The Online Death Cafe

So for the next few days I’d like to talk about death in anticipation of Ash Wednesday, because we all are going to die and the ashes on our foreheads are there to remind us of that not-so-simple truth.

I’ve decided on five topics that we can talk about for the remainder of this week and Sunday I’ll have a reflection on the Sunday Gospel. The four topics will be:

1) What would be the worst way to die?
2) What would be the best way to die?
3) Can you discuss a death of a loved one that really effected you?
4) What end of life issues are you most concerned about for yourself?
5) What do you want done at your funeral/burial?

This topic came to me because the Huffington Post talked about Death Cafes today. Here’s a snip:

This is the Death Cafe, an anything-goes, frank conversation on death that’s been hosted at dozens of coffee shops and community centers in American cities from Arizona to Maine since beginning in the Columbus area in July. Death Cafes are modeled on similar gatherings in European cities that have been taking place for several years.

“The goal is to raise death awareness with the view of helping people make the most of their lives. I’m really passionate about death,” said Lizzy Miles, a hospice volunteer and social worker who organizes the Columbus-area cafes, which take place about once a month and draw a range of attendees, from new college graduates to recent retirees.

Maria Johnson, left, a social worker, and Lizzy Miles, right, recently co-facilitated one of the monthly death cafes in Columbus, Ohio.
While the discussion at a Death Cafe is always changing, the format stays generally the same. The organizer, who is usually Miles for the Columbus events, uses donations to purchase tea and cake, and leads an icebreaker by sharing what led him or her to explore death.

Sounds morbid? It’s not. It’s fascinating and also freeing. We’re all going to die, so there’s no use in avoiding the topic. It comforts me to know that I’ve talked about this even though it makes me uncomfortable.

How about you? Are you comfortable talking about death? Why or Why Not?

Koch to God: How’m I Doin’?

The longtime mayor and NYC personality Ed Koch died early this morning of congestive heart failure. He was the mayor when I was a child living in suburban Yonkers and throughout my teen-age and early college years from 1978 until 1989 when he was ousted in the primary by David Dinkins who went on to be mayor besting Rudy Guilani that year.

Koch won for the first time in 1977 when the city was in financial demise. People were abandoning the city and the mayor Abe Beame was looking to the federal government for a bailout prompting the famous Daily News headline: Ford to City: Drop Dead. That summer was the huge blackout which led to rioting in the streets especially in places like the Bronx, a stone’s throw from my hometown of Yonkers. It was also known as the “Summer of Sam” where David Berkowitz the so called “Son of Sam” was murdering couples in parked cars, mostly blonde women with their suitors. Berkowitz was found in Yonkers and was actually the mailman in the neighborhood where my father worked. The city was thought to be a dangerous place and the subway was often filled with young people playing their boom boxes loudly. Howard Cossell while announcing the Yankee game saw rioting in the Bronx and famously announced “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning.” Koch ran for mayor on a platform that called for “law and order” running to the right of his opponents on that matter but staying liberal on most other items.

Koch was a no-nonsense mayor. He realized the way to run New York was to “kick butt and take names”, a style emulated by both Rudolph Guiliani and now, Mike Bloomberg. Koch brought the city back from financial decline and made it a safer place to be again. People began to move back into the city. Koch took on striking transit workers by standing on the Brooklyn Bridge and directing bike traffic himself.

After he left politics he ran a long time radio show on WABC Radio, one of that station’s only liberal voices. He was always funny and direct. He dabbled in television on NY 1 and other local TV stations and often wrote columns supporting Israel in the Jewish Forward and other liberal leaning papers. My favorite line of his was each time a radio caller would say “You were a great mayor! You should run again!” Koch would say “Nope, the people threw me out and now the people must be punished! (or occasionally he’d say “must suffer.”). He endorsed republicans as well as democrats. I remember how he threw support behind Al D’Amato for Senate because “the guy gets things done.” D’Amato was a long time Senator who people called Senator Pothole because he’d often take calls from constituents and bring smaller issues they were facing to be taken care of.

