Opening Day – Missing my baseball cohort

Mike Wachdorf throws out the first pitch for his birthday during a previous season.
Mike Wachdorf throws out the first pitch for his birthday during a previous season.

It’s Opening Day. Three words that every baseball fan loves to hear. It’s a day where every team is undefeated and its fans dream of a World Series championship. It’s a day where every man and woman revert to their childhood, carrying a well-worn glove to the ballpark in hopes of catching a foul ball or holding it while they watch the game on TV.

Stadiums across the country in cities like Seattle, Minneapolis, Kansas City and Chicago will be draped in red, white and blue bunting. Patriotic songs will play over the loudspeakers prior to the game. Baseball favorites will blast during the game – “Centerfield,” “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” even “America the Beautiful” will be sung during the seventh inning stretch.

Players will take the field on immaculately manicured grass. The green grass envelops the all-stars and future hall of famers as they take their rightful place at the mantle of America’s game. The crack of the bat as the wood contacts the ball over home plate, maybe going for a single to right field or perhaps finding its way out of the ballpark on a game-winning homer. America’s pastime is back!

Kansas City Royals star Alex Gordon swings at a pitch.
Kansas City Royals star Alex Gordon swings at a pitch.

Today, America celebrates its game – baseball. Today, we love the thought of Opening Day. Today…Today, I miss Mike Wachdorf. He was a wonderful human being. When I had given up on baseball – after all the player strikes, owner lockouts, performance-enhancing drug scandals. The Haves and Have-Nots – Mike brought me back to the game. Lisa’s step-grandpa, more like just a grandpa, loved the game. He played it as a youth. He followed it as a fan. Growing up with a father who was a Chicago White Sox fan, Mike eventually fell in love with the Kansas City Royals, through his affection for the Omaha Royals, Golden Spikes, Royals again and now Storm Chasers. He was a season ticket holder for nearly three decades. I did a story on Mike and his friend Deb as part of a promotion campaign with the Storm Chasers last year as the team celebrated its 50th season.

Storm Chasers fan

Mike would sit at family functions and talk baseball with me for hours. He loved the sport. He’d tell stories about team dinners for season ticket holders where players like Paulo Orlando and Cheslor Cuthbert would sit with fans. Mike recalled dropping a fork and before he could stand up, Orlando had headed for a replacement. He always relished the opportunity to visit with players and coaches. That made his day.

He loved the Omaha Storm Chasers leadership. Martie Cordaro, the team’s longtime general manager, would acknowledge him by name. Having worked with Martie and his team last season, it impressed me that he could recall people’s names after meeting them once or twice. Martie is an amazing person and whatever team he eventually ends up running as its GM can count on winning a World Series.

Jonathan Dziedzic has been a fixture on the mound for the Storm Chasers this season. He is one of the many players fans have seen pass through Omaha.
Jonathan Dziedzic has been a fixture on the mound for the Storm Chasers. He is one of the many players fans have seen pass through Omaha.

Mike loved the little things about attending baseball games. Omaha offers fans 55 and older a package where they buy coffee and get free refills during games. There was a month or so last year where a hot cup of coffee came in handy with game-time temps hovering in the 40s. He loved collecting the souvenirs and giveaways like player bobbleheads, lunch boxes and schedule magnets. Mike asked me at one family holiday dinner if I’d like one of his Kansas City Royals lunch bags. He had two or three at home. I said sure, thinking he’d probably forget about it. A month later at another family get-together, he gave me the lunch bag. Though I don’t put food in it, it sits in my home office, a reminder of the love this man had for all his family members.

Playing catch with Satchel Paige

As I said, Mike brought me back to baseball. Just by talking. Initially, during my decades-long separation from the sport, I didn’t care about anything baseball-related, except for Mike’s stories. He’d talk about taking a bus tour to Kansas City – sponsored by the Omaha minor league team during the team’s forced nearly monthlong vacancy from Rosenblatt Stadium during the College World Series – visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in KC and a game at Kauffman Stadium. I loved hearing his stories.

Satchel Paige statue at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City.
Satchel Paige statue at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City.

His father, a one-time high school baseball player in Chicago, once caught for Satchel Paige. This was during a time when black men weren’t allowed to play on the same field with white men. Baseball’s segregation was a terrible thing for the sport, but it didn’t hold back African Americans. Players like Paige, probably the greatest black pitcher before Omaha’s Bob Gibson, succeeded in the Negro Leagues Baseball, which came together as an organized league after a series of meetings in Kansas City, where the national museum is located.

Mike’s dad, then a high school player, attended an NLB game. Paige, after learning his dad was a player, asked him to help him warm up for a game. Imagine your dad telling you that he played catch -better yet, he helped warm up one of the best pitchers in all of baseball for a game. Mike’s face beamed with pride telling that story.

Bringing me back to the game

Just talking with Mike led me to start checking the standings and box scores more often. As a Minnesota Twins fan since the early 1980s, I had grown accustomed to looking at the standings monthly to see how many games out of first the Twinkies were. I followed them during their World Series runs in ’87 and ’91. I followed them when they sucked. But, as I mentioned previously, I had moved away from being a real fan. Mike invited us to attend a few Omaha games with him in his reserved seats or when he had a suite for his birthday or end of season game. Just hanging out with him brought me back to the game. And I appreciated it.

Mike was more than a local baseball fan. He was an ambassador for Omaha, itself. The man had season tickets for just about everything – community theaters, the zoo, Durham Museum, Lauritzen Gardens. He loved being an Omahan. Giving him a copy of our book last year was special to me. When he asked Lisa and me to sign it, I struggled to find the perfect thing to say to him in the book. Overall, Mike could talk about baseball and musicals. He was a well-cultured person.

So, as dads, moms, sons and daughters share time at stadiums around the country or on the sofa watching their favorite teams today, I’ll be watching the Kansas City Royals – one of my favorites again, along with the Twins and Seattle Mariners – but, I’ll miss knowing that Mike and I won’t have the chance to talk about games, teams and players this season. It’s a bit melancholy Opening Day for me. But, I smile knowing that Mike and his dad are playing catch together in heaven’s Field of Dreams. Maybe, Satchel Paige will ask Mike to help him warm up.

It’s Opening Day America. Play ball!