Batter Up! Bottom of the 9th
Safe at Home, at last!
We have reached the bottom of the ninth in this 18 part series of stories about why I love baseball like I do. From my earliest memory, of getting hit in the nose with a baseball bat, I have had baseball in my blood. There was a lot of it then, and there is still a lot of it today. While I am not a huge fan of the way the game is played today in the major leagues, I still have my strat-o-matic baseball games that I can play, recreating games, and whole seasons, from the era of baseball that I loved the most. I never get tired of playing that game.
Right now I’m a little past halfway in my replay of the entire 1964 major league season. That was the first year I seriously followed the game, so it’s been wonderful recreating that season through this game. So far, that is 827 games that I’ve played. I started playing that season last December.
In addition to that being my first year really following the game, it also happened to be one of the most competitive pennant races, in both leagues, of the modern era. It was such a compelling season, David Halberstam wrote a book about it, calling it a season for all time. Maybe when I’m done playing that season out, I’ll write a book about my re-created season. I’ve already had 4 no-hitters, including a perfect game by none other than Sandy Koufax, who did throw a no-hitter that season in real life, and a perfect game two seasons later, his final season of 1966. In my re-creation, he threw his perfect game against the New York Mets, the same team that Jim Bunning threw a perfect game against that season in real life.
In my 50’s I got to do all of the things on a ball field that I had ever dreamed of doing, and then some, amassing a treasure trove of memories from an 11 year playing career. I managed a team to two championships, I got to make the final play in dramatic fashion in the first of those, and I played on several more championship teams. I got to play with some amazing teams who always played to win, but also always played to have fun.
I got to sing the national anthem on a real major league field five different times, and I even got to race with the presidents on a field, twice.
And, of course, I got inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown — well, my story did, and for this writer, that was just as good as getting inducted for my play. That made me a Hall of Fame writer! How many writers can say that? (“Pulitzer prize? Bah — I’m in the Hall of Fame — are you?”)
So, what haven’t I said about baseball yet, that I’d like you to know? You know about my love for Roberto Clemente. He was such a key figure in my developing love for the game, from the first time I ever went to a ballgame. Most Pittsburghers refer to him, simply, as “the Great One!” He was my first and still greatest hero. He’s that one hero who never let me down.
Roberto grew up very poor on a sugar-cane plantation in Puerto Rico. He developed a love for the game of baseball from an early age. He once said that he believed that he was born to play baseball. Major league ballplayers would play winter league ball down in Puerto Rico, and Clemente decided he wanted to do what they did.
He was originally discovered by a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who he signed his first professional baseball contract with a major league team with. He was assigned to one of their farm teams in Montreal, Canada. The major leagues had just come out with a rule that any player signed to a contract above a certain dollar amount, would have to begin playing at the major league level right away, or be subject to being picked up by another team. For that reason, they tried to “hide” him in Montreal where, despite his considerable talent, the manager was instructed to keep him on the bench most of the time. The Dodgers simply had too many good outfielders on the major league roster to be able to assign him immediately to the team in Brooklyn. He was going to be a part of their future, but for the present, they tried to “sit on him” in Montreal. They were already carrying another “bonus baby” on their major league roster, a wild young left-handed pitcher named Sandy Koufax. They didn’t have room for two of them. They would go on to win their first World Series during Clemente’s rookie season — however, he would no longer be in their organization by then.
A general manager named Branch Rickey — the same guy who’d broken the color barrier in baseball seven years earlier by signing up Jackie Robinson from the Negro Leagues to play for the Dodgers — was with the team when they signed Clemente the year before, but he’d moved to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ front office. He knew all about Clemente, and sent scouts up to Montreal to watch him play. Despite the limited time he got to actually play, they saw enough to report back to Rickey that he was the real deal. So, Rickey stole him from the Dodgers for the Pirates.
Those Pirate teams from the mid-50’s were one of baseball’s worst teams. They were perennial “cellar-dwellers”, but they were assembling a team of young players who would eventually form the core of the team that would lead them to a World Series championship in 1960. It was immediately apparent by his play in the field that Clemente was a top talent. Few players have ever had an arm like he possessed, firing strikes to 3rd base and home plate from right field to nail unsuspecting runners. He even occasionally threw a batter out at first base on a ball hit into right field — he even caught Willie Mays this way once.
