Written by: Ray Butler
I didn’t rebel in the same ways as most kids.
I never drank or smoked during high school. I never really stayed out past curfew. I made good grades. In just about every sense of the phrase, I was a ‘boring’ kid and teenager, which almost certainly makes me extremely lame to most of the people who read this essay.
Instead, I rebelled via sports fandom.
My dad always jokes that he ‘put me’ in one too many Peyton Manning jerseys growing up. Living in rural West Tennessee, my family desperately wanted me to be a Tennessee Volunteers football fan. Instead, I grew up a Texas Longhorns fan (I have an aunt and uncle who live near Arlington *shrugs*). Shortly after starting high school, I began frequenting Mississippi State home football games. Seven years later, I departed Starkville with an undergraduate degree, a home away from home and an eternal rooting interest.
My family watched the Tennessee Titans every Sunday during the Steve McNair and Eddie George heydays. Nearing adolescence, I randomly decided to become a Philadelphia Eagles fan. Fifteen years later, I’m still completely perplexed as to why ‘we’ spent a second-round pick on quarterback Jalen Hurts.
There are smaller examples, too. My dad loved Dale Earnhardt. My grand dad loved Jeff Gordon. When Jimmie Johnson won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2002 (I was nine), I decided I’d begin rooting for the 48 car. Eighteen years later, it’s a real bummer that Johnson’s final NASCAR season is being cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I relished the rivalries it created around our house. I enjoyed the fact that—regardless of the extent—my rooting interests got under my family’s skin. In a sense, my favorite teams became a Yankees-like ‘villain’ around the house. Like a true sports nerd, I rebelled my parents thru sports fandom. That is, except for baseball. I’m a Cardinals fan because my dad is a Cardinals fan, because his dad was a Cardinals fan, because his dad was a Cardinals fan.
My granddad passed away late last week. And while we (I’ll refer to him as Daddy Joe for the remainder of this essay) have a countless amount of connections and similar interests outside of baseball, our shared love of America’s greatest pastime will be what I carry with me the most for the rest of my life. In my humble opinion, baseball is the most generational sport in the world; when you combine that opinion with the fact my family is extremely close-knit (I’m actually named after my dad’s dad’s dad), I’ll always attach my love of baseball with Daddy Joe.
While I grew-up a decent player and watched baseball on television as often as I could as a kid, most of my childhood exposure to professional baseball came from Cardinals radio broadcasts. Even with an early bedtime, I would sneakily weasel my way out of bed and turn on my radio (I called it a boombox) to 93.7 FM, which was our local station for all Cardinals games. I can’t tell you how many times I fell asleep listening to the voices of Jack Buck, a seemingly over-served Mike Shannon and a young Joe Buck. Playing little league, travel ball and high school baseball until the time I moved away to college, I can’t even begin to fathom how many games of mine Daddy Joe attended. He was never afraid to get after a home plate umpire, and if he went out of his way to give you a compliment post-game, you knew you had really accomplished something on the field that day.
As a pre-teen, my surprising knowledge of the Cardinals turned into an easy conversation starter with Daddy Joe at family get togethers. If I wasn’t ribbing him over Tiger Woods’ latest win (I had rebelled his Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler fandom) or college football, we were either rolling our eyes over Tony La Russa’s double switch fetish or commiserating about how the Cardinals didn’t have enough pitching to make a deep playoff run. For so much of my youth, I took great pride in the pride it brought Daddy Joe to know he had a grandson for whom he shared such an important love.
My dad, little brother and I were lucky enough to attend Game 3 of the 2013 World Series in St. Louis. You probably remember that game as the “Will Middlebrooks ‘trip’ game”, in which the Cardinals beat the Red Sox thanks to an obstruction call in the bottom of the ninth inning, allowing Allen Craig to score the game-winning run.