Koch, in my opinion, was a great mayor. He was a character and a true New Yorker, despite being born in New Jersey. He refused the Giants a permit to hold a ticker tape parade in the city for a time because they played their games in the Jersey Meadowlands. He had unwavering support of Catholics and loved his own Jewish faith. He’d proudly sit at St Patrick’s Cathedral and counted Cardinal O’Connor as a close friend.

He famously asked people “How’m I doing?” constantly. And today I’m sure when he sees God face to face, he’ll get to ask the Lord that same question. For myself, I think he did just fine. A documentary starts in a few days entitled “Koch” and it looks awesome.

Rest in peace, Mr. Mayor. After eight years of corruption, and a term of the clubhouse, you tried competence…and it was marvelously good.

World Events That Changed Gen Xers: The Challenger Explosion

27 years ago the horror of seeing the Space Shuttle explode in mid-air, a shuttle with a teacher-civilian on it brought many of us to our knees.

As a proud Gen Xer I remember this day unfortunately all too well. I was in high school and my trigonometry teacher broke the news to us. Some Gallo’s humor comments in the hallway didn’t sit well with me and I remember saying to my baseball team colleagues that if anyone had any snide comments, they were going to have to deal with me. As the skinniest and quietest kid on the team, I was less than intimidating. But one of my teammates said, “That dude means it. Today’s the day it all comes out. I ain’t messin’ with him.”

CNN covered the events of the day all too well. Look at this from the inside:

Fast forward years later and I covered events like the first World Trade Center bombing, where our traffic reporters were in the building at WFAN, an all-sports station. A guy called in to our all-sports station and asked “Hey, are you gonna have remotes from Bosnia next week too? Where’s the sports?”

Somehow I stayed calm and said “You don’t get it. One this may be the biggest disaster in NYC history and two we have PEOPLE in that building.”

I managed the on-air content for WOR as Columbine unfolded, a seminal event for milennials, many in high school themselves at the time. The adrenaline was coursing through my veins as we dialed up a local news station from the Denver area on the satellite and took much of their feed of the live events. I remember screaming “Who the hell do we know in Colorado and I mean ANYONE? Fathers, sisters, your crazy great aunt…I need an eyewitness.” Live radio and television is made up as it goes along and it’s incredibly taxing and satisfying to produce. I ended up calling some sports contacts and got a few writers from the local papers to chat with our news director on air.

And then when it was all over I cried, every time I thought about it. These were kids. Years earlier they were astronauts.

I often say that unless you wanted to be an astronaut, you never really put yourself in the place of those 7 brave people who lost their lives. However, one can easily see themselves in Columbine, in 9-11 or the first trade center bombing, in natural disasters and in Newtown just a few months ago.

Community structures today are not what they once were. Neighborhoods don’t have the same feel where you’d watch out for the kids on the block because you knew them well. If an air raid siren went off in the 50s the community had drills in place, stupid ones, I might add that might have added anxiety to the experience and did little to protect anyone. Hiding under your desk isn’t exactly going to stop a nuclear explosion. Early GenXers remember being scared to death of the Russians and even in the light of the 1980 Olympic Hockey win over the USSR, many wondered how soon we would be at war with a country that was so angry with us and oppressed their people in a Communist regime.

The world today is not as simple. For one, we often don’t know who the enemy is or where they may be coming from or even why they hate us as they do. Its a precarious world where we often don’t know the danger that we may be walking into.

Those 7 astronauts knew the danger that lurked in their mission. It was nonetheless tragic for them and their families and for us. We hoped all would be well but it was not. And it changed many of us and caused us to ask why?

God, too, suffers with us in these times and the difference between us and God is that God can redeem what has gone all too wrong, changing death and destruction into new life and peace once again.

Today let us pray that through the mercy of God all those who had their life meet an untimely end can rest in the peace that God provides.

Can One Experience Change Us Forever?

