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Going back to the ballpark with grandpa

October 13, 2018

A little over a month ago, I was working on a story in Pembroke Township and found it hard to take photos and shoot video.

Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey had started a baseball team at the Lorenzo R. Smith Sustainability & Technology Academy. The kids were playing baseball for the first time.

I snapped plenty of photos of them learning how to throw a baseball. But when they took their first few swings off a tee, I left my camera on its tripod. It was too fun of a story to witness merely through a camera lens, so I shagged baseballs and tossed them back toward the tee.

It was in that moment I remembered my love for baseball. After years working and paying bills, playing baseball — the first love of my life — was a relief. It brought back all the memories of my dad and I playing catch, him coaching me in Little League and when we built a batting cage in our backyard.

But the most prominent memory was of my grandpa. He bought me my first glove, a right-handed mitt that I tossed aside on the first ball I retrieved. That first throw revealed I was left-handed. So, he ventured down into his basement and brought out my late Uncle Tim’s first baseman’s glove. To put a date on it, a Willie Stargell signature was engraved in it.

Then came the memories of us going to baseball games together — from our first trip to Comiskey Park, to our first road game at County Stadium in Milwaukee, to the crazy road trip we took to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore after I graduated college.

That nostalgia sparked an epiphany. I realized it had been years since my grandpa and I had been to a baseball game. That had to change.

So, I got us tickets to a Chicago White Sox game against the Los Angeles Angels. We sat on the third base side, where he always got us tickets when I was a kid so we could see the players enter the dugout.

All of a sudden, I felt like a kid again. I remembered walking around Comiskey Park — now known as Guaranteed Rate Field — with my grandpa. He always found a way to sneak a couple $20 bills into my Bugs Bunny wallet when we went to games so that I could get a hat or T-shirt.

This time, however, I was buying us beers. That has been our rule since our trip to D.C. and Baltimore. I buy the beers. He buys the food. Because buying your grandpa a beer at a ballgame is a rite of passage.

Throughout the game, we kept talking about all the trips we took when I was younger. At the end of the game, my grandpa had one more request. “Let’s catch a game in Milwaukee before the season is over,” he said.

That request ultimately led us to catching four games in three cities last week as we accidentally watched the tail end of the National League Central Division race. I also introduced my 85-year-old grandpa to a new sport.

St. Louis

The day after our game at Guaranteed Rate Field, I started browsing the Milwaukee Brewers’ schedule to get tickets for a game at Miller Park. The first game that caught my eye was between the Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals.

However, it was in St. Louis. Then, there was the Brewers’ final home stand against the Detroit Tigers. I called my grandpa.

“Hey, the Brewers play the Cardinals in St. Louis on Tuesday and then the Tigers in Milwaukee on Sunday. Do you just want to go to both? I’ll drive,” I said.

“Let’s do it,” my grandpa said without hesitation. “Let’s go to both.”

So, we headed out to St. Louis to watch what was shaping up to be a playoff-caliber series between the Brewers and Cardinals. Both teams were in the thick of the wild-card race at the time.

As we entered Busch Stadium, several employees stopped my grandpa, who was wearing his Korean War veteran cap, to thank him for his service. That was heartwarming.

While my grandpa wanted a hot dog, I enacted a new rule for our trip. To truly experience the culture of each city, I said we should get food and beverages that reflect the area. We each got a Budweiser and brisket sandwich.

Before heading to our seats, my grandpa took a quick venture into a gift shop to fulfill one of his baseball game rules. He bought me a Cardinals hat. That’s his rule every time we go to a different stadium.

We then headed to our seats in the second deck behind home plate. As a photographer, I strategically chose those tickets. I wanted to get a photo of my grandpa and I with the Gateway Arch in the background of Busch Stadium.

A Cardinals employee quickly came over to take a picture of us together. “We should go to the Arch tomorrow,” my grandpa said.

The Brewers ended up defeating the Cardinals 12-4. Christian Yelich slammed a three-run homer to cap off his six-RBI game, prompting fans to chant, “MVP! MVP! MVP!”

After the game, my grandpa chatted with a Cardinals employee who thanked him for his service. The employee also served. During the conversation, a Navy veteran walked up, shook my grandpa’s hand and thanked him.

“I wouldn’t have been able to serve if it wasn’t for you,” the younger veteran said.

We continued the St. Louis experience the next day by stopping by the Gateway Arch and then Pappy’s Smokehouse, a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint that makes you enter from behind the restaurant because the smokers are out front.

The ribs held us over until we got home. We kept talking about our upcoming trip to Milwaukee. Little did we know we would catch two more games before that Sunday trip.

Surprise

Last Thursday, I was talking to a friend and brought up the trip my grandpa and I took to St. Louis and how we planned on going to Milwaukee.

My friend said he had a couple of tickets to Saturday’s Chicago Cubs-Cardinals game at Wrigley Field and that he would give them to me for free. Though I offered to pay for the tickets, he refused. “Have a good time with your grandpa,” he said.

I immediately called my grandpa. “Clear your schedule for Saturday,” I said. “We are going to a Cubs game at Wrigley.”

“Are you kidding me?” my grandpa asked. “I am retired. I have nothing to do. Let’s go.”

At this point, the go-for-broke feeling kicked in. My grandpa asked to go to Milwaukee. I ended up getting us tickets in Milwaukee and St. Louis. Then, a friend gives us free Cubs tickets. That had to be a sign.

I had wanted to take my grandpa to a hockey game for a few years because he kept asking how I could watch the sport on TV. On the other hand, he often said, “I hear you’ll become a fan for life if you go to a game.”

So, I browsed the Chicago Blackhawks’ schedule. They just happened to have a 7 p.m. preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday. The Cubs game started at 12:05 p.m.

