My dad has pitched for the angels for 10 years.
The games aren’t televised in Detroit and they can’t be found on MLB.com. Team jerseys are currently unavailable, we’re not in the same time zone and I’ve yet to see his team featured on SportsCenter.
And although we can’t get mobile updates on our phones, I can imagine he’s pitching out of his mind. He’s dazzling batters one after the next with his floating knuckleballs and intermittent fastballs, “just to keep them on their toes,” he’d say. And as they walked back to the dugout scratching their heads he would watch them, daring them to look back so they could see him smile.
He’s on a long road trip now and I miss him. And no, he’s not in Anaheim.
My dad plays for the angels with the lowercase “a” and as I understand it, the team wears white jerseys both home and away.
My dad grew up on the pitcher’s mound and he died on the pitcher’s mound.
On an unseasonably warm 17th day of April in 2002, 61-year old Jerry Staszel was pitching in a preseason modified fast pitch softball game at the old Central Middle School ball field in Plymouth. In the fourth inning, and undoubtedly in the middle of a no-hitter, my dad caught and dropped a return ball from his catcher then suffered a massive heart attack and collapsed on the mound.
He died before he hit the ground, hat still on, glove in hand.
My dad grew up the youngest of six in the Polish Warrendale area of Detroit. Like all of those kids, he bowled, played ball all day and loved the Tigers. He played competitive baseball for years and switched to modified fast pitch softball once he started his family and moved to Plymouth. Modified softball is underhand fast pitch (but no windmill or breaking of the wrist) that allows bunting and stealing.
We traveled all the time for dad’s regional and national tournaments. His claim to fame was his killer knuckleball that, as the Niekro brothers and Tim Wakefield will tell you, will keep you in the game for a long time. Dad was playing with and against kids 20-30 years his junior and he loved it.
Dad’s last game was one of only a handful of games in 38 years of marriage that my mom was not in the bleachers. When she arrived at the hospital after being alerted by the Plymouth police, his whole team was there still in spikes, sweating and huddled around the pitcher like a team does.
My family and our friends argued the call for years. It’s not fair, it’s too soon, he’s too young. But with death, as in baseball, there are no restarts or do-overs.
Father’s Day has been the toughest day during these 10 years. My kids have grown to ages 14 and 12 now and vaguely remember grandpa. I still pull the photos out and remind them of his old jokes. He was quite funny and quotable. I think about a Facebook message my friend posted about her mom who has passed away that read, “How can you not be here with all that is going on?”
You breathe, cross your fingers and turn your cap inside out.
The game goes on.
I’ve thought about it every day, but it's only now after 10 years that I can say that I’m glad my dad died the way he did. No, he did not live to meet two of his grandsons and no, he did not see his other four grandchildren past the age of six. He wasn’t here to kiss Mom on her 60th birthday and he didn’t see the Tigers reach the World Series one more time.
He was, though, happy on that day, on that mound, doing what he loved. He wasn’t sick, ailing, frail or dependent upon anyone to do simple things for him. Our unknowing last goodbye was a cold, snowy Opening Day at Comerica Park 2002 alongside our 41,000 friends.
We frequented Tiger Stadium as a family in the old days and Dad would tell us stories of the even older days. Father's Days in the past were spent going to games, watching games, listening to Ernie from the pool and giving Tigers trinkets to Dad as his "surprise" gifts.
"Oh, another Tigers license plate frame, I love it," he'd say year after year.
So, during spring training next year I will lay a Tigers schedule on my dad’s headstone in Dearborn like I’ve done every March. I’ll post my old English D flag on the front porch on the day pitchers and catchers report to alert my neighbors it's coming. On Opening Day I will hold my mom’s hand and give it a knowing squeeze as we both tear up during the national anthem like we’ve done every year since dad passed away.
And on my other hand I will wear my dad’s glove, holding his hand, close my eyes and smile his smile.