Something we cannot know

Happy 2013!

I read about the death of Spencer Cox with great interest today. It’s not because I knew him, or was even remotely familiar with what he had done with his time here on this earth. It turns out that he did some amazing things, helping to get some of the first effective medicines to fight against AIDS to the market in the mid-1990s.

I remember the hysteria about AIDS in the early and mid-1990s very well, and if he had anything to do with helping to allay that hysteria, then good for him. He clearly had an impact on the lives of thousands, if not millions. I’m honored to devote a few lines of my blog to recognizing the things he accomplished.

But what really got my attention was his age. Spencer Cox was just a few months older than I am when he recently passed away. With New Year’s eve coming up in a few hours, it reminded me that some of us who will celebrate the arrival of 2013 won’t have another new year’s to celebrate after that. Certainly, if someone were to ask Spencer Cox on the last New Year’s day what 2012 would hold for him, his own death probably wouldn’t have been on the list.

I hope, with all that I have and hold dear, that 2013 is a great and full year for me and everyone that I know (and for you too, gentle reader, whoever you might be). I’d like to have another 12-25 new years to celebrate before my time on this earth is up. But I don’t get to decide when my supply of New Years will run out, either. And the truth is none of us can know this, with any degree of certainty.

I’ve said many times in this space that I celebrate life by commemorating death. Why else would I have written about Larry Hagman and Adam Yauch, about Don Cornelius and Champ Summers, and about Whitney Houston and Ronnie Montrose? They were all with us when 2012 began, but they couldn’t know that 2013 would arrive without them. Nobody wants to think about that, really, but let’s remember what Benjamin Franklin said are the only two certainties in life: death and taxes.

So as the ball drops in Times Square this year, and the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” are played for the only time all year, I plan to remember that the New Year might be a great one, and it might be an awful one, and it might even be a partial one (although, again, I certainly hope that it isn’t).

Here’s wishing everyone who reads this a happy and full new year in 2013, or whenever it is that you find this.

Laugh about the old days

In memory of Brandon, a student of mine killed on this city's streets.

The last time I wrote in this space, less than 48 hours ago, I told the story of a baseball player that I never met, who died in Chicago during the regular season a decade ago. And just a couple weeks before that, I wrote a farewell to an ex-ballplayer who had a small connection to my development as a Cubs fan. And today, it appears, we’ve hit the trifecta when it comes to ballplayers who have passed away.

On Halloween, or perhaps the day after it, Pascual Perez was killed in a home invasion in the Dominican Republic. Perez had problems with drugs back in the 1980s and early 1990s, and he gave “three strikes and you’re out” a new baseball meaning. Cocaine cost him his career, and he’s far from the first player with problems in this regard. But to be killed in your own home just seems especially cruel.

Perez was the primary instigator in an ugly bean ball–or bean brawl–game played back in 1984 in Atlanta. Perez hit an opposing batter with the first pitch of the game, and things spiraled out of control on several occasions. On one of the occasions, the aforementioned Summers broke free and raced across the field, with Pascual Perez in his sights. He was foiled by one of Perez’s teammates, along with some overanxious fans, and a physical confrontation was avoided. That was the exception in that game, though. Here’s a clip of the incident, in case you’re interested.

I was struck by the proximity of these two players’ deaths, within weeks of each other after 27 years had passed by. I don’t believe there’s an afterlife–though I’m willing to be proven wrong when the time comes–but if there is, I wonder what would happen if Champ Summers and Pascual Perez should somehow encounter each other in the Great Beyond. Would they resume their hostilities from that day, or would they laugh about the old days, instead? I would hope it’s the latter option.

I say all this because Pascual Perez’ demise bore an eerie similarity to a recent tragedy that happened right here in Chicago. A former student of mine was killed in his own home, shot in the face on Halloween night. I was musing about Darryl Kile and life is short and all of that, while one of my former students lay dead just a few miles away.

When I first learned of his death yesterday morning, I felt a sense of grief that I haven’t felt for anyone else before, not even for my own grandparents. In each of their cases, I knew the end was coming and had a chance to prepare for it emotionally. But in this case, it was so sudden and unexpected, and it hurts that much more. And I’m sure that the pain felt by those who loved him and cared for him is far greater than mine is.

Although I had some run-ins with this student back when I was teaching, I’m very pleased to have reconnected with him on Facebook within the past year. I have become Facebook friends with several of my past students, but I never seek any of them out. If they want to friend me, I’m flattered that they want to do this, and provided that i have any memory of them at all, I’m happy to accept their requests.

But Brandon’s friend request gave me pause, initially. I thought it over for a few days, because I still had vivid memories of what our relationship was like back in 1997 and the years immediately afterward. Eventually, I decided that it would be better to accept the request than to ignore it. And I’ll forever be grateful that I did this.

One day, a week or so after we had friended each other, he sent me a direct message, with an apology for the way things had gone between us back then. In truth, we both had things to feel bad about. My youth and impatience and desire to follow rules probably made me into less of a teacher and more of a cop, in his eyes and in mine. But we agreed that the past should remain in the past.