Heather Mallick has a haunting article in the Toronto Star today that several colleagues have forwarded to me today. The mother of one of the children in the Newtown shooting insisted on an open casket. She hopes it will change people’s attitudes about gun violence.

Noah Pozner, 6, was one of the 20 child victims in the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. All the dead were shot between three and 11 times. Tiny Noah took 11 bullets. His mother, Veronique, insisted on an open coffin, Naomi Zeveloff reported in the Jewish Daily Forward.
You’ll probably remember Noah. He was a happy little guy with beautiful heavily lashed eyes and a cheerful smile. In his coffin, there was a cloth placed over the lower part of his face.
“There was no mouth left,” his mother told the Forward. “His jaw was blown away.”
She put a stone in his right hand, a “clear plastic rock with a white angel inside.” She wanted to put a matching stone in his left hand but he had no left hand to speak of.
Parents of the dead children were advised to identify them from photographs, such was the carnage. But every parent reacts differently. Veronique Pozner did the most difficult thing. She asked to see the body. Zeveloff asked her why.
“I owed it to him as his mother, the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “. . . And as a little boy, you have to go in the ground. If I am going to shut my eyes to that I am not his mother. I had to bear it. I had to do it.”
When the governor of Connecticut arrived, she brought him to see Noah in the open casket. “If there is ever a piece of legislation that comes across his desk, I needed it to be real for him.” The governor wept.

Seeing for one’s self indeed can change us for life. For myself two incidents in my life changed me for the better:

The first is growing up in Yonkers in a working class neighborhood. When I was about 12 or 13, a young man was shot in my neighborhood, three houses away from my own apartment building. Ricky, who I didn’t know personally, had broken up a fight between two kids who were arguing over a baseball bat. The kids went home and told their father what happened and the father came out with a shotgun and killed him. It was horrible. From my window I watched them lift the stretcher into the ambulance. Ricky, still alive, barely, lay there mouth agape. I looked at my dad and said, “What the hell? This guy is going to die over a baseball bat. And why does this guy have a shotgun in his house anyway?” The guy beat the rap. Got off on self defense and received community service. I made a decision at that point of my life that I wanted to make sure that nobody would ever be robbed of justice again, if I could help it.

And sometimes, I feel…well…powerless to help those caught in injustice.

The second was my experience of Nicaragua. I made four trips to Managua, to work at an orphanage. We also went to a place called Chureca, the garbage dump. People lived in Chureca and I have never imagined such poverty. Cardboard used for walls with the word “Basura” on it. Animals roaming free, dogs, chickens, pigs in people’s houses. Many died of malnutrition and stomach cancer was also prevalent. I thought to myself, “I’m trying to live in solidarity here, but nobody should ever have to live this way.” It robbed everyone of their dignity, and they grasped on to whatever they could to retain it. We brought supplies, baby formula, foodstuffs and more…but it would never be enough.

My journal entry as I travelled home, said a simple phrase,

“Poverty shouldn’t exist. And in a country as rich as ours, we don’t come close to knowing real poverty.”

I took pictures that day in Nicaragua, like the one above and the picture of Ricky burned in my mind continues to remind me of the senselessness of needless death and destruction.

St Ignatius reminds us that we need to revisit “the pictures” of our previous day and then let those moments lead us into deeper contemplation over the consolations and desolations of our lives. Then, and perhaps only then, we can make a firm amendment to change for the better.

Today we pray to remember the pictures that change our lives. May those who see the violence have their heart changed, especially as we remember these children, Noah in particular. We remember those who die needlessly in war, war that our country has sanctioned and continues to destroy peace. And we pray for the poor, who suffer needlessly because of greed. May God teach us to solve the problems of peace and justice because we have seen injustice. May that experience bring us to work harder for the dignity of humankind. Amen.

My Bucket List

So eternal rest grant unto Sheila, O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon her, may her soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

We pray today for Sheila, the ex wife of a friend who died suddenly. We’ve all been stunned by the news. And have tried to be there for my friend who had to help make arrangements, a tough deal indeed.

