Tuesday, April 12, 2011

SPORTS >> Memories flood past as ballpark facing fate

Leader sports editor

I got some news I didn’t want to hear the other day.

An old friend who has been sick a long time is now dying.

It’s only a matter of time, I’m told, before he is gone. The life he has left is already being measured in weeks, even days.

But then, these last years haven’t really been much of a life for my friend.

None of his acquaintances come to visit him anymore — not the young men who made his life so entertaining with their athletic feats, not the families.

Not the kids.

They have all moved away, decamped for new adventures in a sparkling, modern house in a new neighborhood.

Age and neglect have made his appearance haggard, and when I see my friend, gaunt and gray and undone by his enforced retirement, I wonder if he would even have the strength to throw open his arms in that jolly way he had of making every first-time visitor feel like he had come home.

My friend was born in 1932, and the stories he could tell, if anyone were still willing to listen.

He could tell of Lou Gehrig’s New York Yankees and Bob Feller’s Cleveland Indians making consecutive visits in 1937. He knew hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins as a young man and hobnobbed with legends like Dizzy Dean and Fernando Valenzuela.

My friend didn’t just caucus with baseball players. He has entertained saints and singers and presidents, but he was always down to earth and it’s true that my friend preferred baseball to all other forms of distraction.

He made sure those who dropped by left with the game a little closer to their hearts, and it was never so much about winning with my friend as it was about having fun — the one, pure objective.

So my friend, who had a bounding sense of humor and valued entertainment, also welcomed characters named Captain Dynamite, Little Kato and Monkey Boy.

My friend was a prankster, especially in his later years. He seemed to enjoy turning on sprinklers or shutting off lights at the most inopportune times just to see people’s reactions.

My friend had a good heart. He never turned away a stray cat and his human guests, especially the children, almost always left with a little gift.

My friend’s generosity rubbed off on others, and his adult visitors became known for handing baseballs to kids, or being urged by others to do so.

My friend retired in 2006 with a few good years still left in him. He looked around for ways to keep busy, and some of his most loyal acquaintances tried to help him find things to do.

My friend was born for baseball and there were teams he could have helped.

But like so many who lose their livelihood, he seemed to go downhill so quickly after his retirement, and his deteriorating condition made it hard to convince others he still had something to offer.

My friend sleeps most of the time now, shut up and walled off from the world he once made brighter every time he threw open his doors to us in April.

I wonder what goes through my friend’s mind as he slumbers these dwindling final days. What echoes of the past are there for him to hear?

“Hookslide! Hookslide”

“Give it to a kid!”

“Here we go Travelers! Here we go!”

As testament to how my friend was loved, more than 8,000 came to see him his final day on the job.

But memories of the turnout on that brilliant September Sunday only leave my friend looking emptier and more lost than ever now, his only company the weeds and rodents and occasional vandal.

My friend deserves so much better than this, but he cannot go on like this.

When the wrecking ball comes, then, it will be merciful. But oh how you will be missed old boy.

How you will be missed.

Ray Winder Field, 1932-2011.