Friday, October 18, 2013

My Last Talk With Pop: A Baseball Story

This was originally published as a previously scheduled guest post for Baseblog94 on July 29, 2013.  I had no idea when I agreed to do this, on this date, that what I eventually wrote would be the subject of that post.  

The initial response to it, from friends, family, and a lot of folks I've never met, was overwhelming.  I'm re-publishing here, with additional photos.

This is the piece I hoped I would never have to write.

I haven’t always been a Baseball fan, or a Cubs fan for that matter, but when I was young I was.  How that happened and how it worked out is a very exhaustive story with many tangents that tie in to other stories about me that don’t always have anything to do with Baseball.  Many of them tie into my personal “Tale of Two Dads,” but I’m not going into that here.  On July 10 of this year, I lost Pop, who was one of those Dads, and two weeks later my heart is still broken.

Pop was a lifelong fan of Baseball, and at an early age I was enthralled at his knowledge of the game, as well as his stories about seeing young Roger Maris play with the Indianapolis Indians against his local Omaha Cardinals in 1956.  He grew up a Dodger fan and idolized Pee Wee Reese.  When I was a lad, he took me to my first professional Baseball game, the New York Yankees versus the Chicago White Sox at Comiskey Park on August 1st, 1979.  It was Thurman Munson’s last game, and also the last game I would attend with Pop for nearly 30 years.

Pop wasn’t the kind of person you’d think would be a Baseball coach; he was a Theatre Educator, and was instrumental in rebuilding the Theatre program at Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois.  I can’t recall how he got involved at the managerial level of Little League Baseball, but my brother played (I didn’t, I tried a little but I couldn’t even put on a fielder’s mitt the right way) and he ended up as the Coach for a team that was more like the Battlestar Galactica of Freeport Little League than it was like a potential championship squad. 

There was a sprinkling of raw talent (including a kid he called “Palmer” because he looked just like Jim Palmer, a great pitcher whose real name I still can’t recall) but there was enough #want present for Pop to guide them to the city championships, a trophy they proudly claimed.  I watched most of those games (and the practices) and marveled at how unique he was compared to the other coaches; we won over his charge with applied confidence, attention to minutia and fundamentals, and through the ring of discipline.  I understood later how he used the same skills to direct plays and work with young college students, as he did to manage a winning Baseball team that wasn’t a favorite to do so.

Over the years, Pop became a Cubs fan.  We lived in the proper geographic locale for this, and the benefit of access to just about every game through WGN broadcasts helped out as well.  He had intense and profound relationships with his friends and colleagues at the time, friendships that would endure until his death.  Most of them were probably Cubs fans as well. 

In later years, we talked Baseball quite a bit.  He didn’t share my twisted ‘yin-yang’ admiration for the Cardinals (it took lots of ‘splaining to bring him to an understanding of why I had a Cardinals cap in my collection) but was mostly complacent about the White Sox; they were a Chicago team and deserved a nominal amount of respect for that.  We didn’t watch a lot of Cubs games together, but sometimes we’d exchange emails about a particularly memorable contest or talk about them on the phone.

My family relocated to Louisville in the late 90s; during one of my folks’ early visits I pulled Pop aside and we went on a solo trip to Louisville Slugger Field to see the newly-erected statue of his childhood hero.  He told many after the fact that it was one of the neatest things he’d ever seen in his life.

When my oldest daughter started attending high school at duPont Manual in Louisville, Pop immediately emailed me to let me know that Pee Wee also attended school there.  I was never able to host him at a Louisville Bats game, but we did visit the Louisville Slugger Factory & Museum together, and spent the better part of an hour reviewing all of the player names burned into wood on the foyer wall.

Pop wasn’t surprised at all when I started writing about Baseball; I had been a casual writer most of my life and he enjoyed reading my work and discussing it.  During my first Brother-in-Law Baseball Tour of 2009, we scheduled a stop in Peoria to see the Peoria Chiefs at O’Brien Field, only a few minutes from my folks’ house in East Peoria.  I wrote a little bit about it and posted photos and scoresheets here.

I’m not usually adept at taking advantage of photo opportunities when they arise, but as we entered the concourse and were admiring the Pete Vonachen statue, I was seized by the moment and handed my camera to an usher.

My brother-in-law Mark and I were picked by Pete Vonachen’s granddaughter (who was working as an usher at the ballpark) to participate in an On-Field Sack Race after the first inning, because we looked like “a couple of fun guys.”  We had to report to the field during the first to prepare for the race, Pop was kind enough to handle my scoresheet while we did so.  I revised some of his play notation, but didn’t touch his filling in the lineup for me.

It was one of my best memories ever.

Pop had been acting kind of funny for a few weeks recently, and on Sunday July 7th, he had a seizure at home and was taken to the hospital.  A CT scan and angiogram revealed a rather large aneurysm (5.5cm in size) at the base of his brain.  He was responsive, yet puzzled, after the seizure and the doctors were considering surgery.  I rushed over to Peoria to see him, arriving late that Tuesday evening.  On the way there, I listened to the Cubs gloriously vanquish the Angels 7-2 on WGN Radio itself (not Gameday Audio as I have to do at home).  It seemed as if it was meant to be; I could pick up WGN clearly just as the game was starting, and the contest took me swiftly through dismally barren areas of sparse 3G coverage.  By the time the game was over, I was less than an hour from my destination.

