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Baseball, Life, and Stan the Man

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My father's father died in January this year. His name was Ernest Quentin Schafer, but everyone called him Gent. I don't know why, exactly; the nickname predates my arrival in the world by four decades or so. He was a lifelong Cardinal fan, and he loved Stan Musial

I was sitting in the hospital waiting area the day he died, sitting with my father about five in the morning. We had said all there was to say about the situation; it was just waiting. My dad leaned over to me and asked me in a low voice to avoid disturbing the few other people keeping vigil, "So, you think the Cardinals are going to be any good this year?" We talked about baseball. It was good. Not great, but good. Better. 

The home opener for 2010 has come and gone, and the season is now real. 

These things aren't really related, of course, but baseball makes me think of life and life makes me think of baseball, so here we are. 

I never got to see Stan Musial play. All I really know of The Man comes from the records, and the grainy old footage of an awkward looking swing, and stories. My father would tell me stories when I was younger of Musial, stories of the greatest Cardinal who ever lived. The funny thing is, my dad is too young to have seen much of Musial either. Certainly he never saw Musial in his prime. No, he wasn't telling me what he had seen. He was telling me what his father had told him, that once there was a man, or more properly a Man, and That Man was the best there was.

I never saw Stan Musial play. I never saw him make a single catch, or collect a single base hit. He played his last game nearly 20 years before I was born. There's no reason for me to care about Stan Musial. There was absolutely no reason for the lump in my throat Monday when I saw Stan sit down during the player introductions, when I saw how thin he is and how slowly he moves. Why should the frailty of one old man whom I've never met upset me? The answer: it shouldn't. 

It does, though. It matters because once upon a time my grandfather told my father about Stan the Man, and then my father told me. It matters because those stories came from a man who is gone, and Stan the Man was his hero. I don't know why that means he has to be my hero too, but somehow it means he is. 

That's the way it is for all of us, of course. We pass on our stories and our hopes and our dreams to the generations that follow, big hand to little hand, and we create the illusion of longer lives than we have. We pretend we somehow live on, that the knowledge and the stories we leave behind are us, that memories mean something. Traditions are nothing more than fences against the night, and they never manage to hold it back. 

Shouldn't we be angrier about this? Shouldn't we all rage at this bait and switch? The universe is over thirteen billion years old, the Earth four billion; we're given a matter of decades to try and make sense of it all. No religion on earth can explain away the outrageous cruelty of existence, but we accept it nonetheless. We go to baseball games with our families, we tell stories of the lives we lead and the lives we witness, and we just let go. We're all so very small, worth less than a moment's thought in the grand scheme of things. Somehow, though, we pretend we matter. We don't yell at the void and curse it because it's too large. I just don't understand why. 

So I should laugh at the absurdity of it when I see Stan Musial looking old and tired and I feel like I'm losing a piece of my life. He may be Stan the Man, but what does that mean? I should feel nothing. But I don't. I live for that day every spring when horses pull a wagon full of beer around a ballpark and we shout our denial to the world. No one is ever really gone because a world so good as to include spring days in the ballpark would never really take away the things we love. 

I look in the shadows far too much; I am well aware of this fact. It isn't healthy, to dwell on things like this. But I don't mind. I know very well one day I will find myself lying in a strange bed in a hospital somewhere, and in the waiting room of that hospital there will be people counting down the hours, minutes, and seconds of the deathwatch. Both for me and countless others nearby. 

And I take comfort in the knowledge that while I'm shaking and coughing and tapping out the last few lines of my life's telegraph, someone in that waiting room will lean over to the person closest to them, lower their voice to avoid disturbing the other people holding vigil, and ask one of life's most important questions. 

"So, you think the Cardinals will be any good this year?" 


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