In person, my fondest memory is witnessing my dad’s reaction to the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales making their way around the perimeter of the field during pre-game festivities, a tradition mostly exclusive to Opening Day and playoff games at Busch Stadium. As a kid, my dad, listening to the radio alongside Daddy Joe and ‘Daddy Ray’ (Daddy Joe’s dad), grew up attempting to visualize that exact scene as the Cardinals’ broadcasters did their best to describe it to listeners. Goosebumps as a kid evolved into welled-up eyes as an adult as a proud dad was able to provide that experience not only for himself, but for his baseball-loving sons as well. When we returned home, Daddy Joe cared more about the Clydesdales than any moment from the actual game itself. As I grow older, I continue to realize that my endless love of baseball isn’t particularly enhanced by singular, in-game moments themselves. Instead, I’m more apt to remember how I feel during those moments and who I experience those moments with.
As Daddy Joe aged, our conversations became much more simple and to-the-point. He just didn’t understand why the 2019 Cardinals kept relying on Carlos Martinez, or why Mike Shildt wouldn’t simply give ‘gritty’ Harrison Bader every day playing time. He also hoped the Cardinals wouldn’t re-sign Marcell Ozuna during free agency, since “he never hit the ball when there were runners on base.” I rolled my eyes at the time, but it’s the most-recent baseball conversations that I’ll probably remember the longest.
I have been ridiculously obsessed with baseball since I was barely old enough to walk. In a lot of ways, Daddy Joe sharing his love with my dad—who subsequently shared his love with me—is largely responsible for that obsession. I was fortunate enough to marry someone who also loves baseball, which led to us naming our first-born (who’s due in June) Maddux, after Greg Maddux. You don’t have to trace too far to realize Daddy Joe played a viable role in naming our son. While I’d give an arm for Maddux to meet Daddy Joe, the latter’s passing won’t stop me from sharing the many wonderful ‘Daddy Joe’ stories I’ve accrued throughout my life. Maddux might not care as I tell the story, but I sure will. I also take solace in the fact that I’ll have the privilege of watching my son form a similar relationship to my dad as I had with Daddy Joe. That fact helps me sleep at night. I also coach high school baseball and, in 2017, I launched a baseball-focused website in which you’re currently reading this essay. I have no doubt Daddy Joe played an indirect role in opening those doors, too.
What perhaps amazes me more than anything is that, under any other circumstance, I’d probably associate my relationship with Daddy Joe most closely with golf. As I stated above, he was a golfing fanatic, playing every single day after he retired. He was such a commoner at our local golf course (Milan Golf and Country Golf, for the initiated who read this) that he had his own parking spot. And he was freakin’ good, constantly scoring in the low-to-mid 60s as he approached 80-years-old. That’s ten shots lower than his age, for those keeping score at home. I played to a 4 handicap throughout college (it’s probably closer to 8 now), and I owe the entirety of my golf aptitude to Daddy Joe. When I managed to hit my first hole-in-one five years ago, I didn’t call my dad or my friends first. I called Daddy Joe.
Even if you simply turned the dial a single degree and simulated my relationship with Daddy Joe several times, our bond would be highlighted by golf 99% of the time. If that were the case, I’d be writing this essay on Google Sheets, perhaps letting my wife (and my wife alone) read it as I continue to cope in the coming days and weeks. But like so many people who read this essay can surely attest, baseball is so often an exception. It’s an exception to our rules, an exception to our experiences, an exception to our schedules and an exception to our emotions. Baseball was certainly the exception that helped mold my relationship with Daddy Joe, and it’s nostalgia I’ll gladly carry with me for the rest of my life.
As an analytically-inclined talent evaluator who’s partial to forward-thinking organizations and players, a tiny part of me always dreads my inherent loyalty to the ‘old-school’ Cardinals at the start of a new season. However, I actually find myself more excited than usual as we approach a (hopeful) summer Opening Day in 2020. Every time Mike Shildt (and future managers) mismanages the Cardinals’ bullpen, I’ll roll my eyes and think of Daddy Joe. A Cardinals hitter fails to move the baserunners with less than two outs? I’ll roll my eyes and think of Daddy Joe. And I’d like to believe he’ll roll his eyes and think about me, too.
Regardless of how you bond with your loved ones, make sure you cherish each word of every conversation. Never take anything for granted, no matter how mundane it might feel at the time. No one will ever perfect the art of overcoming grief, and—in the end—we don’t receive the honor of choosing which specific conversations we carry closest to us once our loved ones leave us. Limit your regrets, and make sure you remember as many of the small details as humanly possible.