*Disclaimer, this article will contain little about baseball and more about my family and life. I understand if you'd like to skip this one and wait for baseball talk. Projections will be coming somewhat soon.*
My parents are and were big role models in my life. In saying that, I don't believe that I am distinguishing myself in any way above anyone else - thinking most of you all can say the same of your parents. However, my mom and dad are pretty much on another level when it comes to being role models, if I may say so myself. They are and were (respectively) exceptional people.
You see, the Ceruttis the Elder (that was my Dad's fantasy baseball team name in my league every year - Cerutti the Elder) were teachers - both in school and out. They were moms and dads to my friends, my sister's friends, and my brother's friends when they were in our home. They wanted the best from people and brought out the best of people.
My mother and father instilled a distinctly positive mindset in me that I do my best to display as often as possible, especially outwardly. People that know me well know that you can typically find me whistling a song (whatever is in my head) as I walk around or drive in my car. (Yes, I do have my self-depreciating moments but they're typically made completely in jest.)
Those care-free, whistling down the hall or in the car moments for me have been few and far between since March 13th, 2020, as for many in this pandemic-stricken world.
As a teacher, that was my last day in the classroom with my students last year, some of whom had stepped in my classroom every day for over 2.5 school years and never would again as my student.
As a father, that was my last day in which I didn't spend at least 22+ hours in the presence of my 3 and 5 year olds for the next 3 months and most of the next 5+ months. That was a completely different challenge all of its' own.
As a son, it was just a couple of weeks later that I found out my dad had cancer, again. My dad was already a cancer-survivor (for far longer than I had been alive) and had had multiple sclerosis that was in remission for well over half of my life as well. Despite ALL of that, he was still one of the most positive people I had ever met in my life.
My dad's cancer the second time around was in his throat. He was never in his life a smoker, or a drinker. (Doctors believe that this new bout likely came about due to his previous cancer treatments decades prior.) It was physically difficult for him to talk sports with me for those last couple of months. I had all of this to deal with on top of being stay-home dad, stay-home teacher to my own children, and virtual teacher to my students at school - and felt like I was failing at all three of those things simultaneously along with failing at being the eldest son in my family. My own self-care usually revolved around sports and talking (mostly about sports) with my dad. He was my go to, my best friend. With him being unable to do so, this year got particularly difficult for me. It's perhaps why I haven't been writing as much as I'd like. Of course, in part that has to do with the lack of baseball being played as well.
My dad died right about 3 months after his prognosis of "months to a couple of years" came down. Due to his previous bout with cancer, he could not get doses of radiation to go along with his chemotherapy again this time around. (Despite all of that, my mother is one of the most positive people I have ever met in my life as well.)
If you know anything about baseball, you've likely heard that if you can go one for three you're bound for the Hall of Fame. Well, my dad beat cancer once and multiple sclerosis once. Talk about a Hall of Famer! Dad went two for three even as he lost this second battle with cancer, passing peacefully holding my mother's hand. On a side note, my dad actually IS a member of the St. Louis slow pitch softball Hall of Fame. He would tell you that it meant a lot more to him to be a Hall of Famer in my mother's, brother's, sister's, and my eyes than it was to actually be in a Hall of Fame...although he was plenty proud of that, too.
Speaking of Hall of Famers lost in 2020 (I think I cornered the market on the most depressing segue of the year with that), the St. Louis Cardinals lost Lou Brock and Bob Gibson this year. Fitting. Bob Gibson was the Cardinal that I probably heard the most about growing up. You see my dad was a pitcher. You didn't grow up in the 60s and 70s in St. Louis and not admire Bob Gibson. My dad did not simply admire Bob Gibson, however. He was my dad's hero. My dad had a tryout with the Cardinals back in the early 70s, a few years after Gibby's 1968 season for the ages but still during Gibson's hay day. My dad also got to pitch batting practice to the Cardinals during one season at Busch II when Gibby was on the team. No, my dad didn't just admire Gibson, he got to be on the same field as his hero.
My dad didn't force me to enjoy baseball growing up. No. He was a teacher and, as a teacher myself I can attest, a much better one than I am or ever might be. You see, he entirely created a game - I'd assume much like Strat-O-Matic, but unsure because I never played that - called "Ben's Ball" for me at Christmas one year when I was young. This game had 8 teams, four NL teams and four AL teams. My dad taught me about keeping score in a score book, about keeping statistics - nurturing my already in-tune-to-Math brain, about baseball strategy, about the difference between the leagues, about choosing favorites and creating rivalries, about drafting new players, about expansion and expansion drafts (as we went to 10 teams eventually), and about loving the game of baseball all while getting to spend quality time with me. Note: My son is not quite ready for this as we just played our first shortened game of Ben's Ball in this last month.
