Friday, November 14, 2008


We kept the Ken Burns Baseball documentaries running throughout the day, at a low volume in the corner of the room. We wanted him to surround him with the things he loved. He was dying from cancer, and we had been called to his beside. As his body slowed down, we sat beside him. A man of muscle and mobility for 88 years, it was time.

My brother, mother and I took turns holding his hand, and were joined at different times by his sisters and my father as well. We whispered words of love to him as he stared ahead, preparing for the journey. He could no longer communicate with us, but every once in awhile he reached upward with his left arm. The hospice nurse saw him do this, and said, “I see it all the time. He’s ready.”

His name was Warren Mueller, and he lived a helluva life. He took on a number of roles in those 88 years: pro ballplayer, husband, father, businessman, alcoholic, son, brother, recovering alcoholic, caretaker to a diabetic wife, leader in local Alcoholics Anonymous rooms, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He made amends with those he had hurt, offered valuable advice to those he met in the rooms, and shared his life story with his grandsons.

He’d talk with you about most anything – sports, your job or schoolwork, the neighbors in his senior-apartment complex, the news, and – his favorite topic of all - the money he’d saved at Pathmark this week through coupons. He’d offer words of advice, but wouldn’t badger you with suggestions. He’d joke freely, and he gave everyone he loved a disparaging nickname. I was Charlie Brown, he said, because I couldn’t do anything right. Somehow, this was related to me in a way that exuded warmth and compassion.

His heart stopped beating shortly after dinnertime, just when his favorite prime-time shows would be starting. He didn’t need the shows anymore, or the baseball documentaries. He was doing fine.

It was two years ago today. I can close my eyes and still see him twirling the temples of his plastic eyeglasses in his hand, and I can still hear the high-pitched wheeze of his laugh, or the sing-songy way he answered the phone. I tell my daughters about him all the time. Heroes don’t need to be famous.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Promise of a Nation

My grandfather passed away two years ago at the age of 88. He had lived a long life, and in doing so had grown quite a bit in his outlook toward those of different races. I can recall, some 30 years ago, sitting in the car with him while he told me that black players were ruining baseball. He said that guys like Reggie Jackson and Dave Parker, with their “cocky” attitudes, were bringing the game down. I can remember feeling an uncomfortable pang in my gut while he told me this, hoping his diatribe would end soon.

Maybe it was his memories of Mr. Henry that brought about the changes I’d see later on in my grandfather’s life. Mr. Henry was a black man, a teacher, at PS 12 on Staten Island. One day, nearly 80 years ago, Mr. Henry asked my grandfather if he wanted to try pitching during a baseball game. Some 15 years later, my grandfather was earning a living as a minor-league ballplayer. He’d go on to play semi-pro ball for years. His success in baseball gave him self-esteem and business contacts that would affect his life forever.

So while my grandfather may have had trouble figuring out what to make of Dave Parker, he knew deep down that labeling a race wasn’t the way to go. As he grew older, our baseball talks often centered around our mutual appreciation for African-American players such as Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, as well as other players of color, from Mariano Rivera to Hideki Matsui. As he told me stories of his youth, he spoke with fondness of Mr. Henry.

My grandfather still had his blind spots, but he had seen so much change, so much growth, in America that he was willing to reevaluate things. I thought of him on Monday, when Madelyn Dunham, the grandmother of Barack Obama, passed away at age 86. Obama has spoken about his grandmother’s racial blind spots as well, but he has also spoken with such gratitude for the devotion she showed in helping to raise her African-American grandson. Her views toward race were imperfect, but in the end deeply compassionate and deeply hopeful.

I think my grandfather would have had a great time talking with Mrs. Dunham. They would have had a lot in common – pride in their grandsons, and pride in America. They would have talked about the changes they’d seen around them, and about the need to understand and adapt.

Because sometimes, the change we need is a kind that requires growth and acceptance and, yes, equality. There comes a time when the best candidate for the most important job in our country is indeed African-American. And when that time comes, we ask, can we push past those blind spots? Can we take that step forward? Instead of calling this black man “cocky,” or something far worse, can we just call him “Mr. President”?

Yes. We. Can.

Yes we did. On November 4, 2008, there were so many people, with stories just like my grandfather’s and Barack Obama’s grandmother, who took that step forward. They cast a ballot not only for the best candidate we could have hoped for, but also for the promise of the Declaration itself. It is a promise that, in our very best moments, guides the moral compass of this nation with breathtaking beauty. It is the kind of promise I will gladly share with my own grandchildren.