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The long walk

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Baseball and life

How many times have I walked these paths? 100? 200? If I had known that I’d still be walking them 35 years later, I might have taken the long view and kept track. Baseball people, it seems, often forget about the long view. They almost willingly mortgage their future for what they think might be immediate success. Do you think the White Sox would like to take back the trade that sent a young prospect named Fernando Tatis, Jr. to the Padres for the barely smoldering remains of James Shields? You better believe it. I understand that general managers are under tremendous pressure to win now. At least most of them are. The Royals seem to be living in an alternate universe on that one. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they have us fans trained to think two or three winning seasons out of twenty is a great thing!

That was one of the thoughts I had on my most recent walk. When I was younger, I never thought of walking as exercise. Walking was the act of getting from point A to point B. Running was exercise. Weightlifting was exercise. Even walking a golf course was not exercise. It was mostly a futile attempt to find my wayward ball.

Over the years, the city has put some money into this tract of land. The land sits just a baseball throw from my parents’ home. I’ve walked it on days that were so hot, that my feet got blistered. I’ve walked it when the snow was blowing so hard, I could barely see. I’ve walked it when the grass was frozen with ice and crunching under my feet, like the sound of nature eating potato chips. The footpaths used to be gravel, now they are asphalt. I’ve walked the grounds so many times that I’ve gotten to know the people who are there. There’s a section for our veterans, which is always humbling. There’s a section for infants, which tears my heart out every time. The land is big. 45 acres? 50? I check the website. 47 acres it says. I’m glad to know my gift of estimation is still intact. I’ve always had a knack for estimating size, distance, weight and speed. I think being able to estimate speed came from years of playing ball and having to estimate how fast a pitch was traveling or how fast a ball came off the bat.

With each walk in the land, I recognize more names. Some are people I had known. Others were gone long before I was born. There’s Buddy Bramhall, lost in 1943 at the tender age of 17. Taken from his parents in a training accident aboard a submarine. His parents would have had to sign off on his enlistment. They rest next to him, all three in the shade of a magnificent elm. Seventeen. I think of the things this young man would have missed. Did he ever drink a beer or love a woman? Did he play ball with a local team or have the opportunity to attend a big-league game? He gave his life in service of our country. That is a huge sacrifice to lay at the altar of freedom and my respect goes to him.

The Catholics rest in the north part of the land, in their own section. There is a Hispanic plot in the middle. Even in death, people want to stay with their own. My parents are still living, but their stone is already in place. Practical people, my folks. Seeing their future resting place gives me a jolt every time.

I approach the grave from behind. I know exactly where it is, without fail. The stone is handsome, modest and humble, like the people resting below it. Harold and Aurice Bradford, my grandparents lie here. My grandmother was a homemaker deluxe. She’s been gone almost ten years. She loved to collect rocks and fossils and made the best pies and fudge. My grandparents both loved to fish and were huge Kansas basketball fans. I mean big-time fans. On game nights, they’d dress in their matching KU outfits, pull out their posters and banners, get out their KU plates and cups and settle in for the game. I was the family black sheep. I went to Kansas State. The last twenty years of their lives, I think Kansas State beat Kansas in basketball maybe once. I would often watch the game with them, hopeful that my Cats could hang around at least until halftime, before ultimately folding. After another loss, I’d pretend to be crestfallen, but secretly I was happy to see them enjoying the victory.

My grandfather has been gone almost 20 years, though it seems like yesterday. When I was young, he always had time to throw the baseball or football, or to rebound shots for me. He was a solid athlete when he was younger. In high school, he would routinely run 10-second 100-yard dashes. His teammates nicknamed him Buzz, for the sound it made when he sped by them. Years later, us grandkids, seven total, couldn’t pronounce Buzz, which became by default, Bus. So, Grandpa Bus it was. Unfortunately, I was a late bloomer and didn’t inherit his speed until later in life. My cousin Cristy did though, and she won multiple Kansas state high school track titles which made my grandparents very proud.

When my boys were young, they decided to challenge Grandpa Bus to a footrace. Grandpa said get on the line. Someone said one two three go. Grandpa won the race going away. He was 80 years old. They still talk about that.

Grandpa Bus once played basketball against the Harlem Globetrotters and always told me that Marques Haynes was the best basketball player he’d ever seen. He said Goose Tatum, who once played Negro League baseball, wasn’t far behind. Haynes must have been a helluva player because this meant that Wilt Chamberlain, another of my grandfather’s favorites, was number two.

Despite my grandfather’s slight build, he was also an excellent catcher for his high school baseball team and later the local town team. Back in those days, every town had a baseball team or three. Even my hometown of Lincoln had a team that won the Kansas state championship one year. When I was a young boy, Grandpa Bus taught me the finer points of catching. He said he liked being the catcher because it allowed him to be involved in every play and that catching made him a better hitting by giving him insight on how a pitcher would work a hitter.

Grandpa Bus’ athletic career came to an end in late 1944 when Uncle Sam sent him a draft notice. He left my grandmother and four young children behind for a year. He was preparing, along with thousands of other men, for the invasion of Japan. That ended when President Truman dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After discharge, Bus went to work in the oil fields, working for Texaco for almost 35 years. After retirement, he opened a bike shop, the first in their town. That sparked a biking renaissance in their sleepy burg. If a local kid couldn’t afford a bike, grandpa would fix one up and give it to him or her. He always had six or seven “pro-bono” bikes standing by, just in case. Grandpa continued to ride himself, almost to the day of his passing.

In his younger days, my grandfather liked Budweiser, grilling steaks and the Dallas Cowboys. I could never understand the Cowboys thing, since the rest of us were Chiefs and Athletics fans, and later, the Royals. I cut him some slack about the Cowboys. I figured a lot of that love was due to the fact that they only got two television stations and CBS came in the clearest. CBS in those days was often derisively referred to as the Cowboy Broadcasting System. If you wanted to watch a game on Sunday afternoon, you watched the Cowboys and whoever they were playing. And you enjoyed it. You had to, it was the only game on.

I often talked about taking grandfather to a Royals game. My grandmother’s arthritic knees wouldn’t have sustained the four to five hours of sitting in a hot stadium. But I always thought taking in a game with my grandfather would have been the best. We never got to fulfill that dream. Adult responsibilities, marriage, jobs, kids always seemed to derail any plans we had. All of those fun times we had and the fun times we wanted to have, washed away by the waves of the years. So, watching the Royals do battle with the A’s tonight, I’ll crack open a cold one and make a toast to my grandparents, two of the finest people I’ve ever known while we watch Sal Perez have a season for the ages.