Op-ed in the Philadelphia Daily News - July 5, 2011
"Come on, or you won't be able to go to the game in Philly."
Those attempted words of encouragement seemed to be hopeless for the 94-year-old in the hospital bed, his body bloated to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. With the end appearing to be near, it seemed naive to entertain the notion that he could get from Bel Air, Md., to South Philadelphia in five months for a night game - even if he pulled through.
I'd already witnessed Walter Oley's "retirement" from major league baseball two years before, on July 31, 2009. As we left Camden Yards that night, with him holding onto my arm for support as numbness pierced his leg, he made his announcement between labored breaths:
"Well, that is the last ballgame I will go to in my life."
But on June 29, 2011, he proved himself wrong.
Benefiting from the mettle he acquired during the Depression, my miraculously recovered "Grampy" walked without assistance through the turnstiles at Citizens Bank Park.
It was a momentous comeback, the highlight of the night even before first pitch. His entry was met with no fanfare from the capacity crowd - it was a private moment relished only by his son and the two grandchildren accompanying him.
There was something inspiring - and incomprehensible - about the fact that Oley blended in so unremarkably throughout the evening - not to mention the astounding fact that he drove himself from Maryland to Pennsylvania earlier that afternoon.
After all, no one takes notice of an elderly man moving along the concourse unless he has a cane or a wheelchair. He sat among the masses, enjoying his two favorite teams, the Phils and the Red Sox, sharing the same field - and lamenting the pitchers' duel and recent trend of low-scoring games. Back in his day, he reminded me, batters routinely flirted with .400 averages for the season.
His decision to wear an unembroidered hat with a red brim was intentional - a neutral homage to both teams' primary color - but Oley will always be a lifelong die-hard Boston fan first.
He can still vividly recall afternoon games at the old Boston Braves stadium. As a teen during the Depression (he was born on April 15, 1917), he walked from his home in Cambridge over the Charles River and past the railroad tracks to get to the ballpark. He and his buddies sometimes paid 50 cents to sit in the bleachers, do their homework, and enjoy the game. Other times, he joined the knothole gangs, peeping through the stadium walls to watch some of baseball's immortals-to-be.
"The greatest hitter I ever saw was Ruth," he once said. "Gehrig was good, too."
Grampy has compiled an admirable array of statistics throughout his life. He proudly served as a soldier during World War II, and as a Nabisco salesman in the years that followed. He built a family with his wife and four children, then built a house on a pond in Massachusetts where he lived for more than 30 years.
Only with an increasing need for medical attention did Oley and his wife reluctantly leave "the house that Walter built" for Maryland, where children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were nearby to provide support, love and companionship.
Throughout the game last Wednesday, I couldn't help but think about an event I'd attended earlier that afternoon at the Free Library for the Best Day of My Life (So Far) - an organization that promotes storytelling and sharing between senior citizens and teenagers to connect the generations. It was a fitting prelude to my night sitting next to Grampy, listening to him recall Connie Mack lineups and analyze Charlie Manuel roster moves.
When the enormous electronic Liberty Bell - the symbol of the country Oley loves so dearly - swung above center field to signify the Phillies' eventual game-winning home run, he couldn't resist a smile.
I felt thankful to have him there.
For 42 outs and nearly two hundred pitches, Walter Oley sat with his son, grandson and granddaughter, and reveled in the American pastime that has united fathers and sons (and maybe even daughters) for more than a century - unbelievably, a tradition not that much older than him.
As I sat in my seat after his unceremonious early departure at the end of the seventh inning, I was left to ponder the end of an era, and wonder about my connection to the generations to come.
Here is what some readers had to say...
"Wonderful, wonderful story!!! True story: My Grampy died in January 1981, 3 months after the Championship. My Dad died in November 2008. Both had BIG smiles on their faces!!!"
Thanks for an inspiring story (& plugging The Best Day Of My Life (So Far), an intergenerational storytelling project here in the city). So glad you could make it out to our launch party. For anyone else interested in sharing / reading similar stories, please check out www.thebestdayofmylifesofar.com.