With the reconciliation having been achieved, we then encouraged each other to look at the pictures of our kids on Facebook. After a few minutes we parted amicably, at least in the electronic sense of the word. It meant a great deal to me on that day, and it means a great deal more to me now. I’ll forever be grateful that Facebook afforded us the opportunity to find peace with each other.

If there is an afterlife, and I make it there at some unknown point in the future, I’ll go looking for Brandon Johnson, and not in an angry, Champ Summers kind of way. If I should be fortunate enough to find him, I’ll be sure to greet him warmly, and thank him for teaching me one lesson about reconciliation, and another about how fragile life can be. And then, hopefully, we’ll laugh about the old days.

R.I.P. Brandon Bso Johnson

So long, Champ

The reason I write this blog is to take some of the bits and pieces that float around inside my brain and extrude them for the outside world to see. It’s an an endeavor that I enjoy, and has the added benefit of one day being of interest, possibly, to somebody that I don’t know and will never meet. Consider it an exercise in addressing the unknown world of the future.

Champ Summers is a name that I’ll forever associate with a particular time and place. His name was actually John Junior Summers (Junior was somehow his middle name), and he was a veteran of the Vietnam war. He was discovered as an athlete playing in a softball league after he came back from the war. Think about that for a moment. A major leaguer who came from a softball league. It could never happen in today’s game, where malnourished kids in the Dominican Republic are fighting everyday for roster spots that a guy like Champ Summers once occupied. The fact that I’m even ruminating about Champ Summers in the first place is an improbable mystery.

Summers was traded by the world champion Oakland A’s to the Chicago Cubs before the 1975 baseball season started. I’ve written about 1975 several times in this space, because it was the year that I first got into baseball as a young kid of seven. I went to my first live game with my dad in the summer of that year, discovered the Cubs on television in the fall, and was transfixed by the drama of the World Series in October of that year. My life hasn’t been the same since.

I’ve written of Rennie Stennett and the historic 7-for-7 day that he had at Wrigley Field back in 1975. When Stennett stepped to the plate in Wrigley Field on that September afternoon, he was sitting on a 6-for-6 day, and trying to do something nobody else ever had. At that same moment, I was a young kid with a broken leg in Springfield, Illinois. Stennett slashed the ball into right field, in the general direction of one Champ Summers.

As Summers was flagging down the ball out in the right field corner of Wrigley field, I was changing the channels on my parents television set, wishing I could be outside instead. Summers corralled the ball and threw it back in to the infield, while Stennett pulled into third with a standing triple. At that moment, as Stennett was standing on third and WGN in Chicago flashed a crude 1970s graphic informing the game’s viewers that Stennett was the first batter to ever go 7-for-7 in a nine-inning game, I was just tuning into the game.

I had literally never seen or heard of the Chicago Cubs before, but I started to watch the game. By the time that game came to its merciful conclusion, I was hooked in a way that I didn’t fully understand, at least not yet. I get it now, though. Baseball and the Cubs have followed me around through life ever since.

Had I remained true to my Central Illinois and Cardinals-based upbringing, I’m not sure if I would love the game the way that I do now. Certainly, I would know the kind of success that the Cardinals have enjoyed and I’ve always missed out on as a Cubs fan. It’s a bargain that I once made, without fully understanding its ramifications. Baseball is one of the touchstones of my life, and I’m grateful for this, but only because I follow a team that has disappointed me time and again over the years. And that is particularly evident on a day like today, as the Cardinals are basking in the afterglow of the most improbable comeback that most of us will ever see.

So the Cardinals have victory and the prospect of continuing on in the playoffs, while I have an old memory of Champ Summers and being on the wrong side of a historic event. And it gets even worse. Since this is the only time I expect to ever write about Champ Summers, I may as well tell that tale, too.

Champ Summers was traded to the San Diego Padres in 1984, where he was involved in what could be the craziest baseball game ever, at least where fights are involved. I learned of the game from a tweet from my baseball compadre Josh Wilker at CardboardGods, where I also learned that Summers had passed away. Again, corporate baseball in 2012 would never have allowed such a brawl to take place, and I watched the footage as if I was looking back into another time, which is exactly what it was.

But no Cubs fan of my age or older can think of 1984 and the Padres without a sharp twinge of regret. It was the year that the Cubs were 2-0 in the playoffs, and just needed one win on the road to seal the deal and get to the World Series. Champ Summers had pinch hit in the ninth inning of Game one, which the Cubs won in a 13-0 laugher, and again in Game four, the infamous Steve Garvey Game. He also pinch-hit in Game four of the World Series that year, and stuck out in what would be his final big league appearance.

It must have been quite a ride from the softball league to the World Series for Champ Summers. It also ran through one of the greater disappointments I’ve known as a Cubs fan, but I feel that it’s a part of who I am today. So I salute you, Champ Summers, and honor you here in the best way that I know how.