I really wish Grandpa was able to help teach Henry this love of baseball through playing "Ben's Ball" - which likely needs to be renamed into "Henry's Ball" (or "Addie's Ball" if she cares for baseball more than Henry, but she is younger and definitely not ready for it) - but that falls to me now. We will hold onto the memory of Grandpa together.
It has been 6 months to the day (June 28-December 28) since my dad died.
My dad always had timing, I think. I remember quite distinctly growing up watching baseball with my father and a few times a week, sometimes multiple times per game even, he would look up from the board game we were playing or from the papers he was grading or from helping my mother clean the house between pitches and say, "Ben, bet you a quarter this is a foul ball" or "Ben, double or nothing this is a double play."
You either learned really quickly (or lost your whole damn allowance) to not take the bet because Dad's timing was un-frickin'-canny. He just KNEW somehow. As I remember it, or at least choose to remember it, he was simply NEVER wrong!
I don't know if he had that same timing when he was pitching or not. I was not alive to see him pitch a baseball. I did get to see him as a slow-pitch softball pitcher near the end of his playing days. That said, my dad had enough stories of incredible games and incredible seasons that he very well might have known what was coming at times. I know there are stories out there about Greg Maddux doing so. Knowing my dad, he would have given the full credit to his catchers - especially if it was former big leaguer Joe Nolan, or (as my dad called him) "the best catcher that's ever caught" him and one of his best friends - Steve Mann (shout out to the Mann family! The Ceruttis love you).
Back to timing, you see, we (my wife (Lisa), kids, and I) were set to arrive in St. Louis on a Wednesday in June in the late afternoon or early evening. We had this planned out after I (alone) drove from Kansas City to St. Louis the previous week and saw the decline in my dad's health due to this second bout with cancer. We had originally planned on coming the following weekend, but decided instead to come to town again a bit more quickly, to allow Lisa a chance to see my dad again and for the kids to see their grandpa again - potentially one last time - before his health deteriorated to the point that he couldn't talk to them or worse.
Over the course of the 8 days in-between my visits back home to see Dad, it was immediately obvious that his faculties had declined to the point that hospice care was a foregone conclusion (at least in my mind). Note: My dad was moved into hospice care THE NEXT DAY on Thursday morning - again, we arrived Wednesday night.
On Wednesday night, my dad was able to have a very short conversation with Lisa one last time. He was able to tell my kids, his grand kids, that he loves them one last time. It seems like he was just waiting, holding on to those faculties for those last few words of conversation.
He died at the hospice facility just days later - that Sunday afternoon. You see, my dad has always had timing. Even as his life neared a close, my dad continued to somehow impress and teach me lessons - this time in timing it seems.
Combining those attributes of optimism and timing that my father so incredibly possessed, he was a coach basically his entire adult life. He spent the last couple of decades coaching girls' softball at various levels in the St. Louis area - both summer teams and high school teams. After retiring from teaching and coaching at Parkway Central High School at the JV and Varsity levels, the last few years of his life he was the Junior Varsity assistant coach at Webster Groves High School. He made the choice to go there because he knew the head coach, Bryan, from his coaching days at Central. Bryan didn't just build a team or a program. He has built a softball family at Webster Groves and my dad wanted to spend his last few years coaching as a part of that family. Sometimes in life, you get to choose your family - and this was one of those lucky times for my dad.
The kiddos that he worked with at Webster were something like 45-4 at the JV level his last two years coaching. He did not get to coach them or see them compete this fall, but that team he had built relationships with and helped to grow into the players that they were when he died this summer prior to fall softball won the State Championship this year here in Missouri. They went 16-2 in 2020 and were on a mission. They scored 195 runs and allowed just 55 in those 18 games. Yes, their average run differential per game this year was +7.8 runs per game. They dominated.
After the State Championship win, I got a DM in Twitter from Webster Groves softball in response to my congratulatory DM:
"Ben, thank you. Our 8 spot hitter had the go ahead hit. Your dad frequently said ‘it’s sometimes the kid you never expect that gets the biggest hit. You have to just trust them when it’s their turn.’ We all - coaches and players - feel like he was with us today."
And maybe he was. Webster Groves had the "Cerutti seat of the game" that was a bucket often used by coaches in the dugout to sit on while they talk to players or relay pitch choice to a catcher, etc. As you can see, that bucket - or at least I'm telling myself it was THAT bucket - was on display right behind the group holding the trophy here.
Dad, I'm positive that this was the right time to pass this word along. You were always not just #1 on the field, but #1 in all of our hearts. We miss you. And of course, like you did with your grandchildren, Lisa, and with me; let me make sure again that these were my last words to you, "I love you."