We have come to the point in the season—exhausted, injured, limping, Halloween candy in the grocery—in which we question why we keep going to the ballpark. There’s much to be said for personal pride and individual statistics, and somewhat less for launching a fatal fusillade into the playoff plans of the enemy.

They need to keep playing because somewhere, for some family, or just one person, those nine innings are the difference between forced peace and awful reality.

My father died over a summer. The cancer diagnosis came just after Easter, the decline came throughout the hottest months, and he died with the season in October. In the middle was the 2010 baseball season, which I simultaneously missed and absorbed like no other.

I have no idea what the Reds’ record was that season. I could not fill in a single roster.  All I know is I was living in Alabama at the time, and when I was home, and when there was baseball on television, my mother and father and I had something to stare at besides the pill bottles.

In June I messaged my sister to ask if he might like to go to a game for Father’s Day. Answer: No, and it’s a measure of how much you’re not here that you think such a thing is even possible. “You don’t know how it is,” she wrote, not to be mean, but to indicate the dreadful progress of things. I cashed in my last childhood savings bond to afford the airfare for a visit. Something was different, and terrible, from the last time I was home.

What I found was an echo of the man who raised me, without hair or appetite. I placed a small serving of lasagna before him, and my mother said, “You don’t have to eat it,” at his dismayed expression. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust me to make dinner. It was that nothing tasted good and nothing stayed down and nothing could be done about it. Taking a shower was a massive ordeal. And now I knew how it was: A simple trip to the ball park was utterly unthinkable.

So we watched from home instead, every single strike and ball.  A day game rendered the evenings endless. An off day was a catastrophe. The games proceeded by inches but always far too quickly.

I am touchy about how sports is often framed in military terminology, as though a game sits equally on the scales as a life-and-death struggle. And since 2010, I detest how cancer is framed in terms of war:  “He lost his battle with cancer.” “She succumbed to cancer.” As though those who died from it just didn’t push back hard enough. I now understand how survivors and their families emerge on the other side of a diagnosis feeling as if they had indeed just waged cruel war, for months or years at a time. But this scourge doesn’t care if you’re a Senator or a young mother or a genius or a deadbeat dodging child support. They all fight it. Some emerge, others don’t—and it’s never a matter of who deserves to win. It’s a tornado of a disease, skipping over one house, badly damaging another, leveling the next.

In his final days, my father struggled to raise his head from the bed to look at his youngest grandson in the eye as the baby pulled himself up on the end of his hospital bed.  In addition to him, I also lost a mother-figure, a teacher and mentor, a force of nature and spiritual Amazon, to cancer. The woman was born wearing combat boots and carrying an iron shield. “It’s not fair,” I said to one of my classmates at the funeral.

“No, it is not,” she said, which was better than anything else, because it was the truth and that was all I was in the mood for at the moment. They fought, and we lost them.

But beyond the edge of his hospital bed, as the daily titanic struggle unfolded on the flat screen, there was just another summer, a fair game where rules applied. There was me sitting at my father’s side in Riverfront’s green seats and all he remembered of the rising outfield of Crosley. There was life as usual, just life.

26 Responses

  1. Richard Fitch

    Heartbreakingly beautiful, Mary Beth.

  2. gusnwally

    Wonderfully written.Very touching indeed. My dad was bedridden for many years. But thru all the adversity between us we always had baseball. Whenever I visited, I would walk back to his room. And the first thing out our mouths was ” What’s up with Reds”. Baseball can be a truly great bridge between children and mom and pop.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      You get it. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      many thanks for reading 🙂

  3. CI3J

    Mary Beth, this was a very moving article that hits close to home.

    My mother also died of cancer in October of 2013. Despite many feeling that baseball is more of a “father/son” thing, some of my fondest memories of going to the ballpark are with my mom. She was always up for it, and we enjoyed many special moments together. Even if oftentimes the product on the field left much to be desired, it didn’t matter because we still had those warm summer nights to sit, to talk, to laugh, to dream of the future. She loved Jason LaRue, and later Joey Votto (of course).

