The following story is one in a series that chronicle events that have all happened to me. I have witnesses. I would often share these experiences with people and add “you know you just can’t make this stuff up.”
This series continues the writing I have done over the years including the American Cities series, the Road Less Traveled features, Meet Me at Rays and the Blog “Turn What You Love into What You Do’. I hope readers enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed experiencing and writing them.
These experiences are more than just random events or amazing coincidences. Or even, the ‘wow … small world isn’t it” moments many of us have had. It’s almost as though these events had their own agenda and energy far beyond my influence. Some of them warm me while others kind of scare me. It’s sort of like I’ve been in this long, stage play as a member of the back-up chorus, in the third line of dancers, a face in the crowd or maybe even part of an angry mob.
And the play has many themes. At times it’s a musical, sometimes a comedy, other times inspirational or joyful, other times dramatic and occasionally tragic. The scenes always keep changing and I’m in all of them. Mostly I feel like I’m just following along with a script of events that were orchestrated elsewhere…in some ways …. long, long ago.
I will select a story that relates to different times of the year. The following one is a good example as it relates to spring which is right around the corner here in Northeast Ohio.
Dr. Patrick O'Connor - Life Long Learning Connection
In late September 1993, we attended one of the very last Cleveland Indians home games at the historic Cleveland Municipal Stadium. This was right before the joint was demolished after some 70 years of hosting various sporting, music, concerts, and other entertainment events. Originally, the famed stadium was built to host the 1932 Olympics but lost out to Los Angeles and the LA Coliseum. As such, it was an all-purpose facility in hopes of fielding all sports. In some ways, it really never did any of them very well. Most Indians and Browns fans can testify to that. Ask anyone of them. At the time, Cleveland, Ohio was actually a major industrial city in the US with an outstanding baseball team and championship football to follow a few years later.
I had been on the faculty at the University of Georgia in the late 1980’s before returning to Ohio and a new faculty position at Kent State University. While at UGA I had a few students who made their way into professional sports including golf, football, and baseball. One of the students played baseball and football for the Bulldogs. There was a time when that was rather common. However, over time, it became rare for an athlete to play two sports in college…especially at the high level where UGA competed.
The player, Cris Carpenter, was a good student, an outstanding all-American athlete in both baseball (pitcher) and football (punter) and a delightful young man. My son Patrick and I would go to UGA baseball games and watch him pitch…he was outstanding. We got to know him a bit and Patrick really loved knowing a college baseball player who was headed to the major leagues. He was a student in classes of mine, so I go to know him a bit from that perspective. First team All-American in baseball and second team in football? Really? I thought it was pretty cool too.
Cris was drafted into the major leagues in 1987 and we followed his career closely including obtaining baseball cards for whatever teams he played. He would even send us autographed cards….we still have them. However, over time, trades, and all, we lost track of him as he moved around a bit in major league baseball. And, we had moved from Georgia to Ohio.
Then, there we were, at Cleveland Stadium in one of the very last games to be played there. It was a real nostalgic moment for me regardless of what was happening on the field. I grew up in a small farm community about 30 miles west of Cleveland and often went to Indians and Cleveland Browns games at the stadium. This was the place where I had watched some of my greatest baseball and football heroes of all time…where my friends and I religiously followed the Indians and Browns as kids (my brother John and I actually watched the great Jim Brown play in person a few times in the early 1960’s). And we knew everything there was to know about baseball players like Rocky Colavito, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Gary “Ding-Dong” Bell, Early Wynn, Vic Power, Minnie Minoso and so many, many others. And, as little league ball players, our coaches would take us to the one game of the year, Little League Day, when we got to wear our uniforms and actually walk around the track of the massive place. I think we even got into the game for free. Wow.
Back to the game sports fans. So, there we were sitting in the right side of the lower upper deck (no oxymoron in Cleveland) about halfway between first base and the outfield fence. The warm-up area for pitchers on the opposing team was near the left field fence on the opposite side of the stadium. Since the stadium was so huge, the opposite side was a long way across the baseball field though still in the same time zone (barely).
