“Why Me?”

12/05/2016 04:43 pm ET
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There was a time when Brooklyn was the world.

Flatbush, Prospect Park, Greenpoint, Gowanus, Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst, Cyprus Hills, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and other sections of the iconic borough that defined America at a time when the Hudson River was the dividing line between east and west.

In his enlightened history of Brooklyn, 1920-1957, author Elliot Willensky captured in freeze frame a time when the street was an amphitheater—stoop ball was king; the Fuller Brush Man had the confidence and swag of a dignitary; Jacks and Jump Rope ruled; neighbors actually spoke to each other; and “stores on wheels” sold fresh baked goods and fruit washed down with a swig of seltzer.

Norman Rockwell, eat your heart out…

In 1920, the BMT subway reached Brooklyn’s outer edge, linking Manhattan to the heartland then of this nation, home to hallowed Ebbets Field in Flatbush at 55 Sullivan Place, which opened in 1913 and sadly closed in 1957 after the Hudson became just a river. A sweet spot in its day, the 35,000-seat Ebbets was home to the venerable Brooklyn Dodgers, who captured, for a time, the sports imagination and the resolve of a country.

Enter lanky Ralph Branca, June 12, 1944, a strapping, giant of a man, a gifted pitcher from the mound to his Italian soul. In so many vital ways, Ralph, number 13, personified Brooklyn, and embodied the national pastime—the will to press on—in a single pitch in 1951 to New York Giant, Glasgow-born Bobby Thomson, the “Staten Island Scott,” who ignited “the shot heard around the world,” an epic slip in sports history, a home run that lifted the Giants in a pennant winning game above the rival Dodgers.

History can be cruel. 

There was another shot heard recently round the baseball world and beyond at the stroke of midnight just before Thanksgiving. Ralph Theodore Joseph Banca was called up to pitch on God’s team. The saints are cheering wildly; thirteen is a lucky number in Heaven! A career once defined by a high inside fastball has come to eternal life.

“One of the greatest guys to ever throw a pitch or sing a song is (no) longer with us,” Branca’s son-in-law Bobby Valentine, former Met and Red Sox manager and a man himself of baseball accomplishment, tweeted at Ralph’s passing. “In his 91st year on Earth he left us with the same dignity and grace that defined his everyday on Earth.”

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…

Born in Mt. Vernon, the 15th of 17 children, Ralph Branca was far more than a gifted ballplayer. But for those who read the backs of baseball cards, Ralph was a 20-game winner, a three-time All Star, with an 88-68 won/loss record during 12 seasons—829 strikeouts in 1,484 innings, and a career .379 earned run average (ERA). Branca never saw color in baseball, just heart. On Opening Day in 1947, Jackie Robinson's major league debut, Branca lined up on the field beside Robinson while other players refused because of Robinson’s color. That year, Branca had a 21-12 record and a 2.67 earned run average (ERA) in 280 innings pitched. He earned his first All-Star appearance.

But the box score of someone’s life, as we all know, just tells part of the story. Ralph indeed was a man for all seasons.

After the crushing pitch to Thompson, Ralph was comforted by Father Pat Rowley, a Fordham University priest, a cousin to Branca’s then fiancé, soon to be wife, Ann.

“Why me?” Ralph asked. “Why me?”

“God chose you because he knew your faith was strong enough to bear this cross,” Fr. Rowley responded.

Many years later in an ESPN interview, Branca said, “That really was a very big relief for me. I realized they sent in the best man they had, and Thompson beat me that day.”

God has brought his best man home—the Lord’s hand-picked emissary to those who ever took a third strike in life or gave up a home run ball, teaching them by example that it’s always dark before the sun rises.

“Baseball has lost one of its most enduring gentlemen,” wrote Marty Noble of MLB.com. “The game—no, American society—is diminished by the loss of a man of such integrity, heart and strength.”

Branca had great heart, off the field, as much as on it. His daughters Patti and Mary are testimony to that. We all grew up together.

Ralph was a surrogate father to me, and to many others growing up in Westchester County, just outside the glow of baseball, celebrity, and the New York media. We were his “boys,” and all the better for it—hanging out at the Branca house, listening to baseball stories, but more importantly being schooled by Branca about the need for love, forgiveness, self-deprecating humor, and for pressing on against all odds—lessons none of us will ever forget. We will carry them to the grave, as our coach did.

Yes, Branca was as much a coach in life, as a famous baseball player. He used his renown to teach others. He filled a gap for me in surrogate ways at a time when my father was abstracted with raising and financing 10 children. As the oldest boy, I kinda just went my way; Ralph was there at times to catch me in the net.

