There’s a baseball truism J.D. Underwood’s father told him, meant to remind him that he should allow no hardship to get in the way of success.
He repeats the phrase every day.
Underwood, a Palm Beach Gardens High graduate and a sophomore at Palm Beach State, is starring as a junior college first baseman and pitcher.
As a left-handed hitter, he’s batting .433 with two homers, 17 RBI, four doubles and eight runs scored. As a right-handed pitcher, he’s 1-0 with a 2.57 ERA in 21 innings. He’s allowed 16 hits, with 21 strikeouts and four walks. As a freshman, he was the Southern Conference player of the year.
“He’s probably the best hitter in the state,” Palm Beach State coach Kyle Forbes said. “He has three big-league pitches, right now. He’s such a complete player. We’re lucky to have him.”
Underwood,who will pitch Thursday at Broward Community College, will play next year for the University of Miami if he doesn’t get drafted by one of the 25 major-league organizations that have come to the Panthers’ Lake Worth campus.
While Underwood chases his dream, he remembers the words his father told him.
Fathers and sons
Tom Underwood grew up in Kokomo, Ind. His father, John, was a Philadelphia Phillies draft pick who gave up baseball to serve in World War II.
Tom became a high school All-American and was drafted in the second round (27th overall) by the Phillies in 1972. A left-hander, he pitched for six teams in 11 big-league seasons, compiling an 86-87 record. He helped pitch the New York Yankees to the 1981 American League pennant.
A free agent after the 1984 season, Tom Underwood retired at age 30 and became a financial adviser. Soon, he met Christine Morra, a 23-year-old LPGA pro, at a golf tournament. She was 5-foot-2 but could drive a ball 250 yards, earning the nickname “The Jersey Express” from her mentor, Chi Chi Rodriguez.
They settled in The Acreage and raised Dani, who played softball at Suncoast and is finishing a Doctor of Pharmacy program at Florida., and J.D., who is four years younger.
At age 6, J.D. picked up the AL Championship ring his father won with the Yankees and told him he’d win his own someday. Together they dreamed, and worked. As J.D. grew, Tom showed him how to throw a devastating curve, how to keep hitters off-balance by changing speeds, how to never lose his focus.
“I just wanted to follow in Dad’s footsteps, and do as much as he did,” J.D. said. “He taught me everything.”
Including that phrase, which he would come to rely on.
A father’s lasting influence
J.D. was a sophomore at Gardens when Tom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May, 2009. By his senior year, his father was losing his fight.
“It was rough,” J.D. said. “Toward the end, the last five or six months, he was in and out of the hospital. He’d wake up in the middle of the night and have to throw up, but he couldn’t get out of bed. So I would have to wake up and pick him up.
J.D. saw his father’s 5-foot-11, 220 pound-pound body shrink to 120 pounds.
Meanwhile, J.D. earned scholarship offers from Wake Forest and several other Division I schools. He didn’t want to leave his mother, who was about to lose her best friend, so he opted to play at Palm Beach State.
“I realized that with everything going on, my mom’s going to need me,” he said.
Christine Underwood’s voice breaks when she talks about it.
“That’s the way he is,” she said. “He’s a great kid.”
Tom Underwood, who became Vice President of Wachovia Securities, worked from home the day before he died, on Nov. 23, 2010. He was 56.
J.D. feels his father’s influence every day.
“I feel like he’s watching down on me,” he said. “When he passed, a light bulb kind of clicked — I can feel sorry for myself, or I can do something about it. I felt I had to work harder. That’s all I could do.”
He tries to embody his father’s favorite phrase.
Winners always win without their best stuff.
“That’s pretty much the definition of being a pitcher,” J.D. said. “Some days you’re going to wake up and you know you’re not going to have it. Just dig deep.”
A few months after his father died, Underwood had the quote, along with his father’s initials on a baseball, tattooed on the left side of his torso.
Every time he takes the mound or steps in to the batter’s box, he scratches his father’s initials in the dirt.
“Even the day he died, I saw him and the last words he said to me – I was crying, and he goes, ‘Why the hell are you crying?’ He was like that. Don’t look down on me. I’m always going to be here.”