Thursday, January 2, 2014

God, Family, and the Detroit Tigers: Margaret Lissie-Belle Grace and the Beautiful Innings of Life

A little more than two months ago, the baseball season was winding down. The coolness of October mixed with the full breath of autumn coming soon. It was a Saturday night, and I was in Eastern Michigan enjoying a baseball game. The night before, I received a call from my father. The tone in his voice said more than words ever could. My grandmother did not have much time left. The following day, he, my stepmother, and I were on our way across the state line to be with her one last time before the inevitable. Margaret Lissie-Belle Grace, my grandmother, was the very definition of a fanatic. Her team was the Detroit Tigers. That night I had the honor of watching one last game with her. It would be her last Tigers game. By the end of the night, they were eliminated from the playoffs, but it was a moment I'll treasure as long as I live.

I can call myself a baseball fan, a Cubs fan, et cetera, but nowhere can I fathom the devotion of my grandmother to her Tigers. She new them as close relatives, somehow knowing facets of players' personal lives that made me question if she had a press pass. On the night of October 19th, just hours before their fateful exit from the 2013 postseason, the Detroit Tigers were still clinging to hope of a repeat trip to the World Series. I sat in a familiar chair in a familiar room with two familiar faces. To my left sat Sam, my grandmother's partner for the entirety of my lifetime. Always a quick-witted soul, he seemed a bit distant, almost certainly understanding the circumstances. In the center of the room was a hospital bed, holding the frail form of my grandmother. She was weak and often tired, yet seemed to come back to life at the sight of her grandson. I did my best to compose myself, and given the situation, I feel my performance was adequate. 

Once the game began, however, it was as if her bones had decided to fill with adrenaline. At the sight of Alex Avila, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder, out came the wealth of knowledge. She knew that Avila's wife had just given birth to their first child back in April. She knew the baby's name was Avery. I was impressed. For a woman who knew the internet like I know basic auto repair, that kind of information seemed borderline impossible to stumble upon. Maybe the nightly news around there is a bit different.

As the first few innings came and went, she remained as talkative as ever. She chastised Cabrera for striking out in the top of the third. Three innings later, with her beloved down a run, my grandmother began to tire. Shortly before she fell asleep, she managed to see Victor Martinez drive in Cabrera and Fielder to take the lead. The exuberance was gone from her lips however. When she dozed off, the Tigers were winning. Sam had fallen asleep in the chair. I softly woke him to let him know I was going to finish the game in another room. He nodded and fell back to sleep. I turned the volume down on their old television set and walked to the other side of their home. 

My mind was racing around the idea that my grandmother was dying. I couldn't escape the wrestling pain and acceptance in my stomach. I can't say that I wanted to escape it. Yet there was baseball. Not necessarily a mask for my emotional frame of mind, but more a vehicle for my understanding. Baseball is a game of transitioning. Its essentially the same as it was when my father was my age, and his father before him. Sure, the finite details had changed, but watching the game can be a form of time travel that binds generations together. Johnnie Lee Grace, my father, is a die-hard Tigers fan as well. He's the type of fan who has a section of his home devoted to absolutely every possible item emblazoned with an old English D. Decades before October 19th 2013, he sat his mother down to watch his Tigers. She wasn't a baseball woman the day before, but she would be from that moment onward.

Of course, as is well known, Boston won that night.
Two days after the Red Sox clinched the World Series, we laid my grandmother to rest. Her casket was dark blue, a shade so appropriately matched to the colors of her team. The pallbearers, myself included, wore Detroit Tigers caps in tribute. 

Juxtaposed to most of life, sports can sometimes seem petty. Often enough, athletes are given the persona of money-hungry children, never seeming to find financial satisfaction. That is not what sports are, and that is not what they mean. Baseball, as any sport, is a communal experience. No matter the level of understanding, sports give us a sense of belonging. They give us a sense of family, even if we already have one. I've seen complete strangers unite under the colors of a team. I've seen rivalries bring out the best and worst in relationships. Sports tug at our hearts. They make us feel. The bond us to those who carry a common thread. They give us something to hope for even in the presence of inevitability. In the last memory my grandmother has of her beloved Detroit Tigers, they're winning. If baseball means half as much to you as it does to me, you'll understand a peace I feel in knowing that's true.

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