Before I start, it's important that you know one thing about me: I am a very private person. I've never felt comfortable "telling my story" or being candid about my life. I display myself as an extrovert (See Prospects after Dark every Monday night at 8:30 CT), but I suffer from social anxiety and I am more introverted than anyone is capable of understanding.
So, what I'm about to share is very hard for me. However, this story isn't about me. It's a story about all of us. By the end of this, I would only ask that you think about your relationship with your father and smile if you are fortunate enough to have a relationship with your father. And please don't forget that not everyone is this fortunate.
My Father, Baseball, And An Education
For as long as I can remember, I've been calling my father, who's birth name is James Charles Reis, "Old Man Reis." You see, Old Man Reis has lived a helluva life. He has been declared dead once and flat lined one additional time. He's broken his neck and he's had to relearn how to do nearly everything that a human being is capable of. My father has been dealt a brutal hand, but he is one of the kindest people that I have ever been fortunate enough to meet. My father doesn't believe in much, but he does believe in treating everyone as equals and putting others before himself. He has literally been run over all of his life but he still jokes and cuts-up as if he is one of the most privileged and fortunate people on Earth. There is a lesson there for all of us.
When he was two, his sister and father died in a boating accident. That left him, his remaining sister, and his mother to fend for themselves. The way I see it now, now that I'm older, my father had been alone for his childhood.
When my dad was eighteen, he and my then seventeen-year-old mother had their first child, my brother Jim. Three years later, Scott was born. Then, three years later, my brother Michael came along. Six and half years later, in 1986, there I was. My father was no longer alone. Hell, you might even considered his life over-populated at that point.
But this is a story about baseball and family, so the next step is to fast forward to 1995 after the strike-shortened 1994 season. At this point, my brothers, Jim and Scott, were working at Busch Stadium II as ushers. The crazy thing was, I was nine years into existing while being raised in a family of sports fanatics and I still had yet to attend my first live Cardinals game. My parents did the best they could with the resources they had and they sacrificed a great deal financially to get me into private school. They were broke and we had been as close to the poverty line as I could ever really understand. Thus, luxuries such as tickets to sporting events were never in the cards. There were no vacations. There was no extravagance. There was just family.
Then, one day in the middle of a random week in the summer, my father took me to my first game. It was a day game and we lined up for tickets to sit in the bleachers. Since baseball was struggling to allure fans back to the stadium, my father could finally afford to take me to a game. I've suffered many head injuries since then, and while I don't remember who they played that day I do remember that there couldn't have been more than 5,000 people in the stands at that glorious cookie cutter palace. I'll never forget that day. It was overcast. My brother Scott, who worked on the field as an usher, tossed me a baseball. I met season ticket holders for the first time who would later shape my life, and I had my first experience at the stadium that would eventually serve as a daycare for this man-child.
The following year, my father became an usher. Sure, he worked a full-time job that had him waking up at 5:30 a.m. and getting home at 4:00 p.m. Yeah, that meant that he would only be home for an hour every night before he had to leave so that he could be at the stadium by 5:30 for the usher meeting. But he still did it because he needed a second job to support the growing cost of raising the three remaining kids that still lived in the house that he was paying off with multiple mortgages. And couple that with the growing cost of a then 10-year-old that may or may not have been a diva....
Almost immediately (as compared to the other ushers) my father was placed in the left field bleachers. Back then, the bleachers at Busch II were a land where only the strongest survived. Every night was a battle. If you weren't battling and talking trash to the opposing teams outfielders then you were battling and talking trash to the right field bleachers. It was magical. It was the baseball experience at it's best, and it was where I received my baseball education by the finest minds in fandom. Back in those days, a child's (and children were considered 15 and under at this time) upper terrace reserve ticket cost $3 and I took full advantage of that. My parents would float me the cash, I'd buy a ticket, and I'd patrol the left-field bleachers as a "junior usher" or usher in training. I had become the mascot of the bleachers. I was the surrogate brother and surrogate son of countless season ticket holders.
Between the tickets that were gifted to me by the season-ticket-holding-bleacher-bums and these inexpensive tickets, between the ages of ten and 15, I was attending anywhere from 40 to 60 games per season. I was present for much lamenting, constant celebrations, family-like season ticket holder drama, and incredible moments with opposing relief pitchers after the bullpens were moved to the outfield.
