One of the Greatest

Go through life and you always discover people who — for whatever reason — make an impact on who you are.

For me — and for many others — one of those people died this week.

It wasn’t a surprise. He’d been sick. Does that make it easier? Of course it doesn’t. It just makes it more real.

Ironically, I was on my way to a funeral earlier this week when the text came in:

“Lost another great one this morning.”

I froze. And, well, for the first time ever, I pulled over to send a reply message back:

“One of the greatest.”

Many of you reading know who I’m referring to, so a lot of what is to come here won’t surprise you. But to those of you who don’t know this man, maybe the next few minutes you spend here will make you want to say a prayer for the hundreds — and I mean hundreds — of people who are saddened by the loss of this great man.

What made him great? You can ask me, but I’m not sure I can tell you. It was sort of a thing where you just had to experience time with him to understand. Maybe the best thing to say is his greatness was in his commonness — yet he was by no means a common man. Does that make sense? It does to me.

He was simple. He was hardworking. He was honest. He was a family man — having been born into a huge one and raising a great one. He was a proud man. And for what he accomplished in life and how he impacted people, he should be proud. And nothing should make him or his family prouder than the amount of people who are going to pay their last respects to him Friday and Saturday.

A friend sent me a message that said, “so many people that shaped our lives are going to soon.”

Amen to that.

This was a man who shaped so many lives. In such subtle ways.

A man I had such admiration for. Such respect for. Such love for. How could anyone who ever met him not have those three things? Simply impossible.

I just have so many simple memories of him. And, again, that plays into his greatness. Nothing incredible. Just normal things. But lots of them. And all good.

Besides the fact that he’s the father of a dear friend, my connection to him — like many others — was through sports, particularly baseball. I wish I had the chance to see him play because this is a man who was drafted by the Mets in 1962. He was a Yankees fan, but one you could talk to because the only thing he loved more than the Yankees was the game itself. And that’s where we connected. Our conversations were always so much fun. More like arguments, really. Two stubborn Irishmen trying to prove a point — often times the same point yet one person had to ‘win’ the argument.

This man taught me more about hitting in 10 minutes than I learned in 10 years. Too bad it was after my playing career was over. He was a coach at the Little League where kids in my generation grew up during the summer. He coached softball — and that’s where he made the biggest impact on the lives of so many. Teaching them how to play the game. And always doing it the right way. So spending time with him watching others was so great for me. He taught me to see things I’d never seen before. “For God’s sake, Michael, watch the hands. Everything is in the hands.” I can hear his voice to this day. And I know exactly where we were when he said that to me.

But what he really did was help teach me respect for the game. How it should be played. What lessons you can take from it. What value it has besides just runs scored and someone winning. That sort of thing. You know, what’s really important.

And I’m not special here at all. He taught this to so many. Yes, it’s true. He taught them to hit better. Field better. Throw better. But he taught them to play better. To appreciate better. To respect better.

And he started with my friend, his oldest daughter.

When we were in high school, I was the sports editor of the school newspaper, and I wanted to write a feature story on my friend. She wasn’t the strongest, the fastest or the most talented. But her success came because she got the most out of her abilities by¬†working harder than anyone else.

Hmmm. I wonder where she learned that from?

As I was thinking about her dad today, I remembered that I still had a copy of that school newspaper, published Tuesday, February 23, 1988. I knew the end of the story was about her dad. I just had to find it. And I’m glad I did.

These are the last two paragraphs of that story:

She credits her father for helping her along. She says he has always stressed hustle, hustle, hustle.

“He always told me, ‘Give 100 percent. Do the best you can, even if poeple don’t think it is enough. As long as you know that it’s enough inside, it’s good enough.'”

A pretty good lesson, eh?

She learned it well.

And so did everyone else who was touched by this man.

Yes, the text I got earlier this week was true. We have lost another great one.

And nothing is greater than the legacy he leaves behind.