Tuesday, December 27, 2011
On Life, Death, Baseball and Lynn Samuels
End of the year stories often end up as lists of the "best of this", and the "worst of that", and so on. In fact, though it is common practice for most newspapers and magazines to run their own big fat editions with bloated versions of the ten best, and worst lists, these editions are usually just boring retreads, and barely readable.
It wasn’t any list that had a lasting effect on me this year. It was, sadly, two deaths,of two completely different types of people that really gave me pause to think about the very nature of both life and death.
Life: it's not just the physical actions of breathing, eating, walking, loving, and sleeping. Life is best defined as the maximizing of each waking moment, doing things that are fun, and that make you, and other people happy. For some people, myself included, in my childhood and early adulthood,the game of baseball WAS life itself. I lived it, breathed it, even once rode my bicycle 22 miles to play in a Babe Ruth League baseball game, having forgone a trip to Las Vegas with my dad, just to get my turns at bat. Later, I tried out, unsuccessfully, for the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies. A blown out shoulder and less than stellar running speed were my undoing, but my passion for the game was as strong as ever. This was evidenced by the dozens of Yankee and Mets games I drove hundreds of miles to attend. I almost always brought a glove with the hope of catching a foul ball hit into the stands. After all, catching a foul ball was akin to winning the lottery to a kid. At the very first baseball game my dad took me to, in 1971, the New York Yankees were playing the Washington Senators. My dad and I had seats in the upper reserve section behind home plate in the old Yankee Stadium. A foul ball was hit right at my dad, who had his hands held in the basket position ready for that as-precious-as-gold bit of horsehide and yarn to settle itself into them. I still remember how my pulse raced and how all sound seemed to hush as the ball arced its way up, and then down…smack into the single, meaty hand of some hotshot who stuck his arm up right in front of my dad’s waiting grasp. For the rest of the game all I could think of was that baseball and all my dad could do was keep asking the guy to give up the ball so I could have it for a souvenir. I think he even offered him 20 bucks, but it was not to be. Ironically, it wasn’t until many years later that I finally got a foul ball, hit by Bobby Murcer, that bounced into the stands and pinballed around the floor under the seats until it bumped up against my foot, where I skillfully bent over and picked it up. No pulse racing, no hand reaching over to grab it—just me and a baseball. And the thrill of a lifetime.
It was with that thrill still somewhere in my memory that I read the sad story of Shannon Stone, a good and kind man, a fireman, and father, who had taken his young son, Cooper, to a Texas Rangers baseball game this past July. At the game, another good and kind man, a ballplayer named Josh Hamilton, tossed a foul ball to Shannon Stone, for his son. His throw was a bit off and when Shannon Stone reached to catch it, he toppled over a railing and fell many feet to the concrete floor below. As he was being carried out on a stretcher, still conscious, he was asking that people take care of his son, who was now alone a deck above. Sadly, Shannon died from his injuries, leaving what should have been a beautiful memory for his son, Cooper, as a nightmare instead.
What struck me so about this incident was the reaction of Shannon’s mother, SuZann Stone. Recalling the joy that her own son had once felt when her husband, Al, caught a foul ball for Shannon himself many years earlier, she was intuitive enough to realize that there was another victim of the tragedy---Josh Hamilton. Hamilton, understandably, had stopped tossing balls to fans. SuZann related to a reporter what she had written in a note to Josh Hamilton. She said, “Shortly after the accident, there was some discussion about whether foul balls should be thrown into the stands to the fans. I wrote to Josh Hamilton, and I said: ‘Please, don't stop throwing those balls. Because that's so important. That's why daddies bring their little boys to the ballgame... for memories like that. Please don't stop.’"
Her grandson was dead. Josh Hamilton was traumatised. But SuZann Stone knew that life is more than flesh and blood. Hopefully she got the message clear to the heart and mind of Josh Hamilton. She sure got through to me. Life is so much more than the physical actions that make it work.
Death: There were a lot of celebrity deaths this year, Amy Winehouse being the most egregious case of a life wasted, pun inferred but not intended. It wasn’t Winehouse whose passing really bothered me, though. It was the Christmas Eve heart attack death of Lynn Samuels. If you lived in New York anytime in the last 40 years, you knew who Lynn Samuels was. Her New Yawk Jewish accent sounded like exaggerations of both aspects but it was her real voice, a one of a kind sound that was immediately recognizable and definitely NOT for radio, which is, in this ironic world, exactly where it would be heard for decades.
She was crude and crass. She leaned politically left but opined the other way at times. She loved alt-rock but her last theme song was ABBA’s poppy little ditty "Nina Ballerina". She lived alone, comparing herself to a bag lady at times, but it all seemed to be an act to the casual listener. To real fans, as I was, she was the real deal. We knew. Of course, radio isn’t the largest medium, and save for Howard Stern and a few others, it is more of a pleasant distraction, even for real fans. And so when Lynn Samuels lost her regular weekday gig and was moved to weekends several months ago, I didn’t make the effort to listen to her as much, and I am sorry for that. When her co-worker, Alex Bennett, made the announcement, via Facebook on Sunday that Lynn had passed away sometime early Saturday, it came as a huge shock. As details hit the press, about Lynn not responding to a cue for her show, broadcast from her home on an ISDN line, and how Sirius radio sent someone to check on her, only to find her dead of an apparent heart attack, all alone, I became even more pensive.
She used to talk of retirement. She loved and yet hated the city, or what it has become, and had travelled a lot in search of a place to retire in comfort. The list seemed to be down to either Scottsdale, Arizona or Charleston, South Carolina. Callers were encouraging her to move, to get out of New York and do her show from her new digs where she would be comfortable, but she always had an excuse. I figured that the move to weekends would probably be the last straw before she left for her golden years in a sunny clime. Instead, she breathed her last in a cramped apartment in Queens, in a neighborhood that she called little Ecuador. I’m not sure that she knew what life was all about anymore. Maybe I don’t have it exactly right, but dying alone in a cramped apartment isn’t life. It isn’t even death. It’s just sad.
There is no big conclusion to be drawn from these deaths. People die all the time. But it is how they died that makes the lives they lived more or less meaningful in our minds, or at least gives us a little insight into their world. Shannon Stone died while trying to make his son happy. Lynn Samuels died alone in a place she despised. She made the choice, of course, but that doesn't change the sad ending to her story.
So as the year ends, there are no lists. Instead, I leave you with a quote from Bob Dylan, who said in his Academy Award acceptance speech: "...bless you all with peace tranquility and good will."
And to that I add life---heavy on the life, to us all in the new year.