    But then, in 2008, I moved abroad for work, and that’s where I am now. I would email my mom constantly, and the Reds would always come up. When I came back to the States, I’d always make it a point to come in the summer so my mom and I could catch a game at the ballpark. For those sweet moments, it was like nothing had changed, and we just picked up where we left off.

    But then in February of 2013, I got the troubling email: The doctors had found a lump around her ovaries, and they were going to do a biopsy on it. I waited a few days, and then I got the other email: The prognosis was not good. My mom never used the word “cancer”, but I knew. What followed was a series of months of receiving photos from here as the robust, peppy woman that I had always known as my mom seemed to have the life drained out of her. My mom was always on the heavier side, but by May, she was thin. Her eyes that used to sparkle with so much mischief now stared glumly at the camera, as cold and lifeless as pieces of granite. She was doing treatment, and I still had hope she could pull through, because I knew she was a fighter.

    Eventually, my mom stopped emailing me. I was getting updates from her husband (my parents are divorced), and finally in July I had a Skype call with him. I asked him how bad it really was. He tried to answer, but then he started bawling. Outright, completely, bawling. I knew. I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew. I bought the plane ticket for me and my wife to come back in early August.

    When I got to my mom’s house, I was afraid to go to her room, afraid of what I would see. But I wanted to go see her, I had to. I walked to her room, knocked softly, and opened the door. There, lying in bed, was a shell of a person that used to be my mom. Her skin hung limply. Her head was wrapped to hide the fact her hair was gone. She was lying there with her eyes closes, breathing shallowly. I called out softly to her. She opened her eyes and looked at me, and for a very, very brief moment, I saw that familiar sparkle. But only for a moment, as her eyes quickly lost their luster and returned to the slate grey. I held her hand. It was bony and weak. And the smell… I don’t think people often describe the smell of someone doing chemo therapy, but it’s something you don’t forget.

    My mom was weak. She tried to eat what she could, but nothing tasted good to her. Sometimes she’d want a little but of Popeye’s chicken, and I’d go buy it for her. I sat with her and talked, but after 20 minutes or so, she’d say she was too tired and needed to sleep. I wanted to do whatever I could to cheer her up. I had an idea: Her bedroom didn’t have a TV, so I went out and bought a small flatscreen TV. I knew the Reds were playing the Cardinals that night, and I knew she always liked to watch those games. I quietly hooked everything up while she was sleeping. The warm afternoon gave way to a cool, golden evening, and my mom woke up. I told her “I have a surprise for you.” I turned on the TV to ESPN where the Reds game was on. She gasped and said “Oh! The Reds!”. I said “Yes. Would you like to watch a game with me?” She said “I’d love to!”. I sat next to her bed and held her hand as we watched the game together. Amazingly, she lasted the whole 2 1/2 hours. We didn’t talk much, we just watched the Reds and Cardinals play.

    Then next evening, I invited her to watch again. She said “Oh, I can’t honey. I need to sleep.” I kept trying every night, but we never got a chance to watch the Reds together again.

    Finally, on about August 20th, my mom wanted to talk to me. She, through great effort, told me she appreciated me coming to see her, but my wife and I had our lives to live and we’d best get on with it, and that she didn’t want us seeing her like that. Then she held my hand tightly and said “Thank you for the TV and giving me a chance to watch the Reds with you again.” I didn’t like the finality of that, so I said “You’re going to get better. We’ll go to the ballpark together someday, I promise.” She just smiled sadly and nodded. I spent a few more days there, then I flew out of the country.

    I kept getting emails from my stepfather, and I tracked my mother’s decline. Finally, in October, he told us that she had “Lost the will to live.” Just before Halloween 2013, I got the email saying “I’m sad to tell you that at 2:30 PM, your mother passed away. She passed away. I’m so sorry, we did everything we could.” I knew it was coming, but it was still like someone had shot an ice arrow into my heart.

