We played catch a few times at his house or mine, and we'd get together some other kids to play a game in my backyard. For safety's sake, we had to use a tennis ball if we were hitting, because those yards were too small to create a proper diamond. Eventually, he succeeded in recruiting me to sign up for a season of Little League. It is not an overstatement for me to say that few things have ever turned out to impact my life nearly as much as that decision. I was placed on the same team as my friend, and his cousin. Their dads were our coaches. (We had a manager, too, but he disappeared for a bit during the middle of the season and that takes us off-topic.)
The very first thing I remember Bill instructing us was as profound as it was self-evident:
"Don't swing until the first called strike. Make them prove they can hit the strike zone."I was ten years old and playing on an organized baseball team for the first time in my entire life. I wanted to swing at everything! But the thing is, even at that young an age, I had been around enough blowhards to know who was one - and who wasn't. Bill was not a blowhard. He knew what he was talking about, and over the years I came to understand that it was his self-confidence about knowing what he was talking about that allowed him to use his voice to speak up.
One of the games that remains vividly etched in my memory a quarter century later was a night game in which the infield fly rule was invoked. If you don't know baseball well enough to know what that is, don't worry, because what happened was the umpire who invoked the rule didn't know it all that well, either. But Bill knew what it was and how it was supposed to be applied, and he knew this umpire had it wrong. So Bill, drawing on his self-confidence about his knowledge, spoke up. And then he spoke up some more. And then he spoke up some more, more loudly.
Bill was ejected from the game.
Now, I had no idea what the hell the infield fly rule was about at the time, but I knew one thing: if Bill said the umpire was wrong, then the umpire was wrong. I've known a lot of people over the years who held positions of authority, but few who projected authority the way Bill did. He could get riled up, as everyone at that game got to see, but his default manner was actually that of a fairly mellow fellow. Sure enough, in the aftermath of that night game, it was determined that Bill had been right about the ruling.
Their family consisted of several already-grown children by the time I met them, but between Billy Joel and his cousin, and their respective elder brothers, there was a built-in foursome of friends. It didn't take me long to become friends with all four of them. Over the years, the joke has become that I'm the fifth cousin of that group. I think I've been to more of their family events than I've been to in my own family.
One of the most important of those events was Fourth of July, 2006. Billy Joel's aforementioned elder brother had just bought a house with his wife, and they hosted the shindig that year. I tried to let myself get caught up in the games of horseshoe and beer, but truthfully I was inwardly still sulking. Barely a month before that gathering, I'd been told pointblank by a woman at the University of Louisville graduate school that it would be a mistake for me to even try to continue with my education with Crohn's disease. There went my plans of going into teaching.
So I knew what I couldn't do, but I didn't know what I could do. In fact, I'd only even had the diagnosis for a little more than a year at that point. All I really knew then was that having chronic health problems was disruptive and not at all how things were supposed to be for me in my mid-20's. I was frustrated and discouraged in ways that I had never experienced - and keep in mind, I've dealt with depression since childhood, so that's saying something.
Anyway, it was finally late enough that the sun had finished setting and the fireworks were being set up by some of the others. I was just sort of flaked out away from most everyone else, trying to keep my negativity from spilling over and ruining everyone else's night. Bill came over to where I was and struck up conversation. We got to talking about how I was trying to make sense of what living with unpredictable, chronic health problems really meant for me.
Now, at that time, I knew Bill was having a few nagging issues that were starting to affect him but I didn't know much more than that. We talked about how important it is that when adversity comes along, you don't help it bring you down. I was reminded of his admonition not to swing until the first called strike. We talked some about how that philosophy applied to things like dealing with physical health problems just as much as it applied to standing in the batter's box.
I've had a lot of encouragement and support from a lot of people over these last ten years of living with Crohn's, but no one made me feel understood and comforted more than Bill did. He could just as easily have told me I wasn't sick enough to get to complain to him about not being well, but he didn't do that. Instead, it became a new part of our camaraderie. I don't know how helpful it was for him to know I understood the importance of things like having a hotel room near the concert venue as a contingency plan, but it meant a great deal to me whenever he would nod knowingly to whatever I had to say.
I ran into him just a week ago, at McDonald's. He was there with his wife and Billy Joel's two sons (i.e., their grandsons). Funnily enough, I was there because I was going to catch up with Billy Joel's cousin. We chatted about different things that Bill had been well enough to do, or at least try to do, in the last several months. They'd gone on vacation to South Carolina, and were talking about having recently gone to see Billy Joel in concert (the entertainer, not their son). We talked about the kinds of strategies that they had to use to make such things more practical, given Bill's health. Even now, I struggle with believing I'm even allowed to try to go do such things, but talking with Bill was comforting for me. I genuinely loved to hear about any time he got to go do something he enjoyed.
It was easy to root for Bill. He was one of the most humble, honest, and respectable people I've ever known. His wry humor made me laugh. And, of course, having my own health issues, it was always nice to be reminded by someone I had known so long that there are always good days ahead to be had, even if they're outnumbered.
Today is not one of those good days. Late last night, Bill left us. I spoke with Billy Joel this morning (his son, not the entertainer). The service will be held at the same place where my grandfather's service was held barely a month ago. It turns out that we both have more than a few relatives laid to rest there. Among those on my side of things is my Uncle Stuart, who passed a few years before I was born. Now, I'll have two uncles there; one with whom I share genetics, and another who was simply kind enough to take his son's friend under his wing.
Thinking of our teasing of one another, I'm reminded of something that Kris Kristofferson said in 2002 after Waylon Jennings passed away:
"Over the years, I got to work by his side and be his friend and hear him say some of the funniest lines I've ever heard. Right now he's probably whispering in Johnny Cash's ear, 'See, I told you I was sicker than you.'"I can hear that quip in Bill's voice, his impish grin waiting for me to laugh, or at least roll my eyes. I'm glad I got to see him one last time last week, on a night when we were both feeling well. Or, at least, when we were both feeling our respective versions of "well". Bill tethered himself to his good days. It's fitting, then, that our final conversation should be about that very thing. I can't promise that I'll consistently adhere to that philosophy, but in 25 years, I've always been mindful not to swing until the first called strike.