Stirring in the Bullpen: A Man, His Father, and the Jake

Scene and Dobama recently ran a contest looking for readers' best stories about a simple premise: 10 minutes that changed your life in Cleveland. We got a ton of great entries, including the one below. It didn't win, but it was enthralling and interesting nonetheless. Michael Lawless writes about losing his father and honoring his memory and love of the Indians.

Stirring in the Bullpen

by Michael Lawless

I guess I just hadn't thought it through. It seemed simple enough…baseball field…grass. But, here I was, at Jacob's Field, an Urban Baseball Cathedral in the heart of Cleveland, dad’s birthplace, with my dad in my pocket, and I still had to find a place to put him.

There was no problem at first. He wanted to be cremated and he wanted his ashes spread on Lake Erie. Dad loved the lake. He lived his last years in a 12th floor condo on Lake Ave. We would sit on his balcony some nights and watch the boats, all lit up, lights twinkling. Mom left him a while back- too much booze, too much pain. And, he’d lived the better part of thirty years in Chicago, away from mom, my two sisters, and myself. At first, he lived on the streets, grabbing food and sometimes a smile from the Salvation Army. Years later, he was back on his feet and taking care of his dad at the end. Gramps had an apartment on Lakeshore Boulevard overlooking another lake. When he died, and dad had nothing left in Chicago, we asked him to come home. He did, and I soon took over the same role he had played with his father.

He loved the Tribe. We’d seen the last game at the old Municipal Stadium, and, in only the few times he was able to get to Jacob's Field, he had fallen in love with the park. At his funeral, after talking to old friends of his we never knew, my sisters and I came to feel that part of him that loved baseball and that part belonged at the Jake.

The day was September 16th, his birthday and over a month since he had died. We planned on a late morning ceremony at Lakewood Park. We hiked down the path to the pier and all the way to the end where you can stand on the rocks and see the downtown buildings shining in the bright September sun. It was perfect. Just a couple of runners on the path that seemed to want to avoid us. We had the place to ourselves, which was good. We’d learned that there might be a legal concern with dumping anything into the lake-even your father.

The ceremony was memorable, even moving. My wife, my sisters, their husbands, and myself each read what we thought were appropriate words in his memory and pictures were taken. Then, a moment of truth came when we had to open the black plastic container where dad now resided. This would be the first time any of us saw the results of our father’s cremation. The ashes were placed into a plastic bag inside the black plastic container. I opened the bag and pulled a sandwich baggie out of my breast pocket. I reached into the container's bag and grabbed a handful of dad and moved him gently into the baggie. Human ashes are strangely crystalline, not like, say, cigarette ashes, but somewhere between road salt and kitty litter. Just very different. I rolled him up, sealed the baggie, and tucked him away in the pocket of my jeans. Then, I poured the remaining ashes into the lake in front of us. The lake was calm, but I had assumed that the waves would quickly disperse dad among the rocks and to the bottom. The ashes seemed to flow back and forth and, like a cloud, maintained a shape just below the surface. I am not known for being overly spiritual, but he seemed with us. We hung around for some time, not saying much, just watching the cloud- dad, slowly sink. Then we said our goodbyes and left the park.

My wife and I had tickets to the Tribe game that afternoon. So, we hopped in the car and headed for the Jake. The whole thing gave me the feeling like when you were a kid and tried to get away with something secret. We parked at the Madison Rapid Station and gave dad his last trip on R.T.A. I really thought there would be no problem finding a grassy area for dad at a ballpark. Like I said…baseball field…grass. But once in, I realized for the first time that the asphalt warning track ran the entire circumference of the field. And the grass was a good 8 to 10 feet from the closest railings. I had to figure this out. We found our seats and I planted my wife so I could keep looking and she could grab something to eat (and appear innocent).

After about half an hour, it became plain that the only grass I would be able to get near enough to was in the bullpen. The game was just starting and, as always then, the ballpark was jammed. I knew dad would haunt me if I put him in the visitor's pen, and, who knew, his presence might inspire our pitchers. So, I chose our bullpen.

An aisle parts the lower stands from the picnic area behind the pen and ends at a railing. Looking down over the railing at the rear of the pen, I saw green grass and knew this was it. I slowly pulled the baggie from my pocket and hung it out over the railing. I unrolled the bag and, knowing again that I didn't want to have to explain what I was doing, I quickly shook dad down toward the grass. But, all at once, it was windy. And again, dad was like a cloud. He started slowly down and then, with a jerk, a gust moved the cloud toward the back of several fan's heads in the lower stands to my left. Just as it seemed that I would be explaining to strangers why my father was in their hair, I felt another gust and the cloud, dad, went up and out and over the bullpen and then shot straight down into the grass. It was like at the lake. He seemed with me, and whole.

Years later, I think of him whenever I'm near the lake, or at the ballpark, or watching the Tribe on the tube. He's now part of my hometown, and his. And if our pitchers in the bullpen see dust stirring out of the corner of their eyes, and the hairs rise on the back of their necks, I know it's just dad's way of saying, "Throw strikes!"

(Copyright 1998)

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Vince Grzegorek

Vince Grzegorek has been with Scene since 2007 and editor-in-chief since 2012. He previously worked at Discount Drug Mart and Texas Roadhouse.
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