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Prep baseball: Jeff Mack relies on his late brother's lessons to become a pitching star

Published May 25, 2016 9:42 am

Prep baseball • Jeff Mack nearly quit baseball after his older brother's death. Instead, he continues to play at Maple Mountain to honor Arik's memory.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mapleton • Fastball, curveball, change-up, splitter. Each time he steps to the mound, Jeff Mack uses a combination of four pitches developed through years of sacrifice and tutelage from his father, Jeff Sr., and older brother, Arik, both of whom pitched in college.

Rather than overpowering batters, Mack works the corners with precision, tricking opponents into taking the bait. "I worked a lot, ever since I grew up, just learned how to work with the grips," Mack explains.

He's already evolved into a fixture in Maple Mountain's rotation as a junior, and his influence in the dugout has helped turn around the Golden Eagle's poor start into an appearance in the Class 4A quarterfinals on Tuesday before Maple Mountain lost and fell into Wednesday's elimination bracket play.



However, baseball this season, more so than ever, has been cathartic for Mack after he contemplated leaving the game following Arik's death.

"I thought, 'If he comes back, it will be on his terms,' " said Jeff Sr. "He's endured more than anyone I know. When these demons come knocking — it's just you. It's an invisible enemy, and to see him battle and continue moving forward, I'm excited to see the man he's going to be."

In the blood

Jeff Jr. chuckles when asked if there was any possibility of playing any position other than pitcher.

Pitching runs in the Mack bloodline. Jeff Sr. pitched for BYU in the late 1970s and Arik, four years Jeff Jr.'s elder, donned the Cougars' uniform before transferring to Salt Lake Community College after high school.

"It's the perfect game. I love everything about it," Jeff Jr. says. "There's something about being on the mound and the game is in your hands."

The passion burns hot nowadays, but it was an acquired taste in the beginning. Embarrassed after running the wrong direction in tee-ball, Jeff Jr. decided he was done with baseball.

"We say he retired after the first year," Jeff Sr. quips.

The game didn't come easy for Arik either, but he continued to tailor his craft. The dedication paid dividends. As a left-handed ace, Arik transformed into one of the most dominant pitchers in Utah prep history at Maple Mountain. He led the state in strikeouts in 2012 and 2013, finishing second all-time in career K's, while compiling 20 straight wins to end his high school career.

Always supportive, Arik encouraged Jeff Jr. to return to the diamond, and eventually was successful. The affinity for the game bonded the brothers together, as the two spent countless hours planting the roots to their "special relationship."

"He was the person who made me the man I am today," Jeff Jr. says. "He was the biggest role model in my life. He seemed invincible."

No manual for heartbreak

Jeff Jr. describes pitching the worst game of his life. Everything felt amiss. Starting the JV game at Wasatch as a sophomore in March 2015, Mack walked "10 batters," and looked for his missing cellphone in the dugout afterward.

Unbeknown to him, coaches confiscated it while both of Jeff's parents were en route to Spanish Fork Canyon. "I got a text from the highway patrol," Jeff Sr. recalls. "We were at the game, and they wouldn't tell me anything, but your gut starts churning."

When they arrived at the scene, their worst fears were confirmed: Arik, driving eastbound on U.S. Route 6, lost control of his Honda Element SUV while texting and crossed over the center line. He collided head-on with a coal-hauling semi truck, and was declared dead at the scene at age 19.

"To know he probably didn't feel terror helps," Jeff Sr. says. "You think your son died alone in a canyon without you, but I don't think he was conscious to know. That brings me some peace. He knew he was loved."

There is no manual for heartbreak. Everyone copes with grief differently, and for Jeff Jr., playing baseball after the accident prevented him from healing. He needed to walk away.

"Baseball was his thing. We grew up playing together. When I picked up a ball, it was impossible not to think of him," Jeff Jr. says.

But, unexpectedly, baseball called to him again. When he quit tee-ball, Arik coaxed him to return. As the future unfolded, big brother wasn't done inspiring.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'Why are you going to quit something you love because something bad happened?' " Jeff Jr. said. "I knew that was the last thing Arik would want for me."

No. 8 lives on

Days are getting easier. Emotions occasionally wash over, but thoughts of Arik are transforming from painful reminders to joyful memories. Jeff is motivated to honor his brother, but also aspires to his own ambitions of playing at the next level.

"He wants to wear the number of his brother, but Jeff wants to make his own mark," said his mother, Liz. "He has big dreams and big goals that are just his."

Jeff Jr. leans over the railing in the dugout at Brent Brown Ballpark at Utah Valley University wearing the number his brother made famous at Maple Mountain. The ballpark isn't a scar anymore. Underneath his jersey, the dog tags Arik wore on his final day dangle around his heart. Arik is gone in the flesh, but his presence remains.

He's not missing the journey because baseball bonded two brothers, and, after death, it continues to keep them together.

tphibbs@sltrib.com

Twitter: @trevorphibbs

 

 

 

 

 

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