Aunt Helen

Aunt Helen

On Monday, February 16, 2015, my Aunt Helen passed away.

I was shocked. I figured she’d make it out of the hospital like she had before. I figured that this was just a blip. I never expected her to be gone.

After spending the last two days with family and hearing people tell stories about her, I finally felt that the story I wanted to share was clear in my mind. And really, this might not be exactly how it happened. But it’s how it happened in my head since the day my dad shared the story with me. I don’t want to change that memory with any factoid that I may have missed, so I didn’t ask him to re-tell it.

(Don’t worry, it’s going to take me a little while to set the table, but the payoff will come.)

When I was 13, I had to change baseball leagues. Little league ended and in order to stay competitive, we had to change leagues from my home league, East Hills, to PAL. My dad described it at the time as going from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a big pond. Essentially, I had to start over again. I knew very few people at the new league, but my dad was going to coach, so at least I had that familiarity.

It was a pretty big transition for me. The field was enormous. But it wasn’t little league anymore. The dimensions were what high school, college, and the pros used, so it was quite a jump. I wasn’t yet strong enough to make all the throws or even use the larger sized bats. So my first year at PAL was pretty much a nightmare. I was still a good enough player to fit in well and help, but I definitely felt like I was lesser than. In fact, for those PAL years, I carried that identity, even when I played well.

I don’t remember the exact year it happened, but I finally made the All-Star team. It felt good to finally make that team, but again, I carried that identity of being lesser than on what I considered a team full of real All-Stars. Being a coach’s son already meant that certain kids and their parents would look at me a certain way and I really had to perform in order to not feel like I was only getting opportunities because I was the coach’s son. I don’t think most people understand that about the coach’s son. My kids had to go through the same thing when I coached them.

I remember this specific All-Star team was expected to win a lot of games. The parents expected this team to go a long way. I never felt that pressure before. Whenever I made the All-Star team in East Hills, there wasn’t any pressure because we weren’t really expected to win many games. But this was different. We were expected to win them all. I personally didn’t expect to play much, and really, that was fine with me. I already had so much pressure making the All-Star team on a team coached by my dad. I didn’t need to screw anything up for anyone else.

I don’t remember playing much the first two games. I think I was stuck in right field for a couple innings both games. We went 1-1 in our first two games and if we lost one more game, we’d be out of the tournament. Before game three, my dad told me that I’d be starting and playing second base. I think his mentality was that he simply wanted to give me a chance to start an All-Star game. If I didn’t do well, he could always pull me. He wasn’t going to unfairly play me over anyone who deserved it more. It’s not the way he worked.

(Twenty years (or so) later, when I coached JJ in the All-Stars, he copped an attitude after striking out in the second inning and I sat him for the rest of the game and one that went extra innings. No parent could really complain to me about playing time if I was willing to sit my kid for the majority of the game.

He came back the next game to get two hits, so I think the benching worked.)

My cousin Bruce took me to the batting cage before the game and changed my swing so that my hands would be closer to my body and a bit more out in front. I could get the bat head out in front more quickly. And it worked.

I got two hits in the game and we spanked whoever we played. We were now 2-1 and were possibly going to get on a bit of a roll. But that’s not what happened. We lost all of our momentum in the very next game.

I started again and I could tell some of the kids on the team weren’t too happy about that. And it didn’t help that I didn’t produce. I think I went 0-2 and my dad pulled me out. What I didn’t know at the time is that he did me a favor. We were beaten pretty badly and people weren’t happy about that.

During the game, the parents of some of the players on our team weren’t happy. We were losing and to them, we shouldn’t have been losing. They expected us to do really well and thought we had the talent to go far. They didn’t really know my dad since we were new to the league. And they were vocal about their displeasure.

They weren’t only vocal about how badly we were playing, but they were vocal about the fact that I was playing, especially in front of their superstar kids. There’s no way that I was better than their child (even though I was part of the reason why we were still alive in this tournament).

My Aunt Helen was at this game. She overheard some of the parents saying not-so-nice things about me (and probably about her baby brother as well). And she wasn’t having it.

Around this time, my Aunt Helen was in her 50s. She was a grandmother. She was there to see her nephew play and her little brother coach. But when she heard the nonsense coming out of the mouths of grown-ups, she was ready to fight.

I don’t know exactly what happened. I’m sure my dad and mom have a clearer memory since I didn’t hear the story until a few years later. But when I heard it, I thought it was the greatest thing. I hated my years at PAL. My Aunt had my back. I wish I asked her about this moment.

At the services on Saturday and Sunday, family and friends were telling their stories. I couldn’t tell mine. The set-up was too long and I didn’t have clarity yet. I will remember my Aunt Helen as a valiant fighter who had her family’s back.

I never expected her to be gone.

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