Acute lymphocytic leukemia. I knew individually what each of the words meant, but collectively I only understood that it was bad. My Pap and I discussed the details a bit, and he assured me it was beatable. He was so protective of me, partly because it was his nature, but otherwise he knew I was fragile.

I wasn’t always the most well-adjusted kid growing up. From 1st to 4th grade I really only had one friend. I was the shy, fat kid who sucked at sports and ached for acceptance. My mom spent ever sober minute filling that void with love and praise. I was her smart little man and she never hesitated to remind me. When she was too high to function my grandparents stepped in and smothered me with their good graces and heartfelt love. I gradually grew out of my baby fat and found athletics, but still my Pap was too old to throw with me and I didn’t live near any kids. So after school you could find me most days throwing a football as high in the air as I could muster, running as fast as I could to try to make the catch downfield. The rest of the time tirelessly throwing a ball off a wall. It sounds sad, and it likely created a certain void during those early adolescent years, but I spent a lot of time really getting to know myself at a very young age in a pretty messed up environment, which somehow was comprised of constant unconditional love. 

As I grew older the West Leechburg basketball courts became my sanctuary. Anytime I needed an escape, it’s no surprise I would default to a quiet athletic environment to let my mind run rampant. I don’t even like basketball, but something about being able to lose myself while being active had a very profound impact on how I chose to cope. Unfortunately, this method was now a means of withdrawal; regressing to my shy, bottled up self, entrusting that my conscience, morale, and rationale could ease the pain or solve whatever current hurdle life threw my way. By and large, it was a short term success, and one I would often repeat throughout college. It wasn’t until I became an adult and was forced to self-actualize that I realized I dealt with emotion in an unhealthy way. Something my Pap seemingly knew all along.

Life was moving forward at a rapid pace. Despite the quickness in which I rushed through adolescence, this transition to college was exposing all of my greatest insecurities. I angsted over the uncertainty of what was to come. I wasn’t like most of my peers, excited at the thought of complete independence. I already had that. Rather I feared I’d regress to my early days of seclusion, choosing to spend my time playing catch with myself, metaphorically speaking. I struggled with my shyness and pained over the thought of sharing a room with a complete stranger. I was quickly developing separation anxiety over leaving my friends, my comfort zone, and moreover my Pap. His health seemed stable beyond a little weight loss and occasional bouts of bronchitis, but I worried about not being there, about creating distance at a time where he most needed a subtle helping hand. He was very proud and rarely leaned on anyone; the proverbial apple, once removed, didn’t fall far. Looking back he really was the greatest storyteller I had ever encountered– selling me the fairy tale I wanted to believe in, where happily ever after was the only option.

Gradually, I bought in. Legion ball would keep both he and myself focused on the here and now for a few months longer. By far the strongest team I had ever been a part of, six of the nine starters went on to play college ball, which easily should have been seven had Gumby embraced his talent. We cruised through the summer, going undefeated in the first half of the season only to stumble a little down the stretch finishing 25-5. No matter, we earned the #2 seed and would face our neighboring rival, Lower Burrell Bulldogs, after sweeping Hempfield (two games to none) in the opening round.

Game 1. Similarly to The Mighty Ducks, Burrell’s territory overlapped with the high schools our team drew from. After a dramatic Game 1 comeback, topped off by a game-winning home run, Lower Burrell had a lot to say, particularly to our starting pitcher, Chris Minarcin. Chris was another one of those guys who was too athletic for his own good. He came from a baseball pedigree as his grandfather, Rudy Minarcin, had a short stint with the Reds, highlighted by throwing a no-hitter against his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Thing was Chris knew he was great. He was a bit of a rebel and wasn’t afraid to butt heads with authority, nor shy about letting the opposition know they weren’t on his level. Game 1, however, Chris was the goat and the entire Burrell team took it upon themselves to remind him.

Game 2. The series was best of 3 and we had a few things going for us in the pitching department. Not only did we have a solid rotation in Chris, myself and Gumby, but we also had a young spot starter in David Goedicke. Being that Burrell really only had two starting pitchers, both of whom went on to play at the collegiate level, we felt game 2 was secure but had Gumby ready in relief if needed. An 11-6 final, the game was never in question. However, we went to Gumby earlier than anticipated leaving myself as the lone rested pitcher for the deciding game. Fortunately, weather was on our side.

Game 3. The dog days of summer were certainly upon us. After two straight days of rainouts, we were set to fight the weather once more and proceed through sloppy playing conditions. The threat of a storm didn’t prevent family, friends and local spectators from showing up in droves, including my Pap, sister, and two-year-old nephew. Suddenly, I was soaking in a scene never before experienced in our little town– there were a couple hundred people littering the hillside, anxious to see the outcome of this local rivalry. I was prepared to give them a show.