It took him a few years to really produce at the plate like the perennial batting star he would later become. However, one flash of his brilliance occurred in a game in 1956 that remains to this day to be the only feat of its kind in the history of the game. He hit what would be an inside-the-park, walk-off Grand Slam — never done before, and never equaled since.
By the time I first saw him, at my first ever live game in 1962 at Forbes Field, when I was 7, he had already established himself as the star of the team, and was building a case as one of the all-time greats of the game. He played in an era that produced the likes of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Carl Yastrzemski and Al Kaline, but in Pittsburgh, we knew we had one of the best in the game. At my first game, on June 2nd, 1962, he hit a towering home run to right field that came within inches of clearing the grandstand roof there, something no right-handed batter ever did, and only a handful of lefties had managed to do. I was immediately hooked, and just loved everything about how he played the game.
Roberto had a way of electrifying the entire stadium, mounting many a comeback with a great play, or timely hit, that would seem to get the rest of the team stepping up their game and doing some great things on the field. He was clearly the quiet leader of the team throughout the 60’s, as many players came in and did their best to play like he did.
Then there was the great season of 1971, our last full year living in Pittsburgh. The Pirates would finally get over the hump and win their first championship since that triumph over the Yankees in 1960. In that World Series, Roberto got to show the world what we had always known in Pittsburgh — that he was truly one of the greats of the game.
He once said, “If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you, and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this Earth.” As one of my true heroes and someone I spent a good portion of my life trying to emulate, I feel like he gave me a pretty high bar to try to live up to, but pursuit of that, I believe, has made me a better man.
I should also mention how baseball was there for me in one of my darker times in recent memory, the summer of 2015, when I had been diagnosed with a facial nerve schwannoma, which was actually what is more commonly known as a brain tumor. It was pretty bad, especially when I began experiencing chronic vertigo around the same time. That was simply awful. I began getting hit with major vertigo episodes, just about every ten days, like clockwork. When I got one, it would wipe me out for half a day, then take a couple days to recover from, to get my energy back.
I was slated to sing the national anthem at a Nationals game that July, and I managed to get through the rehearsals leading up to the game — I had to show up to at least 4 weekly rehearsals in order to be able to sing at the game. The game came during what was probably my worst week. I was just so filled with worry and fear over this unknown thing that had invaded my brain. The more I learned about it, the worse I felt. It was so rare a tumor that about 20 other people, in the entire world, were diagnosed with it the year that I was. I was in a very dark place that summer.
Singing at that game was a true high point for me, a brief moment of light in the midst of all that darkness. My friend Rick had come to the game to watch and hear me sing, then I’d gone and found him in the stands and we enjoyed the game itself, together. That night will forever be frozen in my memory as a special night, one in which I realized, or maybe remembered, that I was not alone. I took in a ballgame with a good friend, and everything in the world was right, just for that night. We ran into my friend Lisette at the game. She had read some of my blog posts about my condition, and gave me the contact information for a guy she knew who had gone through brain surgery and blogged about it. She said he might be able to help me.
He sure did. He was a younger man, in his mid-30’s, who had his entire life turned on its head when they told him he had a brain tumor. In his case, he had to go right into surgery to have it removed. He was also a man of faith, and his faith shown through all his blog posts, and became a true inspiration to me. I am also a man of faith — I recovered from addiction when I was 25, by the grace of a higher power that had worked really well in my life up until the previous month or so. His posts reminded me of that, and made me realize, “Dude — you’ve given everything else in your life to God, and it’s worked out pretty well for you. Why not this, too?” I had to agree, that was one thing I hadn’t done. I started applying my program to the whole tumor thing. I found myself back in the 12 step rooms, a place I hadn’t been in many years.