The place was packed with about 72,000 screaming fans and the enthusiasm was robust. Nearing the end of the game, maybe the 8th inning, two pitchers for the Texas Rangers started to warm up in the bullpen area. Patrick is watching them and says to me, “Dad, look at that one pitcher warming up over there. His motion looks just like Cris from Georgia”. I could hardly even see the pitchers they were so far away let alone recognize a pitching motion but apparently he could. Then he said to me, “Dad, that’s Cris”. Just after he mentioned this, the announcer informs us “Now, warming up for Texas, Cris Carpenter,” …un….be…..lieve….able. What are the chances that he would be at the same game as us and Patrick would have noticed his pitching motion…and from that far away? And, it had been about 6 years since we had seen him. Amazing!
We worked our way over to the other side of the stadium and called one of the attendants. We explained we’d like to say hi to the Texas pitcher as he left the bullpen and headed to the dugout. He would have to walk right past us. I told the attendant we knew the player from UGA and we’d just like to take a minute and say hello. The guy was real cool about it and agreed to ask Cris to stop.
The game ended and the attendant got Cris’ attention as he walked by and pointed to us. Surprised, to say the least, it took him a moment to realize what/who he was seeing but he came over and said hello. We chatted briefly and he told us to get in touch with him and we’d get together the next time he was in Cleveland. And, we did…a number of times. Actually, Patrick, Sean, Ryan and I went to a few ball games when Cris played the next few times in the new Cleveland baseball stadium. And, we even had lunch together a few times before the games. My boys were all little league ball players themselves at the time and I also coached baseball. And there we were lunching with a major league pitcher. Sometimes in life, you just have to ask yourself….what’s next?
I contacted Cris about 20 years after this event and shared the story with him. He fondly remembered the event and our time visiting together when he came to Cleveland to play baseball. It turns out he went into coaching and teaching social studies after he left professional baseball. Actually, he returned to his hometown of Gainesville, GA where he and his wife raised their three children. They still live there.
Cris offered the following thoughts about our surprise meeting in Cleveland over 20 years ago:
Some of my most enjoyable moments in the Big Leagues were seeing people that I knew in the stands at games. Seeing the O'Connor family in Cleveland was quite a surprise and a wonderful experience.
Gainesville has always been my home. I had such a great experience in High School that I knew I would go back and fulfill my dream of teaching and coaching there. I was also able to watch my 3 children grow and mature in this wonderful area!
Patrick,the kid with the keen eye for a pitching motion, became a successful political cartoonist and then morphed into an animator for the Disney studios (which had always been his life-long dream). He also created the original artwork appearing in the book series ThinkYouKnowAmerica. He and his daughter Olivia reside in Burbank,CA. He offered his take on the meeting in Cleveland so many years ago.
I remember that day, but only in dream-like bits. The reason we went to the game was because the Texas Rangers great right-hander Nolan Ryan was retiring that year. This was to be his last game in Cleveland and Ryan’s 40-year-old arm was like a canon. I’ve never seen anyone throw that hard before or since.
As a boy, Cleveland Municipal Stadium seemed like a giant iron beast that swallowed you whole when you walked into it. Everything about it was massive. The bathrooms were cavernous places with long bathtub troughs for men. Sitting in the upper deck of Cleveland stadium was like being perched on the ledge of ten-story building. Two teams of ants played baseball while we looked down upon them from the clouds. Giant steel girders, part of the stadium’s structure, descended from the rafters to the seats. They often obstructed great plays and big hits.
It was between those painted blue girders that the Rangers bullpen was neatly framed. I think it was then I saw Cris warming up. I can’t say for sure now, but I must have recognized the pitching motion from the games I saw when he was at the University of Georgia. Then I turned to my left and said “Hey, Dad, that’s Cris,” and like a bolt of lightning from the sky his name and picture popped up on the Jumbotron.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve found it’s important to respect the randomness of life. It was a big deal to meet a real big league ballplayer. It was an even bigger deal to go out for lunch with him before the game. Life can be so serendipitous, sometimes you just have to smile and be grateful for whatever it brings.
Pat, the professor, is now semi-retired from Kent State University. He has authored textbooks and other books including the ThinkYouKnowAmerica series and Meet Me at Rays. He has always enjoyed his time playing, watching, and coaching baseball…a game he’s loved his entire life. He played catcher himself as a youngster and he coached Patrick to catch as well. Most catchers have a pretty good eye for pitching and pitcher’s motions. Pat spends a good bit of his free time these days writing up interesting stories…which he really enjoys.