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On Reflections of Baseball
I grew up in the sleepy little town of Mount Acron. It’s in western Virginia and you take three lefts off exit 32 on Route 4 to get there. Mountain Street was our Main Street, it had a rundown diner and a few shops like Marvick’s General Store. Off Mountain Street, there was a small patch of dirt and grass we affectionately called Mountain Park, later when I was twelve they’d relocate the baseball fields and playgrounds to the official Mountain Park. My friends and I used to walk twenty minutes from school every day and ball whiffle ball at Mountain Park. That patch was our favorite patch in town. Jimmy Benton would pitch for our team and I was third base and proud of it too. They used to stick me in the outfield but one day Lucas Ruggeri never showed up and I took his spot at third. It was supposed to be a one-day thing but then Lucas didn’t show up the next day and the day after. We later learned he got sick. My mom sat me down one day and told me Lucas was in New York, meeting with a doctor. I was jealous that he got to leave Mt. Acron, we all were.
It was rare to ever get to leave the town where nothing-ever-happens. Trips to the neighboring slightly larger towns of Concord and Platstown were huge, and all they had were paved basketball courts in their parks. New York seemed a world away, we used to joke about all the fun Luke was having. He was in our minds and stories; he was always staring in a new Broadway musical or hanging atop the Empire State Building. He was in the torch of the Statue of Liberty and he always ate at the huge delis in Manhattan. He lived in our imaginations, He was the third basemen for either the Yankees or the Mets but we couldn’t agree which one he was really on, I favored the Mets.
Lucas returned that summer, seven months after he left. I was angry that my mom wouldn’t let me see him, I yelled at her and called her a b****. She started crying. I never meant to make her cry. I had heard that word at school during recess from Jimmy when he was talking about the things his father yells. She picked me up and hugged me and I was confused as to why she wasn’t mad, normally I’d expect a talking-to or at least get sent to my room.That was the first time I heard the word cancer. She said again “Lucas is very sick” and I said, “Yes, I know we made him get-well-soon cards in class.” And she’d say “That was very nice of you.” I nodded and asked when he’d get better, she said he wouldn’t. The doctor in New York tried but he couldn’t make Lucas better and they brought him back home to be with family. Apparently, he had cancer in his brain.
My mom called Lucas’s mother and she said I could come over a little bit if I was quiet. I skipped whiffle ball that day and Morgan Pearce took third base. I walked to house three blocks from Mountain Park, it was small white with yellow trim like all the other houses in Mt. Acron. I knocked when I entered and his mom showed me to his room. He looked okay to me just a little paler and thinner, he was sitting in his bed watching a TV his mother had brought up for him. I told him how we all missed him. He smiled a little and just watched his TV. I watched with him. After a little while, I asked him if he was going to die and he said yes without moving his eyes from Bugs Bunny.
I felt like crying in that moment. I stayed quiet watching the cartoon. After the episode was done I said goodbye to him and left after thanking his mother. Lucas died eleven days later. I played third base for a little while longer before deciding I liked the outfield better and I let Morgan Pearce take over permanently, it didn’t matter to me anymore.
When I was ten my father would sign me up for the local little league despite me not wanting to do it. On the first game day, he looked so proud of me. I think that was the first time my father ever felt proud of me. Though my mom denies it, my father always wanted a girl. When I came along I was always a reminder of what he wanted, and I wasn’t that. But he looked proud of me that morning, my uniform was clean and my hat slightly too large to it tipped forward onto the tops of my eyes. I was miserable but I stuck it out initially. On my second game day, I dropped an easy fly ball just behind third base, it gave up a run and we tied the game. The sun was in my eyes but that wasn’t a valid excuse. I told my dad after the game that I wanted to quit the team and never wanted to play ball again. I expected him to argue, to tell me to learn from my mistake and just give it a few days. But he didn’t. He sighed and knelt down to my level and looked me straight in eyes, “Son, it’s clear that you’re not a ball player.”
