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Apr '11 11

Old World Pastime – Boy, I’ve sure been lucky



John Miller, a Belgian-American journalist, and a player/coach for the Brussels Kangaroos, is in his fourth year of writing Old World Pastime, a take on baseball as lived in 21th century Europe.

William E. Miller died Saturday in Maryland, of what was definitely old age. My grandfather was 89, and tired. It was his time.

Coming from a place where men were soldiers and salesmen, Bill Miller learned engineering on a scholarship, served in World War Two, raised a family of a girl and four boys, and labored on radar and rockets. He worked on the NASA space program of the 1960s, one of mankind’s greatest achievements.

Like many in his generation, granddad was principled and stubborn. He marched for Civil Rights, once with Martin Luther King. He said what he thought, and he didn’t care what people said about him.

Before he was 25, he had married, fathered and become a soldier. This was always to be a serious life. His marriage to Marjorie lasted until Saturday, 68 years.

He was disciplined and stern, punctilious, precise and punctual, sometimes painfully so for those around him. Just chilling was not his thing. He never touched tobacco or alcohol. He said grace at meals. He told people if he thought they were wrong.

By the time his 16 grandkids came along, his duty was all devotion. He softened. In his last years, he could hardly talk about another family member without tears of pride and, I think, gratitude. Like he never thought he deserved such happiness.

We liked movies. He taped, and I am not making this up, thousands off TV, recording them on VHS tapes that took over his house like a weed. We liked dinosaurs; he took us to the Smithsonian. Somebody played the piano; he listened. Somebody danced; he taped. If you cared about something, he and grandmom gave you a book about it.

Granddad took life too seriously to play sports. As far as I know, he never ran, rode a bicycle or played ball. (An exercise bike in his house famously went untouched.)

But he had followed baseball when he was a boy. He favored the Saint Louis Cardinals, he said. He took his own sons to Cooperstown, and to see the Washington Senators play. Like churchgoers, he attended and didn’t always understand. But he knew it mattered.

And, luckily for me, he found out it was another good way to love a grandson.

In July 1988, my birthday present was a week at camp at the Little League complex in Williamsport, PA.

Later that year, on a trip to Brussels, he carried a handheld Sony black and white television. We didn’t have any kind of TV, so there was magic in his eight-inch footage of Kirk Gibson hitting his famous World Series homerun off Dennis Eckersley.

There were the week after week of two 90-minute cassettes wrapped tightly in a brown package addressed and airmailed to Brussels with his neat handwriting.

The content was always an Orioles ballgame taped off WBAL radio, led by announcer Jon Miller. Listening to those games over and over again as a kid probably shaped my character as much as school.

And on and on. There were trips to Camden Yards and my American Legion games, and many evenings camped out with me on his sofa, watching games on a flat-screen TV.

In his last decade, he even turned playful. Once, he pointed his finger below my neck. I was wearing an open-collar shirt. “Chest-hair, huh? You paint that on?” He chuckled at his own joke. On our way back from one of the suburban buffet diners he loved so much, he insisted on riding in the back of his station wagon while I drove, like a little kid, “just so I can see what this is like.”

I totaled that same station wagon one Sunday morning in Western Maryland by hitting a deer. The 80-year-old guy drove 90 minutes to get me. He wanted to make sure I got to the Orioles game we had tickets for.

I still remember that car ride, wondering what I had done to deserve such unselfish generosity. “Boy,” he said, “I’ve sure been lucky with my life.”

I was sure lucky with my granddad.

You can email me at oldworldpastime@gmail.com




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