After we jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead, Burrell began to claw their way back. I didn’t have 2016-09-07-14-42-17my most dominant stuff that day but pitched with the most command and control I had ever exhibited in my career, striking out only four but walking none. Burrell briefly tied the game in the 4th only to relinquish the lead for good on an errant throw with two outs in the top of the 5th; conveniently enough by shortstop Mark Dzanja. The same Mark Dzanja who homered to secure the win in game 1. The same Mark Dzanja who greeted Minarcin in the parking lot before game 3 to remind him that he’s the reason we’re even playing a third game.

After 5 & 2/3rds I was done and the table was set for Chris to seek vengeance. He sat down six straight before putting the tying run on via a fastball between the numbers. As the final batter hit a weak groundball to second to end the game, Chris was found chasing him up the line, barking ridged reminders that their season, and for some, their careers were over– and all at his hands.

We went on to be swept by Murrysville in a masterfully pitched series. Gumby tossed a three-hitter, only to be outdueled by future Allegheny pitcher, Sam McCarthy–beating us 2-0. The following game Minarcin hoped to keep our careers alive one more day, scattering six hits and allowing only one run. Unfortunately, he was outdone as we were eliminated in a one-hit shutout.

My high school career had officially come to an end . It was Murrysville’s fourth straight championship and the second that went through us. I was upset but hardly devastated. What no one knew was that I had been having unspeakable elbow pain the final third of the season. I fought through it, I was a gamer– really I wasn’t very confident in who I was if I were to have baseball taken away from me. So I found ways to compensate. Fewer curveballs, more ibuprofen. Regardless of whatever tricks I had up my sleeve, there was no shot at me being ready to throw game 3 on merely 3 days rest. There was an ever lesser chance of me declining the ball in a Championship elimination game. Frankly, I was spared from my selfishness and insecurities when we were swept, and for the first time all summer I felt relief.

The Hand Heard Round The World:
The board read:


I peered back at my hand to ensure my eyes hadn’t deceived me. After all, it’s 3 a.m. and this isn’t our usual penny stakes– To culminate our first summer as high school grads we decided to up the ante to a $50 minimum buy-in and I’m the only one to have rebought, totaling $120. Only the usual suspects remain; me, Skimp and Lamanna, an all too common scene and one in which I was accustomed to winning my fair share.

Randy, Muz, and Simmons have long since become spectators, quietly wanting the game to end so we could hit up the local Kings Family Restaurant for a late-night snack. The bet was $50. Skimp had put me to a decision for all my chips. If I call and win I’ll be even. Lose and it will be my biggest loss ever, four times over. I peered back at my hand, slowly and carefully– seven of heartsseven of diamonds. “Ok… I call… Trip sevens.” As Skimpy flashed an Ace my stomach was in my throat; a feeling so intense I imagine I solidified my severe fear of heights in that exact moment. “Trip Aces…” he exclaimed as his hands wrapped around the massive pot of pennies representing my former net worth. My face instantly turned beat red and my ears were on fire. I was bordering between tears and a physical pain that only manifests in moments of great loss or a swift kick in the nuts. Exasperated and embarrassed my only recourse was to promptly throw everyone out and bury my face in a pillow.

That summer I suffered through many a sleepless night, none more intense than this one. Left alone with my thoughts, I continually replayed that final hand attempting to reconcile that it would take half a summer to earn that money back cutting grass. Then it hit me. I sat straight up only to find Skimp and Lamanna had doubled back and are now in my doorway, armed with wry, shit-eating grins. I shot them a self-deprecating look of acknowledgment which was instantly answered by uncontrollable laughter. Once they were satisfied with my shame I was left to lament over the mistake I had made of misreading my hand, seven’s full of aces. Ignorance was punished in our game, players were responsible for declaring their hand while others kept their mouths shut. Neither I nor Skimp felt a sense of responsibility to honor my winning hand. Quite the opposite really; as the boys had finally gotten one over on me they were certain to enjoy this for a long time to come. Best I can estimate it’ll take a lifetime for me to live this one down. There’s a certain downside to being prideful in your prowess– in that very little compares to the joy derived from humbling an arrogant man. These guys barely remember the details of the first time they touched a boob, but somehow can tell me the exact suits of the two sevens I held that night– Perhaps a lifetime is a vast underestimation.


Left to Right: Simmons, Skimp, Randy, Myself. Front & Center: Jace


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  1. […] Next Entry: Throwback Thursday: The Hand You’re Dealt […]


  2. […] town and in that moment quickly became a hero to me. I was nervous as they played for as little as $50 a night, but this was too good of an opportunity to ease in with the upperclassmen. Besides, I had a […]


  3. […] level, this very moment was the first time I truly acknowledged, on an emotional level, that my Pap was dying. I must have spent a solid ten minutes in the fetal position […]


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