A piece I posted on a Cincinnati Reds fan forum shortly after my Mom passed.
|"Now batting for the Braves, number 44...", at this point my five year old lungs prepare to launch into a raucous boo until the hand of my mother grabs me firmly by the arm and she says, "You don't boo him. He's a good guy." I didn't understand. He was the enemy. He played for the other team,the team playing against my beloved Reds. Maybe beloved is a strong term to apply to what was at the time a budding love affair in its infancy, but those feelings were strong, and were nurtured and encouraged throughout my entire life by the woman who was at the time telling me not to boo the enemy. She told me that he was the home run king and should be respected, and it wasn't until years later that I appreciated the great privilege of having seen him play.
That is my first real baseball memory, though it wasn't the first time I attended games with my mother. She told me of times she held me as an infant at Crosley Field because there wasn't a babysitter available. That was Mom. She always loved her sports and the Reds were up there near the top fighting for top billing with her Kentucky Wildcats, a love that to her utter dismay I never shared. This was the woman who five years earlier on the day of my birth, a birth that happened during the Rose Bowl while the Buckeyes were beating USC for a National Title, woke up after giving birth to me (having been put under due to some complication or another) and asked the doctor immediately, "Who won the Rose Bowl?"
I never tried to boo number 44 the rest of that day, even as he was getting hits, and the Reds ended up winning the game. We attended other games that year, and many more through the rest of that decade. We cheered, cried, and stayed up past bedtimes the following year only to fall asleep to nightmares of Carlton Fisk, nightmares that were banished the next game. There were few exceptions to my 9:00 pm bedtime, any Biblical movie on TV and Reds World Series games. Throughout all of that there was Mom cheering on the Reds and encouraging me to do the same. There was also Mom consoling me the following year when Grandpa died and I couldn't figure out what to do with so much grief.
Then there was also Mom buying season tickets to the Stingers and driving me to countless hockey games, a sport she never really understood, but tolerated because I enjoyed it so much. 1980 rolled around and Mom is taking me to the golf course and teaching me how to play a game that became her refuge as her marriage was falling apart. "Wow, that was a great shot.", or "Keep your head down so you don't top it like that again." Through the years that followed, years that saw a bitter divorce and lengthy custody battle, and many tears shed during the process, two things remained constant: the Reds and the golf course and a bond that a mother and son shared around those two things.
No matter what was happening in the real world, it wasn't allowed at the ballpark. It was just the Reds, the other team, and us on the edge of our seats willing them to win. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't, and more often than not they didn't in the 80s, but we were there and for three hours at a time, all was fine with the world.
1990 was the last year I lived with Mom before going out on my own, and that year was something else. With her work and my college schedule, we didn't attend as many games that year, but we made it to a few and one playoff game against the Pirates. The following year I bought tickets to the game on Mother's Day and we started a tradition that lasted until last year. When the Reds were in town on Mother's Day, we attended, or at least most of the time, the exception being when one or both of us was somewhere else in the country in a truck.
The 90s saw Grandpa get Alzheimer's and eventually pass away and when that ordeal was over what did we do? She came up to Cincinnati that spring and we went to the game on Mother's Day. It was then that I think I understood the reason for sports, at least for Mom. Life can throw a lot of garbage at you, but for a few moments you can immerse yourself in cheering for a bunch of grown men who whack a ball with a stick and at least for those moments all is well. The world with all of its trials, heartaches, and struggles is held at bay. You can smile, laugh, cry, and cheer your head off and there is something therapeutic in the release. You still have to deal with the garbage, but you come back to the struggle refreshed and able to get back at it.
2001 came and I got married. Even then, when we could, Mom and I would still catch a game, and when we couldn't, we would talk about the Reds. We made the last two Mother's Day games in Cincinnati and last year I managed to get seats close to the dugout. Mom cheered like a little girl when Chapman ended it with a strikeout.
That was the last game she attended. Deteriorating health and limited mobility made getting out difficult. The last time I saw her in person was a visit to the hospital where she was recovering from a stroke and when I asked about her health she wanted to talk about sports instead. Her Wildcats were flying high and did I think the Reds were going to be better this year. We spoke a few times on the phone and she would never dwell much on her health, just a quick update to tell me she was going to be ok and then it was, "What's wrong with the Reds right now?" Last week she called me to say she had some minor procedure coming up, no big deal, and then she asked about the Reds and how I was doing, in that order. I didn't know what to think. She was in bad health and she's asking me about the Reds. I think she knew, and I think she was ready. Well, I know she was ready because we had that talk a few times over the years. The most important things in her life were her God, her family, and her sports teams, and I'm not entirely sure where some family members fit in that hierarchy.
The next day I got the call that Mom had died in her sleep in the night. After having a good cry and trying to keep focused on my work, I couldn't help thinking that it was a shame the Reds hadn't given her some better baseball to watch during her last days. Somehow, I think she would want me to think that, because to her, maybe that was always more important than the negative things life gives us, or at least it makes the negative things more bearable. Looking back, I can see how sports was a diversion for her, that it was something that kept her sane in some troubling times, and that maybe we all need to treat it that way. Let's cheer for our Reds, get mad at them when they're playing like they are now, yell our heads off with glee when they're winning, and get on with our lives when the game's over. Baseball isn't life; it isn't even the most important thing in life, but it does make life just a tad more livable. It also gives a grieving son some pretty good memories to cherish. Thanks Mom.