What the h--- was that supposed to mean? He then marched me to the coach and let me explain why I was quitting, not only did he stay quiet but even seemed to encourage me.That was when I first thought, “Geez, he’s given up on me, hasn’t he.”
That was not the last time either. For a while I didn’t understand, I was as so ignorant to think that he thought the reason I quit was because of a fly ball and not a friend dying. But he knew, he came to the funeral too; he just didn’t care anymore. He didn’t care if I play baseball or if I won the science fair because I could never make him proud again. I stopped talking to my father when I was 15, I left the house at 18 and decided to go to college. It took a lot of bus-boying and student loans but I had to get out of that town. That’s what I was remembered by in Mt. Acron, the kid who finally got the ----- to leave. Everyone talked of leaving but when it came down to it they ended up marrying someone from a neighboring town and they took a job in a nearby mine or store. I was special in that regard, but it brought shame to my father. Somehow in leaving I was doing the most selfish thing possible, looking out for myself.
Besides Christmas when I could make it I never saw my father, I sent him a few letters after he let the phone ring for hours, but they were never replied too. At first, I was hoping he’d at least open them but later on I wished he had just thrown them out as he probably did.
My father died on March 19th, 1996. He had prostate cancer. I went to visit him in the hospital a few days before he died. I wish I could tell you that I was nervous but you see nerves often come from the anticipation of embarrassment, and I was always an embarrassment to my father so there was no anticipation needed. I walked in after hugging my mom and he was sitting there reading a newspaper.
He looked up, he set the paper on the table nearby and took off his glasses.
“Come in,” he said, barely a whisper.
My mom followed me into the room and she took a seat next him. I stood at the foot of the bed.
“H-how are you?” I asked him.
My mother was holding one of his hands, rubbing circles on it with her thumb.
“Don’t ask stupid questions, David.”
My mother opened her mouth to say something but I looked at her and shook my head. There was no point to belittle a dying man. There were a million things I wanted to ask him, I wanted to know why he was the way he was, why he gave up, why he seemed to hate every fiber in my body, why his favorite color was orange of all things. But I knew the response would always be “Don’t ask stupid questions, David.” So instead quietly under my breath, I muttered to myself. “Go to h---”
Sigh, “Son, I’m already there”
“What was that?” my mother would ask.
Part of me still doesn’t know how he heard me, I couldn’t even hear me. Part of me thinks that he just knew. He knew what I wanted to say, he knew that I wanted to scream, he knew alright. I walked right out of that room and drove back to my mother’s house, not ever getting the answers I wanted. He died later in the week, I stuck around for the funeral out of respect for my mother. All day she was telling stories of classic Hugh, how he was cracking jokes till the very end. We both knew the lie. It was the lie we always told under silent agreement. Everyone was a smiling happy family and so were we. That night I drove back to Maryland in the pouring rain. I never returned to Mt. Acron after that, mom would move to Florida to live in a retirement community. They played shuffleboard at noon and there were community Sunday dinners. She seemed happy there. I called her up a few days after the funeral to apologize for when I called her a b**** all those years ago. I’m sure she didn’t remember when it happened but she let me apologize anyway. I think she knew I needed to apologize.
Before I left Mt. Acron on the night of my father’s funeral I stopped by the new and improved Mountain Park, not the sandy lot I was used to. The town had put up a bench in Lucas’s memory with a plaque about thirty years earlier. Nobody around knew who Lucas was anymore, maybe except Jimmy and few of the others that stuck in town. I stood there in the rain for a few moment just looking at the plaque. He was always a better ball player then I was. The only reason I got third base at all was because he was off busy dying at nine years old, how terribly unfair was that. Even as a nine-year-old I got more answers from him then my father, when I asked if he was going to die, he said yes. My father never even gave me that satisfaction of hearing it from his mouth. I wondered if he were alive if he would have come to the funeral, I wondered if he’d go off to college like I had, I wondered if he would have run away at 16 or not. It was a stupid thing to wonder about, but I even wondered if when he was dying he wondered about all the things he’d never get to do. I turned and left without any answers. Dead men can’t speak, and alive ones barely do either.