More important, I had spent more time with my father than I ever could have appreciated. Walking the bleachers as an "usher in training", I did everything that I could to be my father. In those moments, I was his contemporary. I was too stupid to realize it at the time, but seeing the pride on his face as I became more knowledgeable than he could ever imagine while talking about the sport that I loved still fuels me to this day. Between his influence and the influence of my brother Scott, baseball is all that I know as I remain pretty ignorant and scared of the outside world.
I am fortunate to say that I've watched more baseball in my father's company than I've done anything else in my life.
The 2018 season would have marked my father's 23rd season as an usher in the bleachers. When the Cardinals moved from the dynamo that was Busch II in the cut-and-paste stadi-blah that is Busch III, my father moved from the left field bleachers to the right field bleachers. At this point in my life, I was working two jobs, going to college, and dating a young lady that might have been the Tasmanian Devil. My time at the stadium became less and less frequent. However, the first and last stops that I would make when going to a game would be to see my father. It didn't matter who I was with or where I was sitting. It was an instinct. Lining up to be let it? I'd be thinking "go see Dad." Raining cats and dogs? "Find an overhang and go see Dad." David Freese just walked it off for the most magical moment in Cardinals history and I'm jumping and screaming in the upper deck? "We've gotta go celebrate with my Dad." Going to the stadium had become just as much about being with my father as it was watching the Cardinals. My father WAS Busch Stadium, to me. My father IS the Cardinals, to me.
The craziest part in all of this is the lives that my father has touched as usher. I can't tell you how many people know him and love him. The picture above is of him give directions to a stadium patron, and it's been used by the Cardinals as part of a marketing campaign for two seasons now. Countless people responded to that social media campaign with acknowledgements of my father. It was incredible. Because it's an awesome feeling to see so many people reach out to say complimentary things about your father, especially when you are an anonymous bystander on social media platforms that are often known to be harsh just to be harsh. It's just another example of the wonder of Cardinals baseball. It's what truly separates this fan base from others.
But Here We Are
I say that 2018 "would have" marked my father's 23rd season at the stadium because my father is now engaged in the last battle that he will ever fight with Stage Four Cancer. He suffered the first and only seizure that he's had in his life the day before he was supposed to report for usher's training class. That seizure was caused by six tumors that had found their way into his brain. Further testing provided the "Stage Four" diagnosis, and the disease has taken him from the place and the people that he loves while corrupting 90 percent of his body.
Today, my father and I did hours worth of errand-running. It's a surreal experience to talk with your father about his "Last Will and Testament" or his "Do Not Resuscitate" paperwork, but those moments are made bearable by small-talking about the Cardinals, the stadium, and his friends patrolling the stadium in his absence. For 23 seasons my father has been a bleacher-mainstay. It's shaped his life and who he is as much as he's shaped my life. In many ways, the two Busch stadiums and Cardinals baseball has provided him with the stable family that he was never given the chance to have.
For my father, Sunday will also be his 63rd birthday. If we are being honest and playing the odds, it will more than likely be the last birthday and Father's Day that he will ever have. I say that, but the only thing my father has ever known how to do well is fight and battle, so I'm not selling him short just yet. And how will we spend that day? We'll have a nice dinner feast then we will do the one thing that we've always done together: Watch Cardinals Baseball. Cardinals versus the Cubs, nonetheless. We've been doing it since the games were televised on KPLR Channel 11 in St. Louis. We'd watch Baywatch first, of course, but that was more of an appetizer to Cardinals baseball than anything else. After that, I'd hustle home from school so that I could tag along with him to the stadium.
So, this long and drawn-out post is all to say cherish every moment that you get to spend with your father this Sunday. If you've been as fortunate as I am to have been gifted the love of baseball from you father, tell him. Share the thought with him. Thank him. Then, share some baseball with him. Baseball IS family. Baseball's fandom is one of the connecting fibers that stretch from one generation to the next. It's a simple game for simpler times filled with moments locked in memories. It's our duty as fans to cherish every one of those memories.
Happy Father's Day to all of the Dads out there that have shared their love of baseball with the next generation.
Thank you so much, Old Man Reis.
I love you,