The Last Game
My dad grew up during the Golden Age of Baseball when there were three teams in New York and the game was part religion, part civic rite and part community celebration. It was his ticket to an America he adored, but his parents, as Greek immigrants, only dimly understood. They found the game and Dad’s passionate devotion to it incomprehensible.
He played anywhere he could — in streets and corner lots and city parks, with broomsticks and rubber balls, broken wooden bats and rocks tightly bound in electrical tape.
As an adult, the game was a pure pleasure for him, unsullied by a job he didn’t care for or any of the worries of grownup life. He couldn't get enough of it — on the radio or the television or reading the morning paper on the subway or a baseball book on a lazy summer afternoon. The familiar rhythms, rituals and coded language lasted him a lifetime.
He snuck me into Yankee Stadium when I was five, taking me by the hand, pushing my brother and my cousins through the turnstile and telling the irate usher, “The little guy will sit on my lap.”
When I was nine, he talked his way into the Mets dugout with nothing more than a friendly smile and two little boys in tow. While I shook hands with Casey Stengel — most mythic of all baseball personalities — Dad wandered around the dugout, batting his eyes at the ball players and collecting autographs.
Years later, as a young adult, when I told him I had Big News (my wife and I were expecting our first child), his first thought was that I had gotten him Red Sox tickets.
At ninety-two, the passing of my mother and the onset of dementia unhinged him and ravaged his mind. My wife and I took him in to live with us, and I became his primary care giver.
Baseball books, the Mets on TV and Little League games at the local playground became our staples. They were my go-to moves, equal parts tranquilizer, stimulator and memory aid, and they gave Dad a focus outside of the increasingly confusing and disorienting world he found spinning around him. There were some days baseball was all we had.
When Dad was ninety-six, we took him to Fenway Park, about a two hour drive from home. It was the last game of the season, and we sat under a shaded overhang in left field, high up in foul territory near the Green Monster. I tried to talk him through the action on the field and pepper in some of his famous baseball phrases.
“The Orioles are up, Dad. There is one out. You remember the Orioles — Milt Papas, Gus Triandos, the pitcher and catcher, both Greeks. Look, they have a man on 1st with a big hitter up! Two and two, what’ll he do?”
I kept the patter going, but it went nowhere. Dad smiled halfheartedly and stared at the field, lost and far away.
Every few innings, Dad would sit up and catch a glimpse of the action on the field. He’d watch the shortstop chasing a pop fly, a base runner wheeling around the bases, a dusty slide at third. Dad would come to life for a brief, hopeful moment before falling back again in his chair. Mostly he slept.
By the seventh inning, the game was a runaway. My wife zipped Dad’s jacket and grasped him by the hands to help him stand for “Take Me Out to The Ballgame.” Then we sat him down again, locking his wheels in place.
Although Dad walked with little more than a helping hand, we had brought a wheelchair and a blanket to the game. It seemed the prudent thing to do, given the distance of the parking, the crowd and the walk to the seats. So far, we had firmly resisted the world of walkers and wheelchairs for Dad. “Sitting in wheelchairs makes old people older” was one of our many mantras, but this one time, we made an exception.
Making conversation, my sister in law told us Fenway Park had a tradition of letting fans walk the field along the foul lines after the last game of the season. Little kids got to run the bases. My wife and I eyed each other. Our simple philosophy taking care of dad was always, “Whatever it is, let's do it.”
As the ninth inning wore down, we repositioned Dad in the wheelchair, took the elevator to field level and stepped out into a crushing sea of fans. My brother looked dubious, but we plowed ahead towards the right field corner and our entrance to the outfield.
In old ballparks, lines bunch and move slowly, people push and cut each other off, muttering under their breath and jumping ahead. My wife, being entirely too polite and diplomatic, was getting nowhere; as she let one person in, twelve would follow. I grabbed the handle bars and my New York driving skills kicked in.
“Pick up your feet, Dad, hold them out!” I coached him. As if we had practiced it, he extended his legs like a wedge, and the wheelchair became a battering ram cutting through the crowd.
"Excuse me, coming through!” I shouted at each cluster of fans. Even the most diehard, as well as the suburban families with gaggles of kids, parted and graciously let us pass. Although Dad wore his signature Mets cap and blanket (a vivid reminder for Boston fans of yet another hated New York team), we got a free pass. It is hard to obstruct an old man rolling by in a wheelchair, even if he does nominally represent the enemy.
We wheeled through the gate in right and were on the field. It was a perfect baseball afternoon, temperatures in the mid-70s, the sun slowly dipping behind the park but still plenty warm, the field awash in late afternoon highlights. I drove the wheelchair to Pesky's Pole on the right field foul line, an old Boston tradition.
Then we all tried to draw him out: my wife, my brother, his grandkids, all to no avail. He slumped back in his chair. The kids climbed the pole high enough to write their names — another Boston tradition — and we woke Dad to scribble what was left of his signature with a Sharpie pen. His eyes glazed and rolled and drooped again, his chin fell to his chest. I shook him and pointed out the field and the outfield fences. He stared mutely, wrapped himself more tightly in his Mets blanket and closed his eyes.
I steered on, at a loss for what to do next.
"Let’s get him up,” I said to my wife on the edge of the outfield grass. We used one of our many well-practiced moves, helping him up on the count of three and steadying his legs before we let him go.
Steps from first base, I put my arm around his waist and grabbed him by his belt. He held my shoulder and smiled.
"Come on, Dad,” I said.
We touched 1st base and he came alive.
"Kachulis hits a shot in the right centerfield gap!” I shouted with a cupping hand, knowing with Dad's hearing aids turned up full blast, my voice would sound like an old Victrola crackling along in his family’s 1940’s Brooklyn apartment.
"It gets past the right fielder, and it's rattling around against the wall. Kachulis is going for two! One man scores, the outfielder can’t find the ball!”
As we approached 2nd base, Dad seemed to pick up the pace on his own and a small crowd of adults with glove wielding little boys and girls started to join in. Dad stomped on the base, determined and confident, and we took a wide turn.
"Kachulis is going for 3rd! I don't believe this!” I shouted, and some of the adults laughed and clapped along. Our entourage had grown to the size of a small honor guard, picking up stragglers along the way.
"The relay is coming into the second baseman on the outfield grass; he drops the ball! Another run scores!”
Dad was wide awake now, his eyes bright and eager. I caught a glimpse of what he must have looked like at fourteen, running the bases in a sandlot game. Or thirty-two, around the time I was born.
"He touches third, and he’s headed home!” I shouted as he glanced at the dugout. “He’s going for an inside the park home run!”
Now we had a whole crowd of baserunners with us. My brother was out front taking pictures and fans were milling around the foul line in front of the dugout. Like a great wave of gathering energy, they joined in, cheering, laughing and clapping.
As Dad’s foot touched home plate, my brother snapped the final shot.
"He did it! Kachulis has hit an inside the park home run. The Dodgers win the pennant!”
I turned Dad to face the empty stands, which I am sure in his mind’s eye were filled with cheering Brooklyn fans.
As we walked off the field through the back stop behind home plate, I realized I made one mistake. I should have had him slide.
Dad lasted another baseball season before he passed away, wrapped peacefully in his Mets blanket. Somewhere, I hope, he's playing second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ only championship team.
This story appears in the Chicken Soup for the Soup edition Grieving Loss and Healing - Feb 2022