Catch is an operative word here. Over time, I became Branca’s backyard catcher, or as daughter Patti calls it, “Ralph’s personal catcher.” I was a shy, reticent kid then, filled with uncertainty, a journeyman catcher, but Ralph listened to my baseball stories as if I were Yogi Berra: narratives about our Senior Babe Ruth All-Star team that won the New York State championships two years in a row, with trips to the divisional World Series tournament. Ralph never blinked, just listened.

In the late 1960s, well beyond his retirement, Branca was looking to get back in shape in the hopes of pitching batting practice for his buddy Gil Hodges’ team, the 1969 Miracle Mets, which   won the ’69 World Series in the eighth year of the franchise against the Baltimore Orioles. “Amazin’ Mets,” coined Casey Stengel, who managed the team in its inaugural season through 1965. And so, we worked out regularly, pitcher/catcher, on the Rye High School field.

Ralph could still throw hard. Pop! The hollow of my left hand can still feel the zing through the catcher’s mitt. Muscle memory. Ralph frequently took me to Yankee and Met games—his catcher in tow. We talked about the strategies of winning ball games; little did I know at the time that Ralph was instructing me about life. I was a nobody, yet to Ralph, I was his battery mate, and Ralph wanted to teach. He was a coach.

Ralph knew I always wanted to play pro ball, my boyhood dream; only thing keeping me back was the talent. One day after a particularly grueling workout in the early fall of 1969, Ralph told me he was going to pitch batting practice the next day to the Mets at Shea Stadium.

“You’re coming with me, and you’re working out on the field,” he announced, as a father would proclaim.

The next day as declared, Ralph pulled up in front of my house on Brookdale Place to take me to Shea. I was told to wear dress pants, a collared shirt, and to bring my baseball gear in an athletic bag. Neighbor Phil Clancy, an old Dodger fan, was peeking out the door as if the Second Coming were at hand. He kept poking his head in and out, thinking he would be turned into a pillar of salt. Ralph was bigger than life.

Days later at my mother’s repeated urging, I scribbled copious notes of the Mets experience, then pounded out the notes on my Royal typewriter, still in my office today. The notes were put in a plastic box for safekeeping. When Patti emailed me shortly after her father had passed away, I opened the box. The memories were overwhelming.

“Hello, Mr. Branca,” the security guard at the door to the Mets locker room said. A sign on the door forewarned: “Private. Keep Out.”  Fully intimidated. I read into it: “Greg, this means you…” 

Stepping into the Mets locker room, as a young man, felt like I was walking into Lewis Carroll’s “Looking Glass,” where nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t…”

Once inside, there was no Mad Hatter, but there, head on, were the likes of Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Ron Swoboda, and many other Met stars. On the wall in the back of the room, was another sign; this one painted in big black letters by pitching ace Tug McGraw. It was inscribed with the team motto, “You gotta believe!”

I was believing….

Ralph excused himself for a minute, popping into an adjoining office for some small talk. “Hey Greg,” he yelled minutes later, “come on in. I got someone I want you to meet.”

I shuffled in.

“Greg, this is Gil Hodges,” Ralph said, explaining to Hodges that I was his catcher, now playing baseball at Fairfield University. “It’s just a small college, Mr. Hodges. I’m just honored to be here.”

“Greg’s pretty fair with a glove,” Ralph replied. “Hey, ah…Gil,” Ralph said (I realized later a set-up in advance). Ok if Greg works out on the field with me today?”

“I have a small problem,” Hodges said.

“Mr. Hodges,” I replied. “I’m just thrilled to be here.”

“No,” said Hodges. “I have to get him a uniform; no one is allowed on the field working out without a uniform.”

Holy shit, I thought!

Within minutes, the equipment manager brought in a neatly pressed Met’s uniform, number 53, legendary Eddie Yost’s uniform, then a third base coach at end of an incredible career.

I was living the childhood dream, all part of Ralph’s teaching.  Branca and I dressed in locker room stalls; Seaver’s locker was to my left.

“Ok, gentleman, let’s go,” minutes later Hodges shouted, walking through the locker room, clapping his hands.

Ralph and I walked out with about 15 other players, down a dark, concrete tunnel toward the dugout. The sound of our iron spikes dragging along the floor was deafening. At the end of the tunnel stood an imposing, but friendly figure. I couldn’t see who it was. He was slapping players on the butt with his mitt, as they stepped up into the dugout.

My eyes focused at I got closer. I was stunned. It was field coach Yogi Berra!

Berra looked me square in the eye; perhaps he thought I was brought up from Triple A for the pennant drive. “Let’s show some hustle,” Berra shouted, as he whacked me with his glove.

