Michigan’s 4-0 defeat of Michigan State April 6 at Ray Fisher Stadium promised to be yet another grand game in a rivalry that I’ve enjoyed for more than thirty years.
Yet what made it unforgettable weren’t the usual suspects – two solo home runs, base stealing, or that lightening-fast, double-play with the bases loaded that ended the game in the top of the ninth.
What made this game memorable was the story that unfolded inning by inning as a stranger beside me shared what was happening in the life of his family.
The evening was warm and clear, perfect for baseball. Earlier, I had scored one of the last few parking spots in the lot near the swimming pool. As I walked to the ticket counter, I could see packed stands. I fretted through the long ticket line, worried they’d sell out before my turn. A group of three got in line behind me – a grandfather, father and grandson. The grandfather was memorable – he looked like a slightly-smaller version of the World Wrestling Entertainment super star Big Show, who is seven-feet tall and bald. We nodded to each other. When it was my turn, I got one of the last chair back seats.
No one was sitting in the right place, so it was a complex domino effect of people moving and re-moving until I took my seat, just a few rows down from the rowdy student fans that I enjoy. Soon the extended family from the ticket line joined me. They had the seats to my left.
Between innings I asked if they wanted me to take their photo while the light was still good. The dad gave me his iPhone. The little boy who was about three, hadn’t mastered looking at a camera on cue, especially for a stranger. I asked his name and then called him, he smiled at me, and I snapped off a few quick shots of the three of them. They returned the favor, taking a photo of me with my iPhone.
The grandfather chatted with me about the history of the Michigan team and the Tigers’ season opener the day before. A few weeks earlier he’d been to a Red Sox Grapefruit League game in Florida. I told him Carl Yastrzemski had hit a grand slam in the first game I attended when I was an undergraduate in Boston.
A Spartan committed a fielding error. Michigan student fans chanted something unintelligible. I said, “I think (your grandson) is going to learn a few new words tonight.” His grandfather laughed.
Michigan center fielder Patrick Biondi hit a home run over the right field fence. I took photos. We all stood and sang “Hail to the Victors” although my seatmates were unsure of the words.
I asked where they were from. “Grand Rapids,” said the grandfather. “Are you visiting family for Easter weekend,” I asked. “No,” he said. “My daughter has a high-risk pregnancy, and she’s at the hospital to give birth.” Another inning passed.
He told me his daughter and her husband had lost their first three pregnancies. After having their little boy, a healthy child, they wanted another. But this baby, this baby has a lot of problems—one chamber in his heart, defects with his stomach, his esophagus, and his brain.
Another pitch, a steal, a homer, and the fight song again.
“We thought the heart would be the biggest problem, and we asked about that,” said the grandfather. “The surgeon here told us he’s fixed hearts like that before. The real problem is the baby’s brain. They can’t fix that.”
His daughter had been admitted to the hospital earlier in the week, so the team of specialists would be ready and waiting for the baby when he arrived.
“When we saw there was a game today,” he said, “We decided to go to get out of the hospital for a while.” His wife had stayed behind at the hospital with their daughter.
The evening of the game was Good Friday, and the first night of Passover, too. The plan was to induce labor on Easter, so the baby would arrive Easter Monday.
The symbolism of it all . . . I couldn’t help but wonder what this weekend would mean to that family – life, birth and death? Life, birth, and life? In the short term? In the long term?
The grandfather asked me, “By the way, do you know of a good pizza place here? We’re getting tired of eating in the hospital cafeteria. We’re staying at Med Inn, but the desk clerk didn’t know a lot about restaurants. She suggested we order Domino’s or go to Applebee’s.”
What is the probability that family would sit beside a reporter with a photographic memory who could draw a street map to almost any restaurant in the city on the back of a DTE envelope, especially those within walking distance of the hospital? – Pizza House and Cottage Inn, Blimpy’s for burgers, Angelos for breakfast and lunch; Zingerman’s for a good deli sandwich and peanut butter and jelly for the little boy, Argieros for family-style Italian. Churches within walking distance of the hospital for Easter services—St. Thomas, First United Methodist, First Baptist . . .? One of the best playgrounds for a three-year-old—beside Fuller Pool?
Being a living, breathing database of local information had never felt more useful than at that moment.
And I couldn’t help wondering what the probability was that a family that was going to have a disabled child would be assigned by chance to seats beside someone who knows that journey – one who could briefly share what it might be like?
I used to be married to a professor of statistics. I didn’t have to write the equation to know the probability of all these coincidences was incredibly low.
The little boy and his father took a break, and the boy returned triumphantly from the concession stand with a bag of Cheetos. I knew his life was going to change forever whether his little brother lived or died, and I silently approved his father’s decision to let him eat junk food.
Things got tense in the top of the ninth. Michigan led 4-0, but there was only one out, and the Spartans had loaded the bases. The tying run was at the plate, but reliever Matt Ogden held the Spartans with a ground-ball double play.
One last chorus of “Hail to the Victors” as the Michigan team swarmed from the dugout for an infield celebration. I realized those jubilant players had no idea what this evening meant to the family beside me.
We said our “goodbyes,” then ran into each other one last time in the parking lot as we walked toward our cars. I pointed out State Street to them, their route to great pizza, and we waved to each other.
On Easter, I said a prayer for all of them between hymns.
Will this new baby in their family live? I looked through the obituaries in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids and was relieved not to find a newborn. Will the little boy grow up and become a Michigan student some day? Will he sit in Ray Fisher Stadium with his younger brother or bring his own sons to a game?
The Penn State scandal has made this the worst year ever in collegiate sports. No newspaper deserved a Pulitzer more than the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and its daring lead reporter Sara Ganim, who broke that story. Just after Easter was yet another scandal – Arkansas football coach Bobby Petrino got fired for conduct unbecoming.
Yes, reporters do need to write about the scandals.
But sometimes a ball game is about living—its joys and its sorrows.