Death calls us all to take stock. My friend wrote up a Bucket List and inspired a bunch of us to do the same. Things we’d all like to do before we die. Here’s mine:

Professional Goals
– Write books about marriage, spiritual direction, my father and my dog
– Do a year of service when I finally retire with JVC.
– Engage more people with Ignatian Spirituality
– Start some model programs in Campus Ministry that we can publish and allow others to share them
– Write a major theological work
– Contribute to lasting change in the church for a more collaborative dynamic in the church

Personal Goals
– Become a Saint (Thanks Thomas Merton!)
– Walk the Camino in Spain
– Take my Father back to Ireland for a trip
– See the Holy Land and the Vatican
– Be a better husband (Marion says I can check that one off already, but I’m hard on myself.)
– Forgive a few people I hold grudges against
– Run a 5K in my 40s and 50s
– Maintain my weight at under 200 lbs
– Join an Improv Group
– Act on stage in front of a large audience
– Have a conversation with a President and a Pope
– Call one inning of a Major League Baseball Game and/or One Quarter of an NFL Game on Radio or TV.

Places to See/Things to Do (somewhat superficial things that I’d like to do)
– Visit all 50 states (I’m at 33)
– See a game at all the Major League Baseball Stadiums (I have been to 18 out of the present 30 and 4 that have closed)
– Go to the Kentucky Derby and the Indy 500 (my radio colleagues consistently tell me these are the two greatest events in sports)
– Countries to visit: England, Scotland, Wales, Norway, Sweeden, China, Japan, India, Greece.
– Take an Alaskan Cruise
– Rescue and raise a dog from a pup (Haze was 1.5 when I got him).

I’m sure there’s more. I’ve ticked a bunch off from earlier lists, like:
Get married, own a dog, lead retreats for a living, go to the World Series (been to 3 games), etc.

What’s on your list?

Ripley the Dog RIP

My buddy Ripley had to be put down this week while I was away. She had been failing for some time. Ripley, was Fr. Jack’s Olde English Sheepdog here at the parish and I loved her. She was a 2 year old rescue dog from Indianapolis and she came with Quigley who left us last year. She lived to a very old age of 13, which for big dogs is very, very old.

Fr. Jack is in Hawaii and I imagine he is very sad along with Fr. Pat who was one of Ripley’s favorites.

For myself, I grew closer to Ripley who’d come by my office and visit, knowing she was always welcome. Some days she’d just lay down on my floor and snooze until I’d get up to leave. Sr. Jeremy had her in her later years as a constant companion and our parish office manager, Joanne would always find her laying in her doorway.

Here’s one of my favorite moments with Ripley from our 50 Day giveaway.

I believe that there are dogs in heaven, after all, what would heaven be without them (or any pets?)? And by that, I mean that the unconditional love that our pets have shown us (dogs especially) will be even more present to us in heaven. Once again, we’ll feel the love that these creatures of God have shown us and it will be a great communion of that love in the presence of God.

While sad (I cried all the way home from Long Island and when I passed Ripley’s yard this morning),I am also filled with gratitude. Fr. Jack rescued Ripley, as I did with my dog Haze and as he said, she in turn has rescued us. Ripley, now freed from her pain is in peace. I will miss her and she will always have a special place in my heart.

Now I’m off to play with Haze the Dog.

We Must Not Stay Silent

Close to 30 dead…most of them children…Suburban Connecticut…

The words haunt us all. Children somehow makes this worse as if killing an adult makes it somehow easier to take. Newtown…a place people move to because it’s supposedly safer.

None of it makes sense to any of us. A sadistic person, apparently only 24 years old is the killer. Someone known to those inside the school. A man the same age as many of my students, with a name close to a student who dropped my class earlier in the year. Who knows why, as if knowing why might make it easier to understand. It doesn’t…it never will.

When things are senseless to us we ask the question “Why?” Why does God allow such horror? HOW can God allow such loss of life?

Friends on Facebook write words like “speechless”, “too early for words.

