A bundle of joy: Parenthood agrees with Curve second baseman

Little Jarek’s favorite word is “ball.” Everything, his mom says, is a ball to the 13-month-old toddler.

“He thinks an orange is a ball. He thinks a watermelon is a ball,” Ashley Cunningham said with a laugh. “Every time we’re around groceries, he’s like, ‘ball, ball, ball.'”

It’s no wonder where the little tyke gets it from. He’s just trying to be like his dad, Curve second baseman Jarek Cunningham.

Like many new fathers, Cunningham sees things with a different perspective now that he has a child. He already gets to live his dream of being a professional baseball player, but now he has a much different kind of life than a typical guy in Double-A.

“It just opens up how much more there is to life,” said Cunningham, who will celebrate his second Father’s Day as a proud papa today.

Few Curve players in recent years have had children, not since the Pirates went to the philosophy of stocking the Double-A roster with younger prospects. Years ago, when the Bucs frequently sent a bunch of guys in their upper 20s and early 30s to Altoona, it wasn’t uncommon seeing children running around the clubhouse, but most ballplayers in their early 20s have yet to start a family.

That’s what makes the 23-year-old Cunningham’s life so different from that of his Curve teammates.

While his friends get to sleep in most days, Cunningham is up doing the fun stuff, such as playing with his little boy, plus the not-so-fun stuff, such as changing diapers.

After games, when teammates are hanging out at clubs or restaurants, Jarek goes home so he can pal around with the little guy before bed.

And he loves every minute of it.

“It’s awesome,” Cunningham said. “Just when I walk out of the clubhouse here and he comes running up to me, it’s the coolest thing ever.

“When you cross that door, it’s a completely different life. It’s awesome to go home and play with him for a little bit before he goes to bed. And when we wake up in the morning, no matter how tired I am, you can’t say no to that.”

Little Jarek was born April 30, 2012 in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Curve were playing in Erie then, and Cunningham hopped on a plane and made it back – barely – in time for the happiest moment of his life.

“I’m glad he got to make it to the delivery,” Ashley said. “That was the most important thing. Barely in time. Right when he got there it was time to start pushing. If it was an hour difference he would have missed it.”

Cunningham was only able to spend a few days with his newborn son last year before he had to head back to the Curve. That was tough. As it would be for any parent.

Baseball players based are judged only on what they show on the field, and what’s going on in their personal lives is usually lost on the fans. Clearly, though, trying to concentrate on playing the most mentally challenging game there is while being 2,000 miles away from your infant child would take a toll on anyone.

“You get so attached so quick, and leaving is the last thing you want to do,” Cunningham said.

Cunningham had a disappointing 2012 season for the Curve, hitting .217 with six homers and 45 RBIs in 105 games. He battled a wrist injury early and didn’t show anywhere near the kind of power he had in 2011, when he belted 15 homers in only 80 games for Single-A Bradenton.

Things couldn’t be more different this year, either in the power department or, more importantly, the personal department.

Instead of being away from his wife and son all summer, Ashley and little Jarek have been living in Altoona for most of this season. They even travel with the Curve on shorter road trips.

Ashley can tell the most how much of a difference it makes for her husband to be able to see their little boy every day.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Last year was so difficult because we were away from him, and he struggled a lot not being able to see him every day.

“This year it’s been completely different, and he’s a completely different person. He’s so much happier having us around, I feel like, and he does so much better because he doesn’t just come home and think about baseball 24/7. He gets to come home and be with us, and he kind of leaves that on the field and then comes home to us. I feel like it’s better for him.”

The results on the field show that, as well. Cunningham has smacked 13 homers in only 60 games, ranking second in the Eastern League, and while he’s hitting just .234, he has been hot lately. His defense also has improved – he has only four errors at second base, compared to 12 in 104 games last year.

The impressive power potential for a middle infielder makes Cunningham a very intriguing prospect. But no matter what he does on the field, when he comes home he’s just daddy to his little boy.

“It’s amazing because they are best friends,” Ashley said. “[Little Jarek] changes every single day, so for him to be able to see him change every day is amazing.”

Cunningham, like any good husband, gave away the credit to his wife for all she does with their young child and for the support she shows him.

“It’s tough for her because she graduated college in three years, and she wanted to go to law school or go to pharmacy school, so she’s giving up what she already wanted to do to support me,” Cunningham said. “It’s been extremely tough on her, and what she does is amazing.”

Cunningham certainly has a different kind of life away from the field compared to most Double-A players, and his wife recognizes that.

“I think it’s more rewarding, but it’s probably a little harder,” she said. “He has to get up with the baby in the middle of the night, and he has to change diapers and still be a parent. He doesn’t get to go out and have fun; he has to come home. But he does enjoy it. He really does.”

It’s easy to notice how much Cunningham enjoys being a dad just seeing his eyes light up and hearing him talk about little Jarek and all the fun they have together.

“Now he’s running around and playing,” Cunningham said, “and every day is just so much fun being able to play with him.”