“You bet, coach!”

I was pinching myself. As I walked onto the field, it looked so vacuous.  I was gawking like someone looking up at the ceiling of Grand Central Station for the first time.

“Why don’t you go out and shag a few flies during batting practice,” Branca said, probably a bit discomfited that I was looking like a rube.

I was directed to the outfield, thinking a bunch of ball boys were roaming the perimeters. To my surprise, the Mets starting National League All-Star outfield Tommy Agee, Donn Clendenon, and Cleon Jones were running sprints on the warning track

Jones came up to me to introduce himself.

I quickly explained profusely that I was this little shit catcher, a nobody, and just here as a friend of Ralph’s, my tryout in believing in dreams.

“Well, let’s see if you learned anything” said Jones with a smile.

The first ball was hit right at me, about 12 feet to my right. “Go get it, rookie,” Jones invoked. I jumped at the chance, feeling as though that I had cinderblocks attached to both feet. Somehow, I managed to position myself beneath the ball and catch it. That felt good. Soon I was one-handing catches, and hitting imaginary cutoff men in the infield; I even one-hopped a ball to third.

Do you believe in miracles? Yes, when in the company of Ralph Branca!

Later, Branca summoned me to warm him up for batting practices, to the right of home plate, back near the box seats where young kids, as I once did, reached over the waist-high concrete wall to get an autograph. After Ralph walked out to pitch batting practice, a young kid called out to me with a baseball in hand.

“Sir, would you sign this?” he asked.

No one had ever asked for my autograph, but in a moment of triumph I obliged.

In those days, sadly gone, entire teams would sign a single baseball. So I flipped the ball over, looking for Seaver and Koosman’s signature, then signed my name. Flipping the ball back over again to avoid incrimination, I handed it back.

My dream complete; Ralph had delivered like the messiah.

Fast forward to several years later. Other dreams turned to nightmares. I lost a maternal grandfather and mother to Alzheimer’s; about a year ago my paternal uncle died of the disease, and before my father died, he was diagnosed with dementia, along with other serious complications. I was then diagnosed myself with Early Onset Alzheimer’s after brain scans, clinical tests, two serious head injuries, and a gene test that revealed I carried the Alzheimer’s gene APOE-4, likely on both side of the family tree. The diagnosis came two weeks after a cancer diagnosis that I’m not treating because I don’t want to take my family that place of the end stage of this demon. Then there was confirmation of clinical depression, spinal stenosis, scoliosis, degeneration of the spine, and no feeling in the tops of feet up to my shines because brain cells are not connecting.

“Why me?” I asked Ralph. “Why me?”

There was no hesitation. “God has plans for you; get off the mat, get off your ass and keep fighting,” he urged. “It’s not about the spotlight; it’s about the fight, about encouraging others to fight. Will you do that?”

A few weeks ago, I received another call from Patti Branca, saying her father was failing and that I should call him. I did immediately. We had a good talk—the exit interview, the tough goodbye delivered from the heart. Ralph, as usual, was more interested in how I was doing than talking about himself. “Keep fighting,” he urged me. “Don’t you dare give up…”

Surrogate father to son, we came full circle; I’ve stored those words in my heart.

After learning of Ralph’s death, I woke my son Conor to tell him. Ralph had reached out earlier several times to Conor as a mentor, as he had done with me.

“Dad,” Conor told me. “I just had a dream about Ralph: you, me and Ralph were all playing baseball.”

Full circle. Ralph, on the way to Heaven, chose again to reach out to someone in need of encouragement, as he had decades ago with me.

That was Ralph…

Greg O’Brien’s latest book, “On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s,” has won the 2015 Beverly Hills International Book Award for Medicine, the 2015 International Book Award for Health, and is an Eric Hoffer International Book Award finalist, as well as a finalist for USA Best Book Awards. O’Brien also is the subject of the short film, “A Place Called Pluto,” directed by award-winning filmmaker Steve James, online at livingwithalz.org. NPR’s “All Things Considered” is running a series about O’Brien’s journey, online at npr.org/series/389781574/inside-alzheimers, and PBS/NOVA followed the Pluto journey in its groundbreaking Alzheimer’s documentary on April 6, among other regional and national interviews. For more information go to: OnPluto.org. O’Brien serves on the Alzheimer’s Association Advisory Group for Early Onset Alzheimer’s, and is a patient advocate for the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund of Boston and the distinguished Washington, DC based UsAgainstAlzheimer’sty7u t umjyumumkyumkfyu mk6yhun rsr t6

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