Friday night, I sat just shy of the A’s bullpen where you could practically reach out and touch the reliever as he was warming up. At one point that reliever was Yusmeiro Petit, and if you followed him on TV broadcasts you had just seen him “up close” not long before. Easy to forget the part you couldn’t see: two round trips from Oakland to the Dominican Republic and back in the span of about a week, once to say goodbye to his mother while she was still alive and then to see his family after she passed away.
Petit faced 6 batters that evening and retired just one, blowing a 4-1 lead much to the dismay of those in attendance. To the casual fan a fair question was, “How could he pitch so badly,” but to fans who follow the team closely a better question was, “How is he even able to take the mound right now?”
In a sense, we diehard fans see so much of the players — 3 hours most every day, including closeups of their face and glimpses of their personality — that we feel we not only know them personally but like we practically spend all day with them. We know their unique facial expressions and quirks, but in reality we do not know those essential moments between games when they live a life that might throw them more curve balls than even Lance McCullers can muster.
Never was this more evident than when ESPN took us behind the scenes inside the Piscotty home where 3 sons and one father were caring nightly for 55 year old Gretchen, stricken far too young and too rapidly by an unusually aggressive ALS that took her life just hours after the special aired. The same Stephen Piscotty seen strumming his guitar and singing “Amazing Grace,” as he did each night for his mom, had patrolled right field earlier that day for the Oakland A’s, decked out in green and gold and looking like a ballplayer rather than a son. Hard to believe that those two people were in fact the same man.
I’m not sure there is a disease any more cruel than ALS, which forces mentally lucid victims to watch their own body increasingly betray them over time through loss of muscle function and eventually the ability to control even breathing. Nobody, not Stephen Piscotty, not you or I nor anyone, should have to endure the kind of agonizing trek that was Piscotty’s last year and change. Yet when in the batter’s box, a human being like Piscotty is simply a “batter” and if baseball has one perk to offer over life it’s that baseball is equally cruel to everyone.
As a fan, you have a relationship to strangers in which you are deeply familiar with them yet you do not really know them at all. I know Petit’s slider, and when he likes to throw his changeup, yet I know nothing about the countless hours just spent flying back and forth, and less about his relationship to the only person who ever brought him onto this earth. So I guess I don’t really know him at all, even though I want him to know how sorry I am that he had to go through this recent loss and ordeal.
What can fans do? Well, they can give a truly moving ovation to Piscotty when he steps back to the plate, stopping the game in the same way the Piscottys probably wanted to stop time as Stephen’s mom was running out of it. What a moment for Stephen to have, and one that cannot be taken from him — because people may not be immortal, but one could argue that moments are very much so.
I’m not entirely certain what I’m trying to say here, but I think I’ve probably said it nonetheless. Maybe it’s that over the course of a season baseball will challenge your very soul, but so long as we remember to care about one another, we can all at least get through life. Or at least today.