NOBODY deserves to die at the hands of another, a senseless crime and a horrible death. Deaths too soon, much too soon for children. Sacred life, all. Taken unjustly.

Evil wants us to be muted. Evil hopes fervently that we stay silent. Evil hopes to stun us so violently that we are unable to rise above the violence of today and speak in the name of peace and justice.

It’s hard to believe that God can redeem this…that God can embrace each child, each person, killed and make them whole once again. After all, a violently planned murder, 30 counts of murder, an open and shut case…makes sense to nobody.

Larger than Columbine. Blitzer reports. And we thought evil could not do worse.

We need to believe that evil does not rule the day today. God is greater than all of this. While we are sitting in sadness and parents and families sit with the senseless and horrifying loss, evil laughs at our silence.

So I write…and I hope you will too. Write more than your fears and your stunned disbelief. Write about redemption and hope and light overcoming darkness. Write about how God doesn’t think this is OK. Write about how God cries with us at each murder. God, a victim of murder Himself, hanging from a cross at the hands of another, cried in pain and cries again today.

Write about that. Speak about that. Preach about that.

We need that voice, but often settle for the voice of vengeance.

If anyone understands their pain it is Mary, seeing injustice, even with the knowledge that Christ’s death saves us, the pain doesn’t stop for a mother who watches her child die.

And vengeance is our first reaction, a natural thought. We quote the bible’s “an eye for an eye” forgetting that the line refers to limiting violence not promoting it. It stopped people from butchering others when they were hurt or violated by another to a lesser degree. “No MORE than an eye for an eye.”

Stopping the cycle of violence begins with our voices. Voices of hope, that hope beyond hopelessness. This hope brings us into belief, fervent belief that God can and does redeem all evil, especially when we see how much destruction evil can bring.

Gun control, anti-violence campaigns, cable news will tell us all of these angles. As if evil will be stopped, by any of these political initiatives.

Jesus reminded us that “the poor you will always have with you.” Perhaps he meant that the world will always be broken. A world where parents lose children because they sent them to kindergarten, we’re THAT broken.

My wife works in a school. I can’t imagine her not coming home simply because she taught children. Evil is trying to make us afraid, fearing that we can’t overcome this. That God doesn’t care.

And because our world is broken, it is indeed in need of God’s healing. And it is up to us to speak. LOUDLY…

Because this is not OK. This is not of God. And that God somehow, someway is able to redeem the worst of all of this evil.

Ghandi, a man of peace, reminds us that we need to be the change that we want to see in the world. And may our voices rise today…to remind all that we are not defeated by hopelessness and that in our deepest heart, we long to be a people of peace.

My heart goes out to all of those who lost loved ones today. For Christmas presents that go unopened and for parents who have hearts full of rage and anger at the senselessness of it all. Indeed, God is there longing for peace, holding your child, all the children, all the dead. They now know peace. A peace we can only hope for. A peace that children remind us is within our reach, if we only believe. A peace that is truly awesome to believe can be ours. A peace we need to pray for today so that no child’s voice can ever be stilled again by gunfire, but can instead, sing with great hope.

One of My Favorite Jesuits

While I was an undergrad at Fordham, I often was invited to dinner with the Jesuit Scholastics (and others who were in formation for ministry) at Ciszek Hall a quiet respite just off of the Fordham campus in the Little Italy Section of the Bronx, better known as Arthur Avenue to most. Those evenings enabled me to form many great friendships amongst many great Jesuits. And the Jesuit who ran the house was one of them. His name was Fr. Gerald J. Chojancki, SJ but we all knew him by his preferred monicker of “Jeff.” Jeff died Tuesday suddenly and I was saddened to hear of his death at the relatively young age of 69.

Fr. Jeff always had great homilies and often accompanied us undergrads on retreats. He was a tireless spiritual director to many and a friend to any who reached out to him.

