KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- "Tell me a funny story about baseball," my father-in-law said.
This was Tuesday, and he was hurting. On Saturday he went to the emergency room with pain in his side. He had gallstones. On Sunday he had his gall bladder taken out. On Tuesday he had a procedure to remove other stones that had lodged in a duct. Now he was in his hospital bed in Knoxville. The nurse said the Demerol would kick in soon. She asked him what else he needed. "About a case of that Demerol," he said.
My father-in-law, Richard Felsing, is not a big sports fan. He grew up in Milwaukee and remembers the Brewers from back in the '40s, when they were a Triple-A team and Bill Veeck was the owner. He still roots for the Green Bay Packers, although his rooting does not extend to watching the games, or looking up the scores, or knowing the names of the players. (He did know Brett Favre.) Now he and Joann, my mother-in-law, live over near Gatlinburg. The Tennessee Smokies, the Double-A team for the Cubs, play a few miles from their house. He and Joann have taken us to a couple of games, not because they love it so much, but because they know their daughter and I do.
Richard is a good and decent man, and the father in my life since my own father died.
I can never come up with a good story on the spot. I always think of one five minutes after the party breaks up. This is why I have one go-to joke* I can always remember if a joke is called for. But nobody ever asked me for a funny story about baseball before.
It should've been easy. Baseball is the funniest sport -- there's so much idle time for mischief. I could've told him the Gates Brown hot dog story, the one that ends with him sliding into second base and standing up covered in mustard and ketchup. I could've told him about the fly ball that bounced off Jose Canseco's noggin for a home run. I could've told him about Pascual Perez circling I-285, trying to find the Braves' stadium because he was the starting pitcher that night. I could've told him about Gaylord Perry's puffball, which emerged from a cloud of rosin like the Terminator riding through smoke.
But all I could think of, there in the moment, was the bubble-gum prank.
It's a great prank. One teammate gets the victim distracted, and another blows a giant bubble and carefully sticks it to the top of the victim's cap. If it works, the victim sits there in the dugout chattering away with a bubble on his head, like an unfinished thought.
This lasts until one of his teammates gets caught peeking, or can't keep a straight face anymore.
It's the kind of thing grown men and women don't do outside of sports. That's so much of the appeal of sports -- they are (can be) (should be) an escape from our grownup lives. So often these days, they're not. The year is only two months old and we've bounced from Manti Te'o to Lance Armstrong to Oscar Pistorius with barely a break. Our sports news comes from court files, or police reports, or Oprah.
But sports can still help you get away. In those first couple of hospital days, while my father-in-law napped, I went online and watched the crazy buzzer-beater from New Rochelle. I caught up on Dennis Rodman's diplomatic mission to North Korea. I scanned spring training scores that didn't matter. I wound up in a Twitter discussion on Australian Rules football. We all had to find distractions from the tubes and the monitors and the bed alarm in the room across the hall, incessantly blaring (I swear this is true) "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain." Sports were my distraction.
And now, standing by his bed, I told my father-in-law about the bubble-gum prank. He looked a little puzzled -- I think the Demerol really was kicking in -- but he laughed anyway. We ran a couple minutes off the clock, got a little closer to getting him out of there. That's one of the gifts of a pastime. It can help you pass time.
It wasn't until later that I figured out what he was doing. By asking me to talk about baseball, he was helping me as much as I was helping him.
He's back home now. We're tired and grateful and blessed. It's a new story among the many in our lives, and we'll keep it out and look at it until life gives us another. Then we'll tuck it next to all the stories we accumulate over the years, like baseball cards in a box.
This is the one with the scent of bubble gum.
* * *
*The go-to joke:
An old man steps into a confessional.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned," he says. "Last night I stopped by the neighborhood tavern, and while I was having a libation at the bar, a beautiful young lady caught my eye, and somehow, I caught hers. I bought her a drink, one thing led to another, and together we found physical bliss. Multiple times."
"My goodness, that's quite a story," the priest said. "Tell me, my son, when was the last time you came to confession?"
"I've never been to confession," the old man said. "I'm Jewish."
"So why are you telling me this?"
"I'm telling EVERYBODY."