It was also a wonderful distraction from the grim expectations of what would I would see and learn about Pop’s condition when I arrived.

I arrived at the hospital in Peoria just after 11pm.  My mom had just left a few minutes prior, and I nearly elected to stop at my folks’ house, get some rest, and visit Pop first thing in the morning.  I changed my mind just as I approached; I had been driving a lot that day and really wanted to see him.  I was only concerned that I would disturb his slumber (waking up Pop had never been a good idea, ever).

The room was dark, Pop was laying on his side asleep.  He looked a lot better than I had expected he would.  I gently touched his hand, without fully opening his eyes he grabbed my hand and sighed, “Ah, you made it.”  We talked about my day, my trip, his day, his trip, complained about doctors for a little bit, and then as it typically did, the conversation drifted towards Baseball.  He wanted me to validate (as he usually did) that the teams I have been following are still terrible, and I did…but, yes, the Cubs won HUGE tonight!

“Pop, did you get to watch the game?”
“Yes, I watched the whole thing! It was amazing! 5 home runs!! Where did that come from?”

“Who knows! Frustration and lots of grit and hustle!! They should have saved some for tomorrow night!”
“Oh, you got that right…but the Angels are supposed to be great!”

“Go figure, the American League offense is always superior during interleague play! Strategy! (in my goofy voice) Thuuuhh Amehhhhrican Leeeeeeegue!!”
Pop shakes in his trademark ‘silent earthquake laugh’…no sounds emit, but his entire body trembles the heartiness of his laugh, which means he REALLY thought this was funny.

“Ha ha, I’ll never let go of that!”
“Stephen, this team is really going to be something else in a couple of years…I can tell.”

(I find out later from my mom that after the Cubs game, she changed the channel to the Cardinals game and Pop wanted nothing to do with that.)

We talked about books, my wife and kids, and then soberly turned towards his condition and the discussion about surgery we’re supposed to have in the morning with the doctors and their staff.

“We’re going to see some videos!”
“Darn it, I forgot my 3-D glasses!!”
Silent Earthquake Laugh, a second time.

As I stood up to leave, I gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Good night, Pop…I’ll see you here in the morning for breakfast.”
“Come on up, I’ll fix you some eggs.”

That was the last conversation I, or anyone else for that matter, would ever have with him.  Two hours later, while at my folks house discussing Pop’s condition with my mom, we received a phone call from the hospital that Pop had taken a turn for the worse.  We were there in 5 minutes.  A second seizure had occurred, and he had stopped breathing.  As I arrived, one of the medical staff handed me his glasses as they were inserting a breathing tube.  He looked completely different.  Another CT scan confirmed that the aneurysm had started to leak, enormous pressure on his brain was causing severe damage, and within a few hours it was made clear to us that his brain activity was not favorable, and that he would never recover.

Pop passed away at 7:37pm on Wednesday, the 10th.  I hadn’t slept, nor had I left his side since returning that morning, his glasses still in my pocket.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Christmas 2012 would be my last with Pop.  My gift from my folks was a subscription to Baseball Prospectus, as well as a Peoria Chiefs cap and banner.  I had asked for those, the latter to commemorate our game together a few years back and to herald the transition of the Peoria club from a Cubs affiliate to a Cardinals affiliate.  What I also received, and hadn’t asked for, was a copy of Edward Achorn’s “Fifty-Nine in ’84,” the story of Old Hoss Radbourn and ‘bare-handed baseball.’

One of the activities Pop enjoyed participating in while living in Central Illinois was the renowned “Cemetery Walk” at Evergreen Cemetery in Bloomington.  One of his favorite characters mentioned in the program was Old Hoss Radbourn; upon receiving the book he told me for the first time that he enjoyed Evergreen so much that my folks decided to secure interment arrangements there, barely a hundred yards away from Radbourn’s gravesite.  He always wrote something in the leaf of every book he ever gave me, this one was no different:

“I’m anxious to hear your impression of this interesting era in your favorite sport.  Hoss is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in our own Bloomington, Illinois.  There are plans underway now to develop a one man show about him.  Enjoy every minute!”

Reading this after his death sent some chills through my being.  Pop was a true Hall-of-Famer.  I’ll miss you buddy, you were a hell of a guy.  GO CUBS!!!


  1. Really liked your story about your dad! A few tears come down my face, as it made me think of my dad and how he was such a Baseball Enthusiast too! I'm from Grand Rapids, Mi., but we are White Sox fans. My Uncle Tommy Maloney was Ticket Manager of Cominskey Park. I got to see my first major league baseball game in 1961 there. I got to sit in Mayor Dally's box seat, I thought that was really cool. Uncle Tommy gave me a baseball signed by the whole team, still have it, NO it's not for Dad was a little crazy, would watch 2 games on TV and 1 on radio, up and down with the volumes to hear what was going on. lol. I miss him very much!!!


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