On one of my many visits to Ciszek, I was sitting at dinner with Jeff and my dear friend, now Fr. Tom Benz, S.J. We were talking about a bunch of things and Jeff seemed a bit tired after a long day of administrative tasks. I was excited about my new internship at WFAN radio and Jeff was interested in some of the cast of characters I was working with, in particular Don Imus. Another Jesuit whose name escapes me at the moment, sat down and had a pensive look on his face. Jeff looked at him and said, “Hey, what’re you thinking about?”

The young scholastic sighed and said “Aristotle!”

Without missing a beat, Jeff quipped, “Oh the hell with that. Hayes, tell us more about Imus!”

Everyone laughed and later I found Jeff with his hand on the young Jesuits shoulder. “Hey, hope Aristotle isn’t a big problem. I was just tired and couldn’t deal with any more Philosophy questions.”

They took their dessert into another room and talked until I left hours later.

Jeff eventually became the Provincial of the New York Province and he dealt with a lot of serious issues. He dealt with the sexual abuse crisis and the merging of the Provinces of the East coast. The Jesuit Collaborative that exists today is largely a result of his leadership. The Collaborative looks for ways to share the Spiritual Exercises with others in new ways and I know that was a high priority for Jeff throughout his life. He taught me much about the exercises in our short time together at Fordham. He was brave enough to stand up for many gay priests who were shamed when many called them unfit for ministry, his support for all Jesuits was unwavering, no matter who they were.

Mostly, I remember his big smile and his welcoming nature. He’d always be the first one to greet us at Ciszek and was often the last one to say goodbye to us, talking often into the wee hours of the morning. His sense of humor was always something that drew people to him and I’ll remember laughing often with him around campus.

Rest in peace, Jeff. May the angels welcome you into paradise where St. Ignatius and the Risen Jesus will greet you with the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

And they will welcome you as you did for so many others.

More info on Fr. Chojnacki’s funeral arrangements can be found here.

Memories of Patrick and Lance Armstrong

So the news is all a flutter about Lance Armstrong giving up the fight to clear his name regarding doping throughout his career. He was stripped of his titles and his good name, perhaps already tarnished is now eradicated from the halls of cycling history.

It would be easy, perhaps too easy for me to say that everyone’s full of it. That nobody plays fair anymore and that all athletes enhance their bodies in order to just keep up with all the others who have an unfair advantage because they are using drugs to give them a step up. It would be easy for me to call Armstrong a cheater, which he is and denigrate him further.

But my thoughts regarding Armstrong are far more personal.

For about a year, I visited a cancer patient named Patrick Giles. Patrick was a friend of my colleague, Fr. Brett Hoover and after Fr. Brett moved on from BustedHalo®, I began to visit Patrick for spiritual direction and to see if he needed anything.

And Patrick was hugely inspired by Armstrong in his own fight against cancer, a fight that Patrick did not win ultimately. He died unexpectedly after a short fight with the disease, his prognosis was good but he took a turn for the worse one week and it was over all too quickly.

On our visits, Patrick would always say at least once: “Everytime I see that guy on his bike I get so inspired.” He had all the Live Strong gear and he really rooted for Armstrong and would go to events that Armstrong would be present at just to get a glimpse of him.

Patrick deserved better.

I admire Armstrong’s dedication to people with cancer. I admire his work in bringing attention to the disease and using his celebrity for a good cause.

But today, it troubles me. Armstrong isn’t different from any other athlete who cheats here. It seems to me like there are more who are guilty than innocent these days and it troubles me that nobody cares. Fans keep coming out to see the show even though these athletes are killing their bodies and the integrity of the sports they play.

And I think Patrick would agree with me and be greatly disappointed in his hero.

Patrick was a very critical person and he held everyone to a higher standard. I remember reading a story one time in a writer’s group we were in where a story was being critiqued about a man who was in a wheelchair and how it was such an effort for him to make sandwiches for his kids. In painstakingly detail, he told of the steps it took for him to make each sandwich. The author then compared the making of the sandwich to a sacrament.

All of us in the room were enamored by the story…that is except Patrick.

He whispered to Fr. Brett and I, “Can you JUST MAKE THE SANDWICHES ALREADY!?” Which evoked much laughter from us. Later on he would tell the group, “I’m sorry a sandwich is NOT a sacrament.”

