Sunday, May 1, 2016

When I Get Old Let Me Die During Baseball Season

This week I had the sad occasion to attend to funeral of a very closer friend of my wife's family. He was one of those people who was not related by blood, but as much or more a member of the family as any of my wife's blood relatives.  He'd been ailing for a long time, but never wavered in his love of the New York Yankees.  In fact, it was one of the first things mentioned by the priest in his funeral homily.  Although I am a Yankees hater in long standing, he was the kind of Yankees fan I respect: humble and committed. Whenever I saw him (which was often, since he lived next door to my in-laws) I knew that six months out of the year we'd have an easy topic of conversation: baseball. Even if his body was in bad shape and he needed a scooter to get around, he stayed up on his team.

In that respect he reminded me a lot of my dad's grandfather. Living in Nebraska, his connection to the game was more about the game itself, rather than major league team fandom.  Back in his day every small town in Nebraska like his (with only 250 people) had a town team, and he evidently played on it well into his 40s, and batted with a unique cross-handed style. He was also instrumental in the moment when my enjoyment of baseball in the abstract became an obsession.  In the spring of 1986 when I was 10 he stayed at our house for a couple of weeks while getting some treatments at the hospital. At first I resented this, since my parents gave him my bed and I had to sleep on the living room couch. Very quickly I got over it, and I enjoyed hearing his stories of growing up in rural Missouri in a time when cars were new (he was born in 1903) and life moved at a more deliberate pace.

It seemed every day when I came home from school he would be sitting in the recliner, watching a Cubs game on WGN. (Back then all of the Cubs' home games were still during the day.) He didn't watch because he was a Cubs fan, he watched because he just loved baseball so much. His habit then got me into the habit of watching Cubs games when I came home from school, and soon enough, I was hooked. During the next season I was buried under baseball cards and I would go to my sister's softball games and "call" them in a Harry Caray voice. (Oddly enough I never became a Cubs fan, and stuck with the Royals until my later betrayal.)

Like my wife's family friend, my grandfather died in April, just as baseball was returning. (I have a distinct memory of being sad at my grandfather's passing, then seeing in the paper that Bo Jackson had struck out five times in a game, and wondering why everything in life had to be so terrible.) At the funeral last week I had an odd but intense revelation: if I am so lucky to live to old age, I want to die during baseball season. The rituals of each game will be a calming balm to soothe me as I ready myself for the end. The memories wrapped up in the game, from my walk-off hit in Little League to taking my infant daughters to the ballpark, will be there with each pitch.

No comments: