First Person / Bonding over baseball

My cousin Drew and I have never been closer

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My cousin Drew is a 45-year-old veteran of the first Gulf War (1991), which he served aboard a battleship in the Persian Gulf. A former high school quarterback out of Western Pennsylvania, he has always been carefree and a little wild, and always fun to be around.

Today, Drew is confined to a wheelchair. He suffers from what was officially diagnosed as "Gulf War Syndrome." The condition has manifested itself as advanced multiple sclerosis, which he believes he contracted after being forced to take a drug designed to counter the impact of a (suspected) chemical-weapons attack by Saddam Hussein.

It's a sad situation. This isn't where Drew expected to be in his mid-40s.

Drew and I haven't been in touch much since we were kids. I've always regretted that. I would call him occasionally and we'd engage in whatever small talk we could, usually about politics and the country.

In August, I phoned Drew after we'd been out of contact for a while. His sister told me that his condition had worsened. "How are you?" I began. "Well," he sighed. "I'm still alive."

After some uneasy words, our conversation lit up when we suddenly hit upon something we hadn't discussed in years: baseball. That is, Pittsburgh Pirates baseball. The Pirates were looking at their first winning season in over 20 years. Drew and I talked for probably a half-hour just about the Pirates.

But the dialogue didn't end with that phone call. I soon thereafter learned that Drew loves to send text messages. I don't, and (up until then) had resisted learning how. But the growing onslaught of Drew text messages forced a reappraisal, especially because the subject was the Pirates.

Over the course of the next three months, not a Pirates game went by where Drew and I weren't texting throughout. It was a blast. When I was on vacation and didn't have Root Sports to watch the game, Drew handled the play-by-play for me. It was like a live-feed, accompanied by Drew's usual color and (uncensored) flare.

During one day game, I was driving my 11-year-old daughter home from swim practice with the Pirates on the radio. My phone repeatedly chimed in with various snippets of analysis by Drew. My daughter intercepted them with a bemused glance. After one particularly awful Pirates' error, I heard the chime and told her she might not want to read that one. She caught the four-letter word and blushed and giggled the rest of the way home.

Beautiful. Classic Drew.

*

When the Pirates finally made the playoffs, for the first time since 1992, Drew texted to inform me that he had ventured out and bought a 60-inch big-screen TV for the occasion. I have no idea how he got to the store, got the TV in a car and got it inside the hotel room where he lives, nor got it hooked up. But not unlike his ability to somehow fly himself to Europe when he gets the urge or get himself to a Pirates game -- a 103-mile one-way cab ride to Pittsburgh -- Drew made it happen. He's always made things happen.

I texted him about half an hour into the game. "How's the TV?" I asked. "Awesome," he replied.

Our communication continued during down time between Pirates games, when we discussed (always via text) the latest on politics, the world, Syria, Russia, Iraq and the circumstances in the Middle East that had contributed to his condition.

His texts have been much more frequent than mine. I have seven kids and I'm never alone. Drew is alone. He's confined. He has more time to text. But every single message makes me smile. In fact, as I write this sentence, another text just arrived.

My point, of course, is this: The bond that Drew and I now have was built by the Bucs, the resurrected Pittsburgh Pirates. The success of the Pirates impacted not only the lives of the players, their fans and the spirit of their city, but me and my cousin as well. Big time. We're in touch more than ever before.

Baseball has long been America's pasttime, bringing friends and family together for more than a century. In Pittsburgh over the last 20 years, baseball seemed past its time. That changed this year, the great season of 2013, which once again brought Pittsburgh together. That's an intangible that didn't appear anywhere in the box score.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.


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