Last week I awoke and breathlessly beheld the view from my window. The mountains of Aspen, Colorado rose out of the white mist and towered over the house in which I stayed. I was on vacation with my girlfriend’s family and sadly we were going home that day.
I began preparing for breakfast as the other members of our party roused themselves and made their way to the kitchen. The tranquility of the moment was broken by the ringing of multiple cell phones as one by one, no one was fast enough to answer. Finally someone did and the other end provided us with news that no one was ready for. My girlfriend’s grandfather had suffered a heart attack and was being rushed to the hospital. Sadly, he would pass two days later.
Morten Schwartz was a throw-back kind of guy. He preferred to be wearing a suit and he judged a person by the company they kept. When I first met him, the first time my girlfriend brought me home to meet the family as it was, he beckoned me to his chair with a crooked finger and looked deep into my face.
“You’re Morrey Shifman’s grandson, aren’t you?” He asked and I confirmed I was.
“Great guy, your grandfather.”
And like that I was welcomed to the family, at least as far as Mort was concerned. With the introduction over, the topic turned, as it usually does for men, to sports. When Mort deciphered I was a baseball fan and a die hard Reds fan, the conversation took off. We discussed my own playing career (varsity catcher and outfielder) and the best baseball team in the history of the game (we both agreed on the Big Red Machine, go figure, although the 20’s Yankees got a strong vote from Mort). I’m a guy who usually forgets where he parked his car, but I will always remember sports facts (Wade Boggs won the 1986 American League batting title with a .357 average, don’t ask me why I know that) and I will always remember that conversation. That’s the beauty of sports.
Some people don’t get it, which is fine. I don’t get wine. My parents, especially my dad, go nuts over wine the way I do over vinyl records. Both of us enjoy knowing that particular pieces of our collection are rare and difficult finds and we share the love of the hunt for the right bargain. While our love is equal, the objects of our obsessions are vastly different. But that’s ok, because we both have the Reds. My dad taught me how to play catch and bought me my first mitt. I will always remember sitting in the centerfield bleachers with my dad and my brother when Chris Sabo’s bat splintered and cork flew out. Even out in center, we could see the cork. My dad’s audible “Oh, Sh**” is cemented in my memory. I was ten years old when I was at that game. It is one of my earliest memories.
For those of you who get sports, who truly allow yourselves to be caught up in the aura of undying love for a team, you understand the emotions. You know the feeling of watching a team grow from season to season and you use the word WE and mean it. While we may not be out there making the plays we are showing up at the games and screaming until we can’t even muster a whisper in the ninth inning. We stand in below zero temperatures with our chests painted and bring clever signs we thought up weeks in advance. A good game is like a good concert. If you don’t leave just as sweaty and spent as the athletes, you didn’t earn it.
Sports can bring us together as a united one just as they set us apart. Politics, money, religion, these are dangerous topics, but, in the wrong circle, none are as dangerous as sports. Don’t believe me? Wear a Steelers jersey into the wrong Cincinnati bar and see if you walk out with your face intact. As the old saying goes, you can insult the Pope in Boston but don’t you dare insult Bobby Orr. As those Southies kick your butt up and down Dorchester Heights, you better believe they will be doing so as a team.
It is for these reasons that the simple topic of Sports is the great unifier. While in Ireland last spring, I spotted a man wearing a Bengals hat and a drunken “Who Dey!” warranted me a free beer. From there the discussion naturally turned to the coming season and the greatness of A.J. Green. There I sat, as an Irish band wailed and beer flowed, with my arm around a complete stranger extolling the virtues of the great Jay Bruce. I have not seen this man since but for that night he was my brother because we both root for the same teams.
Yes, that’s the beauty of sports. They provide a distraction with a discussion of the DH rule or whether or not PED users should be in the hall. They allow us to move past all awkwardness with heated arguments of who would win between an All-Century Lakers team and an All-Century Celtics team. They allow us to remember the ones we love who are no longer with us.
Last week, as Mort lay in the hospital, I had the opportunity to interview with the Reds. I didn’t end up getting the position, but something special happened while I was there. Sadly, Mort passed, and I hurriedly called my girlfriend and told her I would be right home. She told me no. “If Mort ever heard that you had left an interview with the Reds because of him, he would be furious,” she said. So I stayed. Because she’s right, it’s what Mort would have wanted.
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