Before organized sports became, well, organized, the kids in our neighborhood did it ourselves. We loved to be outdoors playing ball during the day and hide-and-seek at night. There were a lot of us close to the same age and a lot of parents who had simple rules — be home for dinner and when it gets dark, unless you have permission to play night games. Then some type of loose curfew was established.
One summer, we were allowed to clear a vacant field that connected our neighborhood to the one below ours. The property was just big enough for a ball field, and we built one, cutting the grass, measuring the baselines, pretending the garage in right field was our Green Monster, even though it was white, and having chain-link fences in center and left that were home-run distance. Because some of us were getting older, and stronger, we decided to learn to hit left-handed to cut down on the balls going into the neighbors’ yards in center and left. We were less concerned about hitting the Price’s garage in right.
One of my best friends, Bob Thornton, used a right-handed grip when he batted left-handed, meaning his hands were always positioned wrong on the bat. We tried everything to talk him out of batting that way, including the risk of injury, but Bob didn’t change. He had his own way of doing things, and thinking about things, that held firm through 60 years of friendship. This is the first baseball season he has missed, and I’m sure he’d have a lot to say about the Orioles’ collapse.
But it’s more about missing him. Bob died suddenly last December, another wakeup call to the preciousness of each day and each person in our lives. He had a passion for life, a child-like wonder that never changed. His jokes could fall flat, but his heart was always full.
When I worked in the sports department of The News American, Bob worked next-door in the art department. He loved the creative environment and the conversations that sometimes would lead to strong discussions about the Orioles and Baltimore Colts. Later, Bob would take thousands of pictures at Ravens camp in Westminster. Photography was one of his gifts.
His pictures told many stories, including his own — his childhood, his time at St. Mary’s College, his wedding, his children, his grandchildren, his friends, music, teaching and gardening.
He had a green thumb, but his biggest gift was growing relationships. He kept us connected, kept up on how we were doing, kept us laughing, and always called on our birthdays. I missed his call last Saturday, when I had my birthday. We then would talk again two days later, on his birthday. This year there was no call, just a Facebook reminder on Sept. 10.
His birthday reminded me of how things used to be. How close we were, how safe we felt, how much fun we had playing ball.
Bob wasn’t able to master his baseball skills, but he mastered the things that counted most when it came to family and friends. I couldn’t call him on his birthday, but I could picture him trying to hit left-handed, and it made me smile.
Editor’s Note: I was honored to give Bob’s eulogy. I wanted to share one part of it: Among the many heartfelt tributes to Bob on Facebook was one about our time being marked by the miles on a train. How we start the trip with our parents and meet so many wonderful people who board the train along the way. However, we also experience loss, as people we love step down from the train at a certain stop. We don’t know when they will step down, just as we don’t know when it will be our time. So we need to make the most of our journey, loving, laughing, and shining our light. No one got more out of that train ride than Bob, the passenger everyone wanted to sit next to.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.