I had forgotten all about it. So, naturally, I was surprised when my cell phone rang on that hot, humid and exhausting day. I had driven 650 long miles through the June night to get my son to the only game he would attend at Great American Ballpark in the summer of 2013, the 12:30pm finale of a four game series. Being a Thursday afternoon game, tickets would be plentiful. Except, well, they weren’t. With the game inexplicably sold out, we bought standing room and following an eleven hour drive, I stood for 9 innings as the Reds surrendered to the Pirates 5-3, splitting the series.
Worn out, I had absentmindedly let the call go to voicemail. Only when I checked with two outs in the 9th, did I discover the name of the caller.
“This is Patrick, down here at Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati Reds. I got the bat here for you if you want to come by and pick it up. You got the bid on this one. We’ll be here a little while longer. I’ll be leaving at 6:30 in the morning, so I won’t be staying any longer than that, so if you’d give me a call, I’d appreciate it.”
My son had talked me into bidding on one of several game-used and signed bats being auctioned off by the Reds’ Community Fund, but being an early bidder, I had no expectation of walking away with a winning bid. And I certainly had no idea who I would be meeting until I walked back to the booth and found myself face-to-face with Ryan Freel’s dad, Patrick Freel.
The elder Freel was warm and enthusiastic. I was grateful to have a physical memory of a player who had become such a fan favorite, who played with reckless abandon, and in retrospect, given recent news, too much reckless abandon. I shared my favorite Ryan story—the evening he, in full flight, launched his ambition into the right-field gap, sliding literally on guts and onto the rough warning track surface—grit meeting grit—to rob the great Pujols, and in doing so, silence the considerable Redbird fans around me, while bringing the GABP faithful to their feet in an August roar. Eric Milton was on the mound and remembered:
“That changed the game right there. The momentum totally turns around. That’s pretty much what won the game for us. That’s a gift out. It’s like he gave me a Christmas present right there. It was a huge weight off your shoulders. After that, the crowd just picked you up and the adrenaline starts kicking in. It was deafening.”
“It was phenomenal,” Freel said. “It was one of the most enjoyable games I’ve had, and that’s because of the crowd. I don’t think they realize how big they are to this team. I tipped my hat a couple of times, and it still wasn’t enough. That’s a good feeling.”
So many good feelings in the short time we had to get to know Ryan Freel. Father recalled a particularly spectacular catch Jay Bruce had made a few games earlier and told me it had reminded him of the way son Ryan played. He spoke with no noticeable sadness. No hint of longing. Just the pride of having a son who brought so much joy to so many, who even now was giving to others less fortunate than himself through his name and the efforts of his family.
I think about the Freel family this time of the year. And the spirit they embody year round, just as I reflect on all those who have much to be thankful for this time of year.
When Mark Berry returned from his fight with throat cancer to resume his place in the coaching box on the road one Monday night in San Francisco, I sat in front of my television and imagined the joy, not only for Berry and his family, but for the players seeing his familiar face upon arrival at third base. I contemplated the words spoken between player and coach. For the record, Reds players touched home plate eleven times on Mark Berry’s first night back. Serendipitous stuff, to be sure. The romantic in me likes to think there was a connection between Berry’s return and bats that came alive that night in AT&T Park.
As Tony Cingrani said, “Mark’s over there at third, I guess everybody is inspired to hit.”
And yet, even as it appears that Berry is cancer-free, there was enough concern about his ability to handle the rigors of a full season that he and his family made the difficult decision not to return as the Reds’ third base coach for 2014.
Having watched family members go through the cancer fight—my mother’s dance with thyroid cancer most recently—words like “PET scans” and “lymph nodes” are familiar territory for me, as they probably are for many of us. This week is as good a time as any to reflect on that which exists on a plane far above qualifying offers and on base percentage.
I pick up the bat with Ryan Freel’s sweeping signature along the barrel. I feel the tackiness along the handle, the same tackiness Ryan Freel must have once felt, when his grip was strong and secure. I run my fingers along the business end, touching every indentation, imagining the purposeful swing that brought each into existence. I think of Mark Berry and what it must have felt like to step onto the green manicured grass last July after so many days away, what it surely felt like for him to regain his place with his baseball family. I think of the uncertainty that faces the Freel and Berry families and the long road ahead for both. May they find grace, health and peace this holiday season and beyond.
This holiday season, may you, too, find peace, hope and a healthy 2014 wherever you are out there in Redleg Nation.