The 1st Pitch

On Sunday, I had both a life-affirming and a life-changing moment. I went to the Cincinnati Reds game to see a dear friend throw out the 1st pitch. Now, if you’re a sports fan at all, this is a bucket list item for most men. We grow up watching games and fantasize about taking the mound in front of a packed stadium waiting to “bring it” with a strike right across the plate.

Getting to see a friend have this opportunity would have been reason enough to go to the game. The story about the amazing man and his current situation makes it even more substantial. John and I have known each other for several years. Our kids are all around the same age, and we saw each other at school events from elementary school through high school. We were both also adult leaders in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Two of his sons were in the Troop where I was Scoutmaster for a few years and I loved seeing them and getting to spend time with John. On top of our paths crossing at school and scouting, John’s family lives a few blocks away from me. We’d see each other wandering around the streets on neighborhood walks and make sure to catch up every time.

John and I are also connected by two other important facets of our lives. We are both men of faith and we have shared how that is a driver of who we are as humans because it easily melded with our shared profession. You see, John and I are peers who both work in HR.

So, when I received the sobering news in 2022 that my friend had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), I was floored. It was hard for me to come to terms with this because John is one of the most approachable, friendly, encouraging, thoughtful, funny, and loving people I know. To receive the news of having a terminal disease ran contrary to the life that John willingly exudes with all he encounters.

The game on Sunday was to recognize Lou Gehrig Day throughout Major League Baseball. John shared several months ago that he was going to be the person throwing out the 1st pitch on this day. Everyone in the neighborhood who knows the family made plans to make sure they were there to watch and support John. A few weeks ago, John posted that his legs had been weakening as his condition progressed. I was wondering and praying that he’d be healthy enough to complete his dream.

As I entered the stadium with my daughter and family friends, Melanie said,
“There’s Mr. Barlow !!” I looked over and saw Ann and the kids (now adults) all huddled together and John in his wheelchair. I left my crew to go over in the hope of seeing him. I caught Ann’s attention first and gave her a rich hug. I worked over to John and his face lit up, as it does with everyone, when he saw me.

“Steve !! Just a second.” He slowly reached down and folded the footrest up and he stood. His arms spread wide and we embraced deeply and held each other. He leaned back and said, “I love you. You need to know that.”

I told him I loved him too, and how glad I was to see him and be there for the big event. He told me his plan was to shake off the sign that his son Thomas was going to give him before throwing his pitch. I told him that was perfect and I couldn’t wait to see it. John thanked me for coming and even said, “I knew you’d be here.”

I grabbed his hand tightly one more time, walked away, and wept. He didn’t see it and I know he wouldn’t have minded if he did. John has seen me weep often when talking about, or with, people I care for. My daughter knew I was going to be emotional. We went down to our seats and had a first-row view of John.

The stadium announcer gave a warm introduction of John and his family and he eagerly drove his wheelchair up to the top of the pitcher’s mound with two of his three sons. His third son took his place as catcher. The crowd was on their feet cheering with all they had. John stood, bent over to get his sign, shook it off, stood mightily, and threw the pitch. It made its way to home plate and was spot on. The cheers were resounding even louder for him after the pitch !!

He made his way off the field and the first thing he did was hug his wife Ann. He waved to the friends and family who came to see him succeed. The whole scenario couldn’t have been more perfect.

We stayed for the game and the Reds lost to the dreaded Cubs, but that didn’t seem to matter. Being there for my friend did.

John doesn’t know how many more days he’ll have of good health or even life. Honestly, neither do we. We do, however, have the ability to choose how we will face this life for the time we have it. I want to choose life as John has. In the midst of all he’s facing, he is upfront with his faith, present for his family, shares gratitude for every experience he has, and looks for the best in everyone. It’s not a show or an act. It’s who he is.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, today was life-affirming because of the time I had to talk with my dear friend before his adventure. It was also life-changing because it gave me perspective on how life can be full, rich, meaningful, and unapologetically filled with love and joy.

May that be true for anyone who reads this. Embrace life. Embrace each other. Weep at times. Laugh always. Each day has meaning. Make that happen on purpose and take the mound !!

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