I called my grandpa back. “Grandpa, I don’t want to drive home from Wrigley just to go to Milwaukee the next day. Do you want to go to a hockey game Saturday night? We can stay up north and go to Miller Park the next day.”

“Hell, yes,” he said.

So, unlike my usual penny-pinching-self, I went for broke. I got us seats 12 rows off the ice so my grandpa can truly see a hockey game. I didn’t show him where the seats would be.

We were going to go to two games in one day for two different sports.

Wrigley Field

Let me begin by admitting I hate city driving. Tack on my grandpa taking a late shower, and my filter comes off while driving.

“You like to curse when you’re nervous,” my grandpa pointed out.

Nonetheless, we made it to Wrigley Field just in time for the Cubs-Cardinals game to start. “These are darn good seats,” my grandpa said as we sat down on the third base side. “You have a very kind friend.”

We also tested the waters and broke grandpa’s rule. It was our first time catching a game at Wrigley together. “You want a hat,” he asked jokingly before the game.

“Nah,” I said.

“Then you better wear that Cardinals hat,” he replied.

So, I did. I expected heckling. It never happened. Instead, we got chatted with all the neighboring Cub fans as we enjoyed a 312 and polish. The people sitting behind us — a grandfather, father and son — had been at Fenway Park the night before. The father, who was wearing a Cubs hat, took our picture.

“You can never get enough baseball,” the man said.

The Cardinals defeated the Cubs 2-1, enabling the Brewers to tie the Cubs for first place in the NL Central.

After the game, a Cub fan saw my grandpa and I trying to take a “selfie” with my camera. She came up and took our picture. We then made our way down the field, where a Cubs employee, who was a Vietnam veteran, also took our picture.

“Thank you for your service,” he told my grandpa.

United Center

At 27 years old, my life finally has gone full-circle. My grandpa took me to my first baseball game when I was 6 years old. I took him to his first hockey game when he was 85.

We got to the United Center early to dodge traffic after watching the Cubs game. The rink still was dim when I showed my grandpa where we would be sitting.

“We’re really going to be this close?” he asked with an excited crack in his voice.

His excitement continued to climb as the Blackhawks and Blue Jackets took the ice for warm-ups.

“I didn’t know they shot the puck that hard,” he said after a Blue Jackets player banged one off the glass. “That’s gotta hurt.”

After that, he learned what a zamboni does, staring intensely as it prepared the ice for the Blackhawks’ final preseason game.

“I never knew what a zamboni did,” he said. “They do that to smooth out the ice?”

Then, he got a taste of a true Blackhawks experience — the singing of the national anthem by Jim Cornelison. My grandpa loved how they showed the American flag on the ice and joined the crowd in singing the national anthem along with Cornelison.

Once the game started, the conversations between my grandpa and I were unlike our baseball game discussions. I explained the rules to him and spent a couple minutes teaching him how to say Jonathan Toews’ name.

My grandpa was particularly fascinated by the line changes and speed of the game, but the physicality of the sport hooked him. He proclaimed Andreas Martinson, a gritty fourth-line forward, as his favorite player.

“He hits hard,” my grandpa said. “He is a tough son-of-a-gun.”

The Blackhawks lit the Blue Jackets up for four goals, which I greatly appreciated because it enabled my grandpa to stand up and participate in the “obnoxious” chanting of the “Chelsea Dagger” after each Blackhawks goal.

“I can get used to this,” he said.

At the end of the game, it was obvious my grandpa will be a hockey fan for life. In the first period, he talked about getting a bigger TV so he could watch games at home. He also asked his phone via voice search about certain players, namely Martinson. Then, he announced the obvious.

“We’re coming back for another game this season,” he said. “We are doing this again.”

We watched the Oct. 4 season opener against the Ottawa Senators in his living room with a couple craft beers.

Milwaukee

My grandpa took me to my first road game when I was 9 years old. He drove to my parents’ house and picked up my sister and me for a road trip, taking us to County Stadium for the last season it was open in 2000 for two White Sox-Brewers games.

To this day, he still brings up how a parking employee shouted, “Kids! Kids! Kids in the back!” and tossed a handful of Rice Krispie treats to my sister and me in the backseat.

That first road trip was the first time I caught a professional baseball, thanks to a toss from then-manager Jerry Manuel. Former reliever Scott Eyre also autographed a couple mini-bats for my sister and me.

That trip had me hooked on baseball for life. It inspired several road trips between my grandpa and me. One road trip took us to baseball games at Cleveland, Detroit and across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee. Then, there was the college graduation trip to Baltimore and D.C with several one-stop trips to Miller Park in between.

When I bought the tickets to Sunday’s game a few weeks ago, it was advertised as nearly meaningless. It was the last game of the season, and nobody expected the Brewers to catch up to the Cubs.

However, we were witnessing the near end of the NL Central Division race. The Cubs and Brewers were tied for first in the division, and we were sitting in the second deck behind home plate with bratwurst and Miller Lite, sticking true to the rule on ballpark cultural experiences.

The Brewers trounced the Detroit Tigers for a 11-0 victory that set up Monday’s NL Central Division tiebreaker game against the Cubs, which Milwaukee won.

My grandpa slept in the car as we took the “d--- toll road” home by his request. He wasn’t a fan of the traffic I got us into earlier in the week.

“Four games in six days. A 27-year-old grandson and an 85-year-old grandpa. That is one hell of a trip,” he said when we got home. “I am going to brag to my friends tomorrow when we play golf.”

The next day, we scratched off a couple Fan Appreciation Week scratch-offs the Brewers gave fans at the door during Sunday’s game. Both of us won free tickets to Brewers games next April.

It looks like we have another road trip ahead of us.

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