For everyone else in the baseball world, it was quite possibly the most inconsequential ballgame to be played this decade. The Tampa Bay Rays were hosting the Kansas City Royals, already well on their way to what is almost assuredly a 100-loss season. It was the Monday after a major holiday. The bottom of the respective rotations were on the mound.
Nothing special happened in the game. At least nothing that wouldn’t be soon forgotten after the last out was recorded in a 6-3 win by the Rays.
Yet, for me, it ended up being the most memorable baseball game in a lifetime’s worth of going to baseball games.
I almost wasn’t there.
I did have a good reason to be there. Every year for the past 34 years I had been to at least one Royals game, a tradition that was started during spring training when I was six years old. The Royals had been my favorite team ever since then and I always make it a point to let the inner child in me loose at a ballgame at least once a year.
The Royals came for their annual trip to St. Petersburg a little earlier than usual this season. The Monday after Easter would be the only time I could carry on my streak of being at a Royals game. I was coaching my kid’s baseball team on Tuesday. Wednesday nights I teach classes at the local college. If I was going to continue my tradition, it’d have to be the Monday night game and I was probably going to be on my own for this one.
I had a lot more reasons not to be there. My new job had me starting that day on a video shoot at 6:00 a.m. On a boat. In Orlando. Trying to catch fish with a bunch of first graders. In the Florida heat. Despite the potentially long day, I planned on battling through. A baseball tradition was at stake, after all.
Then the day caught up with me and I had every reason not go. By the time I got back to Tampa around 4 p.m., I was beat. I didn’t mean to fall asleep when I laid down on the bed while I checked my email and stuff. I definitely didn’t mean for it to turn into a two-hour nap.
The phone finally jolted me awake. I had four missed calls from my dad already.
“You at the game?,” he asked.
I told him about my day. I told him there was no way I was going to make it from Wesley Chapel to St. Pete by game time. I told him about the long rest of the week that awaited me. I told him that this was the universe’s way of telling me to go see the Royals play somewhere else like Miami or Washington, D.C. this season. Even if I didn’t, the streak had a good run. I’d be there next year to start it over.
So my dad told me he was already heading north over the Skyway Bridge. He was going to surprise me at the game.
“Get in your car, boy,” my dad said. “You’ve got a baseball game to go to.”
I couldn’t say no to that. I never could. My dad and I have epic baseball road trips, big and small.
Over the years, we’ve driven all over Florida for spring training games. Like the time my parents surprised me by driving to Lakeland to see the Royals play the Tigers when I was eight. Or nearly three decades later when a work trip to cover games as a sportswriter turned into a weekend of chasing sailfish in Jupiter. We drove to Kansas City — twice — including when they won their first playoff series in 29 years. When George Brett, my childhood idol, was inducted to the Hall of Fame, we drove all night to be in Cooperstown for the induction ceremony. We did it again when Cal Ripken Jr. was inducted a few years later, this time with a few extra stops at local breweries and wine distilleries along the way.
So I got in the car and drove. I hadn’t showered or even changed clothes. I missed the anthem but saw the first pitch. We met at the bar in centerfield and stood on the rail while we had a drink. I told him about the video shoot earlier in the day. We used his grandson as a model so I showed him some of his pictures of his first ever bass. We never actually made it to our seats.
We didn’t talk about the things that had been weighing on him over the last few months. We avoided the family drama or the troubles at his shop, which he might have had to close soon after 30 years in business. We talked about how bad our teams —he was a lifelong Baltimore Orioles fan — were this season and whether the Rays were good enough to keep up the momentum they had through the start of the season. We ate some sliders and talked more baseball. I don’t think we really watched any of the actual game going on in front of us.
By the fifth inning, my dad mentioned that he wasn’t feeling well. He looked tired but then again he looked tired all the time lately. With the streak intact, it was time to call it a night. We took the scenic route around the Tropicana Field concourse, watching the game as we walked out. As we left the stadium, I thanked him for dragging me out. I know I would have regretted it if my tradition was broken just because I was too tired from being out on a boat fishing all day. He told me how proud he was of all of the things I was accomplishing lately and to keep kicking ass, especially when it came to raising his grandson.
We hugged and said goodbye in the parking lot. He told me to drive safe and give his grandson a big hug for him. It would be the last time I would ever see my dad, at least the man I knew and not the husk that would be hooked up to tubes and machines just a few days later after a sudden aneurysm put him into a coma.
It’s been a little over a month since my dad passed. This will be my first Father’s Day without him and all that pain and feeling of loss feels fresh all over again. Luckily, I will always have that one last memory of what could have been an otherwise unremarkable day at the ballpark with him, the one that ended with him telling me he loved me — the last words I’d ever hear him say — in the parking lot of Tropicana Field.
On top of being an avid baseball fan, John Butherus was an avid fisherman here in Florida. It is only fitting that his final resting place become part of what brought him so much happiness, which is why we are raising funds to turn his ashes into an Eternal Reef that will be deployed just a few miles off the coast of the place that he called home. If you would like to help make this a reality, please consider donating a few dollars to help here: https://www.facebook.com/donate/403455913577459/?fundraiser_source=external_url
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