By Nathan Petrashek
“I stood up to the plate, I swung my bat as hard as I could. Ballgame’s over, guys.”
This weekend I buried a man I have known since childhood, one of my best friends. It was one of the hardest days for me, but not an entirely unexpected one. Eric McLean had been battling leukemia basically his entire adult life. After his initial diagnosis in 2003, Eric lived cancer-free for about 4 1/2 years until he relapsed in 2007, then again in 2009. The time between relapses grew shorter but Eric kept fighting. Eventually doctors discovered evidence of the disease in his brain. Eric tried one last time to battle back, to survive, but he was unsuccessful. Out of options, he received hospice care at his parents’ house for about two weeks. He uttered the words above in his final video journal made just days before he died on August 23. He had just celebrated his 28th birthday the month before.
That means Eric didn’t get to see the Brewers finish off a sweep of the free-falling Pirates yesterday. He didn’t get to see the near-sweep of the Cubs in Chicago. And he didn’t see the Brewers take 2 out of 3 in Pittsburgh the series before that.
It might seem pretty trivial, of all the things Eric won’t get to experience, to mention a handful of Brewers games in what may be a lost season. In perspective, a lot of things appear trivial right now (among them Perez Hilton’s thoughts on my friend’s final days). And yet, I can’t quite bring myself to place sports – and I speak particularly of baseball – in that category of “life’s meaningless distractions.”
I would have no problem doing so if I was a strict adherent to my philosophy on professional sports. The phrase “bread and circuses” is a good starting point. The phrase refers to efforts by ancient Roman politicians to win votes by offering the masses free bread and entertainment. The general idea was to discourage regime change by encouraging complacency; it was premised on the theory that a fed and distracted populace would view its leaders favorably. As one of my law school professors used to say, “Think about what you could accomplish without sports.” We spend hours and hours watching, writing, and talking about “our teams.” That’s by design; franchises want us to identify with them, to feel emotionally invested in their success. So we pack stadiums, often publicly financed, to watch millionaires hired by billionaires play games. Kids look up to sports stars as role models. We buy $200 jerseys and $8 beers. If we as a society spent as much time, energy, and resources on disease as sports, we’d have probably cured cancer.
I know all this, and yet I am still a willing participant. I have season tickets, my closet is filled with jerseys, and I have autographed memorabilia scattered all over my apartment. I give the Brewers and Major League Baseball free marketing on this blog every single day.
I do this because baseball offers far more than the pleasure of victory and the agony of defeat. Eric and I had season tickets with a few friends prior to doctors telling him he was terminal in 2009. His brother Mike, wanting desperately to brighten Eric’s dreary hospital days, contacted the Brewers to ask if there was anything they could do. The Brewers sent Larry Hisle.
Larry Hisle was a very good baseball player. He played for nearly a decade with Philadelphia and Minnesota before signing a 6-year deal with Milwaukee in 1978. He had his best statistical year that first season, hitting 34 round trippers and knocking in 115 en route to an All-Star berth and 3rd place MVP finish. Unfortunately, that season would also be the last full one Larry would ever play. He struggled with injuries over parts of the next four seasons; a torn rotator cuff eventually forced him into retirement. He played his last game on May 6, 1982. And although it was painful, Larry forged ahead, eventually becoming a successful hitting coach for the world champion Toronto Blue Jays.
Larry is one of the most humble, selfless, caring people I’ve ever met. His current title is Manager of Youth Outreach for the Brewers, but his real job is mentoring, not marketing. Put simply, Larry tries to give at-risk kids a better life. And he does this by inserting himself into theirs, making himself available nearly 24/7 to his troubled youth. Spend any amount of time with Larry and you’ll see him pull a gold MLB alumni card from his wallet. The card is given to veterans with 10 or more years of MLB service. It will get him into any baseball game he wants, any time, for free. He has never used it. There’s always a chance that one of his kids will call for help while he’s at the ballpark. “I don’t like doing anything halfway,” he told Adam McCalvy in 2005. “I tell these kids that I’m going to be in their lives the whole way. They had better get ready, because I’m going to be there.”
So it was with Eric. Because of our shared appreciation of baseball, Eric wanted me there for Larry’s first visit. Larry brought a playbook, baseballs, and a demeanor forged through struggle. Orphaned at 11, Hisle overcame extreme adversity to find success in the game and in life. Larry once took us for a personal tour of Miller Park and introduced us to a few players-an honor usually reserved only for his kids, to show them that hard work and determination breed success. He talked of those traits during that first meeting with Eric, and again when he came back the next day. Larry never stopped visiting. He was with Eric the day he died. At Eric’s funeral, Larry would say that although he knew Eric the shortest time, they had forged a friendship second to none. I think that’s because Eric was a living example of the message Larry tries so hard to instill in his kids: Never give up.
What is it about baseball that could bring two absolute strangers of different generations together to form a bond until death? What is it that could bring two close friends since childhood even closer? And what is it that could bring a dying man to, in his final days, analogize the game to his own struggle to survive?
When longtime Brewers groundskeeper Jeff Adcock passed away a few months ago, Ryan Braun responded to a question about his All-Star selection by saying, “I think there’s constant reminders in life that there’s things that are far more important than this game that we play.” There’s no doubt truth to that.
But let’s not also forget that our lives are better for having this wonderful game in it. I’m going to miss Eric very much. I’m sad he didn’t get to see that sweep of the Pirates. I’m sad he won’t be with us at Opening Day next year, or the year after that. But if he had to miss these things, at least I know that I will never forget him. The game is a reminder of good times and friendships that thrive under blue summer skies lazily stretched above grass-ringed diamonds.
And if you have these kinds of memories, too, know that your time wasn’t wasted making them.