A year from now, I'll remember only one thing about the 1999 World Series: Paul O'Neill played on the day his father died. I can't imagine a more noble, more appropriate tribute. It wasn't necessary to hit the winning home run or make a spectacular catch to secure the championship. It was just good, maybe even necessary, that O'Neill played Wednesday night.
There are plenty of people who said they couldn't understand how O'Neill could play in a game that began 15 hours after his father, Charles, had died following a long struggle with heart disease. I understand perfectly. You see, Chick O'Neill was a pretty good baseball player once upon a time. He was good enough to reach Class AAA, but not the major leagues. How proud do you suppose Chick O'Neill was that his son made it to The Show, became a starter for the game's most storied franchise and took his spot almost every night in right field at Yankee Stadium?
It wasn't just good that O'Neill played Wednesday evening, the night after he sat late with his father in a Manhattan hospital. In a sense, O'Neill owed it to his father to play. "He was the one who taught me how to play," O'Neill said after Wednesday night's clinching Game 4 was done. "I was going to play this game. . . . The only thing he had to stay awake for is these games. . . . This is what he wanted to stay awake for and watch."
There's plenty of time for O'Neill to sit and mourn, the rest of his life, really. But how many times do you suppose Paul O'Neill will play a baseball game, will do anything really, that has as much purpose, that means as much to him personally as playing the game his father loved so much on Wednesday night? How could a man, a ballplayer, say goodbye to his old man, a former ballplayer, more eloquently than by helping his team win the World Series on the day he dies? Tell me Charles O'Neill isn't the envy of every father in Heaven. How many pops leave for the hereafter with a better story than that?
I don't suppose a man should say goodbye to his mother that way, or his wife, or a child. But his father? Absolutely. So many of the most cherished memories of father-son relationships have to do with sports, with playing catch in the backyard, with a father showing his son how to bunt or settle under a pop-up. Even if you're not a big leaguer like Paul O'Neill, if you're 40 or older and grew up in the United States, there's a great chance your earliest memories of your dad is tossing a ball with him, or him showing you how to grip a bat. Mine are. Undoubtedly, Paul O'Neill's are. Why would you not do something that brought someone close to you so much joy?
It's not about baseball, really, or any specific sport. The same goes for the professional golfers at the moment, thrown into despair this week by the shocking death of their friend Payne Stewart. There were several golfers who, understandably, said their hearts weren't in the Tour Championship this week in Houston. Should they have been allowed to withdraw from the tournament? Yes, of course. Anybody who didn't feel up to playing, who felt it was inappropriate to play in the days so immediately following Stewart's death should have been excused with no questions asked. Everybody doesn't react to death the same way.
But cancel the entire event? No way. Was the golf community not well-served by that incredible ceremony Thursday in Houston in which the bagpiper marched eerily through the fog, his footprints leaving an almost exaggerated impression in that fairway? Will anyone who saw it ever forget it? If the talk this weekend, on the tee boxes and greens, is all about Stewart, then won't that just be perfect? Won't a bunch of hyper-competitive people be brought together for exactly the right reason, to mourn their friend and colleague?
As much as Stewart entertained us all, let's not turn him into John F. Kennedy or some other slain head of state. Things don't need to be shut down to observe his life. He played golf for a living. Isn't he honored by his peers wearing those tam-o'-shanters? Isn't he honored by men he competed against wearing ribbons, and swatches that remind us of his unique golf wardrobe? Isn't he honored by a community coming together with a purpose and compassion we rarely see in sports?
To me, Stewart is elevated by this weekend's play, by the tributes paid to him, by the public affection shown him and the wife and two children who survive him. Cancel the tournament, and don't his peers scatter to the wind? Where is the fellowship in that? A world-class competitor such as Stewart established his public place in this world through his graceful performance under pressure. There are only a handful of men in the world who can do his professional life justice, and fortunately they're all gathered in Houston, clubs at the ready.
This is normally one of the most joyous time in sports, with college football in full swing, hockey having just begun, pro basketball on deck, and baseball having just crowned a new champion. That joy has been tempered this week, but not the admiration we should feel for Paul O'Neill, for the friends of Payne Stewart, who in their grief came to realize that the very games men play may, in the proper context, can serve to appropriately honor those who once played them.