    I came back for the funeral, and my sisters and I had to go through my mom’s stuff. While we were doing this, my stepfather called me into a room privately. In his hands he had what seemed to be a scrapbook of some sort. He said “Your mother told me to make sure you got this. After she left, she asked me to go through her stuff and find this and give it to her in bed. She wrote something for you. I’m going to leave you alone while you look at it.” He handed me the book and left the room. I opened the book. Inside were the tickets to each game she and I had gone to, and she had written notes about what had happened at each game. But the notes were dated from years ago, usually a few days after the game had happened. I was puzzled why my mom would have asked for this book in bed.

    Then I came to the last page.

    There, my mom had drawn, with a shaky hand, a ticket to a Reds game. It was dated August 3rd, 2013; the day she and I had watched the game from her bed. Under it, she had scrawled: “REDS WIN! Rounding 3rd and heading for home…”

    It was my turn to start bawling.

    To so many other people, it was just another game in a 162 game season, that all blur together. But for me, August 3rd, 2013 when the Reds beat the Cardinals 8-3, is a game I will remember for the rest of my life.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That is stunning. I’m sorry all of you had a similar experience.Save this comment. It’s part of her, and part of you. I am honored by your willingness to share this with us.
      This is why baseball matters, and must be kept safe as a place where we can all meet.

      • CI3J

        Thank you for the kind words, and for sharing with us as well.

        I’m usually a pretty private guy, but your post moved me to share my experience. I didn’t intend to write so much, but once I started the words (….and I’m not ashamed to admit, tears) just kept flowing.

        I always enjoy your posts (even if I don’t always comment), because they focus more on the human side of baseball as opposed to the cold, hard statistics. Like was said in Field of Dreams, sometimes people forget that to many of us, this is more than just a game.

        “This field, this game — it’s a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

        And for some of us, and of what we once had, and is now lost. Time rolls on for all of us, with only our memories to anchor us to those cherished days past.

      • Mary Beth Ellis

        Perfect quote as my “little” godchild starts high school with hopes of making the freshman team.

    • lwblogger2

      My heart goes out to everyone who’s had to go through this.

  4. Scott C

    Mary Beth and CI3J both are beautiful pieces of writing and sharing of your heart. Being a minister I have sat with many a family through this ordeal and watched as a bystander of this experience, Cancer is indeed a terrible ordeal, as is Alzheimers, to watch a loved one go through. I am glad you both had the Reds to be there as an anchor point.
    Thanks for a reminder that it is not so much the wins and losses that matter but experiencing the game together with those we love.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      That’s an excellent way to put it.

  5. David

    I remember the last baseball game I went to with my Dad. It was 1975, and the Reds were playing the Cubs. The Cubs got up early 6-3, but the Reds ended up winning 12-8. A lot of offense. Early on, the Cubs fans at Riverfront were chortling.

    Two years later, my Dad was gone from lung cancer. Cance is not a battle, or a war, it;s a struggle people have in hospitals, at home, all very personal and painful. But it is so much to lose someone close. Baseball and sport is reduced to trivial significance.

    Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.

  6. BigRedMike

    Thank you for sharing. These are good reminders, as I age, to enjoy the moments and not assume that there will always be next year.

  7. Michael Smith

    Mary Beth you have a way with words that draws out all the feels.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      I’ll try to use the power for good 🙂