A funny story about that — in the program, they tend to like to give people nicknames. On days that I wasn’t up to going into work, due to the vertigo, if I was feeling up to driving a short distance by noon time, I would go to this noon meeting a couple miles away, where sometimes I would share about dealing with this tumor. It helped to talk about it with people who shared my recovery journey with me. I met a young lady at those noon meetings named Jen. At a Tuesday night meeting I started attending, I met a guy named Doug, who we immediately discovered a common interest in the Civil War, plus we were both from Pittsburgh. I had no idea that Doug and Jen were a married couple. Jen would mention to Doug about this new guy with a lot of years in the program that she referred to as “Tumor Pete”. There were a lot of Pete’s in the program in that area, so the nicknames helped as a reference point. Doug mentioned this other new guy he’d met, that he referred to as “Civil War Pete.” They had no idea that the two Pete’s were one and the same, until one Thursday night, they were both attending a Step meeting that I was leading at, and Doug said to Jen, “Oh, look, there’s Civil War Pete”. Jen said, “No it’s not, that’s Tumor Pete!” Then they realized they’d been talking about the same Pete the whole time. That was also the first time I realized they were married to each other!
To make a long story short, rediscovering my spiritual base, and working the program on my tumor, really lifted my spirits. I was no longer stuck in the darkness of my own mind, so obsessed by this thing in my head. I would go to a meeting in Georgetown (DC) on Friday nights. Many a Friday that summer, after the meeting I would go visit a special garden on the campus of Georgetown University. It was a thousand foot long garden that sat between the Lombardi Cancer Center of the university’s hospital, and the sports fields. It had a lovely koi pond, and was simply the most peaceful place I knew.
The garden had been dedicated to my aunt, Sister Jeanne Bridgeman, who had been a chaplain at the hospital. She was very special to me, one of the most spiritual people I ever knew, and always a calming presence when she was alive. She had died at close to the same age I was at the time, 62, from an inoperable brain tumor. I think she was 63.
On those Friday nights I would spend an hour or so in her garden, just thinking about her and another person who I had always considered to be very spiritual, her older brother Jim, who also happened to be my dad. Those visits to her garden, and time spent in thoughts of those two enlightened individuals, brought me a tremendous sense of peace, and really brought my spirit back into the light.
That fall, I went back to the VA to learn the results of my third MRI to track the progress of the tumor. The doctor just looked at me, with a kind of baffled look, and said, “There is no tumor.” I asked him if he’d been mistaken about the tumor, and he just brought up the previous MRI’s on his screen and said, “No, it’s right there on these previous ones. Now, it’s not. It’s just gone.” He offered no other explanations, so I felt compelled to ask, “Doc, have you ever seen this before, where a tumor just went away on its own?” He looked back at me, thoughtfully, then said, “No, I haven’t….but I have heard about these kinds of things.” That was it.
I went in to work after that visit, then later that day, while driving home, up the George Washington Parkway, I looked to my right, across the Potomac, where I could see the spires of Georgetown University. I thought about Sister Jeanne, and immediately burst into tears, just flowing out of me, feeling like the last remaining traces of the darkness that tumor had brought into me washing right out of me, and I felt light. I had to pull over to a scenic overlook spot to let the tears run their course — it was hard to drive through them. I remember thinking, “Okay, I get it — thank you!”
That night, Dad showed up in a dream. He was standing in my back yard, just chatting with me, and he said, “Pete, is there anything else I can do for you?” In the dream, I didn’t get what he was asking. I said, “Well, Kathy keeps bugging me about cleaning out this cellar — maybe you could help me with that?” When I awoke, I got it. I realized I had just been granted a damn miracle, and these two had something to do with it. That’s all I needed to know.
So, I was taking this writing course, and in it, we had to write about how we envisioned our end of life. What did we think happened when we passed over to the other side. Here’s what I wrote about that, and will leave you with this:
“I’m up to bat in a game of import, and there’s everyone I ever knew in the stands, cheering me on. The pitch comes in, I swing, and it’s a rope to the gap in right center field. I begin making my way around the bases, my legs churning, my arms flailing, the wind blowing through my hair, and as I round each bag, the roar of the crowd gets louder and fills me with all the energy I need to continue my trip around the bases. I blow through a stop sign at third thrown up by the 3rd base coach, and come barreling down the 3rd base line towards home. The entire stadium is on its feet now, as the ball is coming in on a line from right field. I begin a headfirst dive towards the plate as me, the ball, and the catcher all collide as I reach out my hand and touch home plate, while the cosmic umpire screams, “Safe!!!!” I’m safe at home at last. My team carries me off the field, and into eternity.
The Fat Lady is finally singing, and that’s all she wrote, folks. Thanks for staying to the end, and I hope that all your games are good ones. Enjoy!