Home Runs to Remember
My nephew Troy turned 10 last Sunday. He lives in Phoenix. Troy celebrated his birthday by attending the Los Angeles Dodgers-Arizona Diamondbacks game. His favorite player is none other than Troy Glaus.
Can you think of a better present for a 10-year-old baseball fan than his favorite player going yard on his birthday? In a game he attended? The first time at bat? Well, that is exactly what Troy Glaus did last Sunday. He led off the second inning and drove a Derek Lowe offering over the fence in right field for a solo home run.
The Diamondbacks went on to win the game, 5-4, putting a big smile on my nephew's face. Although perhaps not on par with Babe Ruth and Johnny Sylvester, it's the type of script that is made for Hollywood.
Eight years ago, I witnessed an even more poignant home run first hand. It's my real life little Johnny story. Unfortunately, the boy wasn't at the game on his tenth birthday or in a hospital room rooting for his man to hit that special home run for him. You see, the boy that I am referring to had died in an automobile accident just a few days before that unforgettable game.
Michael O'Brien, the son of my close friend Dave, was a special kid. The Dad and I met when he was the athletic director at Long Beach State University during the first half of the 1990s. Michael was one of the ballboys at the men's basketball games. He watched those games from the baseline underneath the basket with a level of intentness belying his youth. I had no doubt that Michael was going to become a point guard or a scrappy middle infielder.
Dave and his family moved back to Philadelphia when he took the A.D. position at Temple University in 1996. His wife and boys were vacationing down the Jersey shore at his in-laws' summer home in August 1997. Dave had left earlier and was at Veterans Stadium on business the evening of the accident.
I learned about Mike's death the following morning when Dave's secretary called and told me that the O'Brien van was involved in a tragic collision with an oncoming car. Dave's wife and his two other sons survived the accident. A fourth son was not in the vehicle, deciding to stay behind with his grandparents.
Bill Husak, formerly Senior Associate Athletics Director at LBSU who went on to become the A.D. at Loyola Marymount University, and I went back for the funeral. Watching my good friend Dave eulogize his own son was one of the most moving events I have ever experienced. He mentioned that Mike was buried with some memorabilia of his favorite ballplayer, Jeff Bagwell.
Bill and I visited the O'Brien home after the service. We left after a couple of hours so the extended family could spend some time alone. On short notice, we actually found it easier to fly in and out of JFK than Philadelphia. While we were driving back to New York, we decided to check out the Astros-Mets game at Shea Stadium that Saturday evening.
Arriving almost an hour late, we walked to the Will Call window and told the gentleman that we were visiting from California in the hopes that he might be able to produce something better than the upper deck. Lo and behold, he reached into his shirt pocket and handed us two complimentary tickets for box seats directly behind home plate.
While walking into the stadium, we heard the type of noise that sounded like a home run from the visiting team. Yes, Mike's main man, Jeff Bagwell, took Bobby Jones deep to break a 1-1 tie in the top of the fourth inning. The first thing Bill and I saw was Bagwell touching home plate. We looked at each other and the same thought rushed through both of our minds.
Call it what you want. Divine intervention, a miracle, or a stroke of pure luck. But what were the Houston Astros doing in New York that evening? What were two guys from California -- only in town for a funeral -- doing at that ballgame? How is it that we were running an hour late, causing us to miss Bagwell's relatively uneventful first-inning walk but allowing us to first hear and then see Mikey's favorite player hitting a home run?
That's a pretty touching story, don't you think? Well, Mike wasn't quite through pulling the strings that evening. Although Bill and I had an early-morning flight on Sunday, we stuck it out for nine and, boy, were we rewarded for our perserverance. With two men on and one out in the top of the ninth, Bagwell hit another home run -- a game-winning, three-run poke off Mel Rojas.
After Billy Wagner mowed down the Mets in the bottom of the ninth, I called Dave from the ballpark to share the almost unbelievable events with him. On one hand, it was a difficult call to make so late on the day of his son's funeral. On the other hand, it was a moment I had to share with my pal. Dave thanked me and said he had no doubt that Mike was Bagwell's guardian angel that evening.
Mike's birthday is Tuesday, April 19. I will be thinking of him.