  8. Mason Red

    Thanks for the great read. I too have great Reds related memories with my parents since they both were HUGE fans. Unfortunately they both passed away seven years ago just a few months apart. I was born in Nov 1961 and the month before the Reds were in the WS against the Yankees. My dad went to a WS game at old Crosley Field. The Reds lost the game and the series but he convinced my mom to name me after his favorite Reds pitcher when I was born a month later. My parents were dairy farmers which meant lights out at 10pm even if the Reds were playing on TV. But they would turn on the radio to listen to the rest of the game in their bedroom and if I layed really still I could barely hear the broadcast. It was easier when Marty B started doing the games because it was easy to make out “and this one belongs to the Reds!”. In 1972 the Reds trailed the Pirates in the deciding 5th game of the playoffs when Johnny Bench hit a homer to tie it in the bottom of the 9th. When the ball cleared the fence I lept off the couch and hit the light fixture hanging from the ceiling. From that time on it hung slightly crooked. But my parents didn’t have it fixed because of the memory and always told people why the light was crooked. A week later my dad heard on the radio that the WS game for that day still had a few SRO tickets on sale. So my dad and I went and stood for 8 innings. The Reds trailed the A’s going into the bottom of the 9th so some fans left early to beat the traffic. My dad and I grabbed a couple of empty seats. The Reds tried to rally but it was cut short because of a great backhanded catch against the wall by Joe Rudi. That’s the only WS game I’ve ever been to. My dad went to WS games in 75 and 76 but they were night games and because of it being school nights I couldn’t go. But I enjoyed watching the games at home with my mom. My dad was also at game 1 in 1990 again against the A’s. He witnessed (Eric) Davis Slayed Goliath as it read the next day in the Enquirer after ED’s homer in the 1st helped the Reds beat and shock the A’s on their way to a surprising series sweep. My mom put a broom with a red scarf tied to it and put it on the front porch to honor the sweep and title. There are many other memories of course and I cherish them all.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Those are incredible memories, and I’m so glad you wrote them down. Makes it easier to hang on tight.

  9. Eric

    God Bless Our Dads. And CI’s Mom.

    My 78-year-old father-in-law, as far as I can tell, has loved only one sport his entire life: baseball. Having spent significant portions of his youth in Atlanta and Tampa, then most of his adult life in Louisville, his MLB loyalties have been split between the Braves, Rays and Reds. You’d’ve never known it, though, as we made our way to GABP to take in our annual Reds game when I could make it from Raleigh. He was all-in, Reds cap on, sporting the Transitions lenses, jonesin’ for that slice of La Rosa’s.

    In April, while having a normal day at home, Pop fell, and (as the commercial goes) couldn’t get up. My mother-in-law called the ambulance. Trip to the hospital. Back issues. Surgery. Staph infection. Surgery. Gastric issues. Surgery. Heart condition. Blood pressure. Blood sugar. In and (mostly) out of consciousness for days, then weeks. Finally, a discharge from the hospital to a rehab facility, where I found him, flat on his back, so weak he couldn’t hold a phone up to his own head.

    The visit was short, but at the end, he was trying to tell my wife and me goodbye – I mean really goodbye – and I told him, “You’ve got one more game left in you.”

    Five months, one hospital and three rehab facilities after the fall, Pop is now home – not because he’s all better, but because Medicare coverage ran out. Rented wheelchair. Rented ramp. Rented hospital bed.

    And then, a picture of him, standing up, with the help of a nurse, from his wheelchair at the kitchen sink, looking out the window. Looking…

    He’s got one more game in him. I know it. I hope I know. it. I hope.

    Baseball, after all, is life.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      God bless your dad indeed. Wonderfully stated. I know that game will be a good one

  10. Vandermint

    That’s really well-written.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Thanks for the kind words.

  11. lwblogger2

    Wow Mary Beth… I’m speechless really.

  12. msanmoore

    My Dad has been gone almost 32 years now. My brother, with whom I shared a love for baseball, has been gone almost 18 years. Some of my fondest memories of my Dad include the short-season NY-Penn league games in Elmira, NY. At least one of the players made it all the way to Boston.

    Baseball and family … family and baseball.

    Dad died the year the Mets won all (86). Those games entertained us during our grief.

    Mike died a year before his D’backs won it all. I watched that year with a special interest.

    Thanks MBE and to all who chimed in with personal experiences. This column is so aptly named.

    • Mary Beth Ellis

      Baseball and family indeed.