 2014 season, said he plans to participate in a pickleball tournament near Dallas in November. And although Beckett was named World Series MVP in 2003, won another championship in 2007 with the Red Sox and tossed a no-hitter for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014, he isn’t making any promises about his performance on the pickleball court.
“I don’t play pickleball,’’ Beckett said the other day, “so this is just going to be an appearance-type deal for me.’’
When a reporter shared Beckett’s comment with Penny, he chuckled and said, “He better be practicing.’’
Why is it called Pickleball, anyway?
According to the U.S.A. Pickleball Association, there are differing accounts to the origins of the name.
One account: The wife of Joel Pritchard, who invented the sport in the summer of 1965, started to call the game pickleball because the combination of different sports — badminton, pingpong and tennis — reminded her of the pickle boat, a crew where oarsman were chosen from the leftover of other boat crews.
Another account: They named the game after Pritchard’s dog, whose name was “Pickles.” But according to many accounts, “Pickles” didn’t arrive on the scene until 1968, three years after the term “pickleball” was reportedly first applied to the sport.
Which account is true?
“Quite frankly, it could be that neither is true or both are true,’’ according to Pickeleballuniversity.com. “Perhaps that’s part of the fun of the sport, Even if the evidence points toward it coming from pickle boats instead of Pickles the dog, it’s easy to see why the latter is often told.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he covered the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team, including many, many games started by pitcher Brad Penny. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.