Again, the higher standard applied.

I’ve been wondering what Patrick would think of Armstrong today. My guess is his disappointment would run deep, but I also think that he would be angry and ask good questions. Does his celebrity and good works entitle Lance to a free pass? I don’t think Patrick would think so. But I also think that Patrick would find a moment of gratitude in seeing someone so flawed also try to do good with his life.

You see, we all have something to hide. Something we hope nobody ever finds out about us. And often that gets uncovered in embarrassing ways. I know I’ve been red-faced on a few occasions and there was nothing to do but simply accept that I had been caught.

Armstrong’s monicker “Livestrong” should really be a message for all of us. It’s not how strong we live that matters, but rather it how we deal with those moments where we are most weakened by our own temptations that matters. Armstrong’s penchant for fame and maybe even his passion for beating disease led to the sin of arrogance. I see young doctors go through this all the time. Anyone who has a bit of power to inspire others can get caught up all too easy.

Even us ministers.

So today, I’ll pray in Patrick’s memory that we might be able to find a higher standard again and that many can find their way to altruism without the temptation of being a media star.

After all, it’s when nobody’s looking that the true measure of a person is most accurate. And Patrick always looked in the places that nobody else did. And if he were doing so today, he’d find Armstrong as a fallen hero, with the weight of everyone’s disappointment weighing him down.

And I think he’d offer to pray with him.

Memories of Munson, Murcer and My First Game

My first “in-person” baseball game was at Yankee Stadium in 1979. I went with my little league team. We were awful. I don’t think we won a game all year if memory serves. To make matters worse, I grew up a New York Mets fan, after watching Steve Henderson hit a home run on TV the moment I turned the game on. Little did I know, the Mets stunk and the Yankees were on top of the baseball world.

That was until 1979.

Thurman Munson, the team’s captain and catcher was killed in a plane crash that year. The plane was his own. He bought it to get home to Canton, Ohio to be close to his family and one night while practicing take offs and landings he lost control of the plane and it crashed.

A few days later. I attended my first game at Yankee Stadium. Controversy swooned around the stadium because that morning was Munson’s funeral. The Yankees chartered a private plane and the entire team went. The League office was upset because they had a game that night against Baltimore. What if they didn’t make it back on time for the game.

Owner George Steinbrenner put his foot down. “Tough shit. We’re going. If we don’t make it back, we forfeit.” Steinbrenner was often crazy but he had his principles and he wasn’t going to compromise on this.

I was 9 years old and Thurman was the first young person I ever heard of who had died. I had planned to root for the Orioles for weeks but then Munson’s death changed my mind.

“These guys have been through a lot,” my dad reminded me. “We should show them some respect.”

There was a small moment of silence at this game. A few days earlier Cardinal Cooke eulogized Munson at the Cathedral known as Yankee Stadium.

The Yanks had been through an emotional day. They had been to their teammates funeral and then trotted out on the field. Bobby Murcer gave one of the eulogies. Manager Billy Martin offered to sit him out for the game but Mercer told him “No, I think I need to play tonight.”

The result was astounding. Mercer homered in the 7th and then drove in the tying and winning runs in the 9th with a hot single. He had done it for his friend, in his memory. And he made me a memory that night as well.

Mercer never used that bat again. He gave it to Munson’s widow, Diana.

An amazing man mourning and amazing friend.

Mercer died not all that long ago after suffering from brain cancer. He returned to the broadcast booth (Mercer became a Yankee broadcaster after his playing days were done) and the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

When you’re a kid you don’t know the magnitude of a night like that. It was a good game. I had no real rooting interest. I didn’t realize Munson’s funeral was that morning when I went to the game but was sad by many posters and signs mourning him around the stadium. Looking back now, it was a heck of a first game for a nine year old kid.

Baseball can transcend life in that way and I hope you have some baseball memories that are just as memorable. This one is one of my favorites.

Rest in peace, Thurman and Bobby.