An Ode to Neil Walker, Jamison Taillon & Dad

I suddenly got emotional Wednesday morning while watching a DVR of Tuesday’s Pirates-Mets game featuring the return of Neil Walker. Yes, I was there live Tuesday working both games, as I have for the last 15 years, but things have changed, for Walker and for me.

 

As part of my labor of love, I’ve written for Rotowire fantasy sports for more than a decade. This gives me an excuse to pay close attention to baseball, something I’d do for free. Tuesday brought into focus a player I’ve watched since he was in high school, a player my father and I travelled to see play in Peters Township in the spring of 2004, right before Pittsburgh selected him with its first-round pick in the 2004 draft.

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Fast forward to Tuesday, June 7, 2016.

 

Walker is at the plate, doffing his cap before thousands of empty PNC Park empty seats – thanks to a 4:00 PM start – and probably five thousand fans scattered throughout the park for the first of two games.

 

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle claps for Walker from the dugout, as does pitcher Jeff Locke among others. Of course nearly all of the fans clap, too. Personally, I can’t believe not everybody is standing – most are, but I feel like telling those who aren’t to get up.

 

Then it hit me. While watching the replay the camera scans the first level, first base side and catches a gentleman in faded blue jeans and an old top, holding a camera in front of his face to get a good photo of Walker.

 

That would be my dad. I mean, it would’ve been him if he were still alive. This is the kind of baseball moment he lived for. He loved getting pictures of Pirates players and he loved snapping photos of Walker. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I’d seen my dad’s ghost in the ROOT Sports Pittsburgh panning the crowd and capturing the older gentleman with the faded blue jeans.

 

Well, this story isn’t supposed to be about Walker, it just happened. What I meant to write about is the impending debut of Jameson Taillon.

 

Taillon will make his major league debut Wednesday, five long years after being drafted by the Bucs. He’ll face the unenviable task of matching up against Noah Syndergaard, better known as “Thor” for his flowing blond locks of hair and a 98-mph fastball.

 

Unsurprisingly, this brings me back to another memory of dad.

 

Traveling to spring training is something my dad and I (and a couple times my sister, Joy) enjoyed doing since 2003.

 

We discovered Pirate City, where the minor leaguers gain instruction, in 2009 and a couple trips later we (mostly me, but I’ll include my dad here) anticipated the first glimpse of the player the organization selected ahead of Manny Machado, Taillon.

 

It’s the spring of 2011 and my dad wouldn’t be diagnosed with Stage 4 Mantle Cell Lymphoma for another nine months. He’s still getting around fine, better than most 78-year-olds.

 

We stumble across one of my buddies, Bob, who was (and still is) a season-ticket holders right behind home plate where I ushered before I had my cerebellar stroke. Bob’s a great guy and even joined my fantasy baseball league.

 

Well anyhow, Taillon pops out from one of the four practice fields and is heading toward another one, but first stops to sign a couple autographs.

 

I yell to my dad to get his picture, get his picture. Dad always liked getting the perfect shot, but he didn’t know the prospects. I served as his “Director of shooting prospects with bright future” and wanted to make sure he snapped Taillon.

 

He got a nice shot of Bob with Taillon and I think he got one of me with the pitcher, too, but what I really wanted was just a shot of the pitcher. Some of his photos would actually be published in the annual Rotowire baseball magazine.

 

Taillon was ever gracious and along with fellow draft pick, Stetson Allie, posed for my father.

 

Dad took a couple pics but the lighting apparently wasn’t good, so he “told” the players to take their hats off. Yep, in the middle of drills, my dad asked a pair of professional baseball players to take their hats off to so he could see their faces.

 

Out of respect, they obliged. My dad had a way of getting things done that would embarrass me. But then looking back, I’d be glad he did what he did.

 

Here’s his shot.

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So when I watch Jameson Taillon throw out his first pitch Wednesday evening at approximately 7:08 PM, I won’t be thinking of the highly touted pitcher, I’ll be thinking of dad.

 

He was a season-ticket holder at PNC Park and you’d better be darn sure he’d have been there to witness both Walker and Taillon.

 

He loved the theater, he loved the countless friends he made at the park and he loved the energy he felt and shared with others around him.

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Miss you dad, but I know where you’ll be Wednesday night. See you then.

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