2012 Elite Series Mississippi River Rumble Mississippi River - La Crosse, WI, Jun 21 - 24, 2012

In a league of his own

Don Barone
Jerry McKinnis played a game of catch with Mark Zona on McKinnis' birthday.

About the author

Don Barone

Don Barone

db has been in the reporting biz for over 30 years, won some Emmys and other awards, but is proudest of his four-decade marriage, his two kids and the fact he founded Tackle The Storm Foundation to help children.

"Little boy in a baseball hat stands in the field with his ball and bat

says, "I am the greatest player of them all"
puts his bat in his shoulder and he tosses up his ball…"

Dateline:  From The Bleachers

I want the last words I say to be, "…love you."

I want the last thing I hold to be, the hands of my wife and children.

I want the last thing I taste to be, the rawhide strings of my little league baseball glove.

Peace on Earth for me can be found, in my wife's embrace.

Peace on Earth for me can be found, with music in my ears and my fingers on the laptop keyboard.

Peace on Earth for me can be found, midway between 2nd and 3rd base, heels on the green carpet behind me, toes in the dirt, dust on my knees, gum stuck in my cheek.

Peace on Earth for me, has always been, and always will be, when the round scuffed white ball with red laces….is in the air.

And coming my way.

"…and the ball goes up and the ball comes down,
swings his bat all the way around
the world so still you can hear the sound, the baseball falls to the ground…."

Play catch with me.

Play catch with me…dad.

Play catch with me…son.

Let's throw it around. You and me. Let's pitch and catch, just you and me, you stand there, I'll stand here…and the world will disappear, and it will only be the two of us.

Pitch…

Catch….

And the timeless game, is all about time.

Pitch…

Catch…

Back to a time when dad was a son.

Back to a time when the sky was higher and the backyards were bigger.

When fences could be climbed, and popsicles could be shared. When baseball cards rode the spokes of wheels and bats were made of wood.

Pitch…

Catch…

Back when you knew the smell of grass stains, back when you had cleats and a cowlick. Back when the world was b/w, and the radio on your nightstand let you watch the game play out in your mind.

Pitch…

Catch….

"…now the little boy doesn't say a word, picks up his ball he is undeterred.
says, "I am the greatest that there has ever been"
and he grits his teeth and he tries again…."

"db…you have no idea how much that meant to me, for me to play catch with Mark Zona…it was Zona's birthday present to me."

Above the crowd.

Above the amplified speakers.

Above cars in the parking lot.

Above the sound of the music in my head…I heard it.

Pop.

Leather on leather.

Snap.

Of the glove being closed.

And when I turned...I saw a game of pitch…of catch…of let's throw it around.

At first I only saw Mark Zona, crouched down like a catcher, and as I watched the arch of the ball as he threw it back…followed the white ball through the blue air, watched it being consumed by a black leather glove, that's when I saw who was pitching.

Jerry McKinnis.

And I stood there and watched.

And I had to wipe my eyes before I could bring the camera up to shoot.

Because, with every pitch…

Because, with every catch…

I knew.

Jerry…was back.

"…and the ball goes up and the ball comes down,
swings his bat all the way around
the world so still you can hear the sound, the baseball falls to the ground…."

A while ago, Jerry McKinnis had triple bypass surgery, "I had a sore arm, but you know I thought it was because I was out working in the yard cutting the grass, chopping wood, thought I just did something to myself. Kept talking about it, never did nothing about it, though."

His son, Mike did…took him to the hospital. "The docs ran all these tests, but said as soon as he heard me talk about my arm and point to the spot where it hurt, he knew. So he comes back in and says I need a bypass and I tell him OK, but I'm really busy can we put it off for a month? And the doc looks at me and says, yeah we can put it off…until tomorrow morning at 7 a.m."

We are alone, talking, in a trailer. Jerry is sitting on a crate, I'm standing using a workbench as a writing table.

Both of us still show bruises on our arms from where the nurses put the needles into our arms.

A few weeks back Jerry wrote his column…about me. Here's what he wrote.

Now, it's my turn.

Payback.

I'm going to be honest with you, me and bosses don't much get along, been like that forever…it is a mutual putting up with each other.

Jerry McKinnis is my boss.

And I love him.

Whether I work another day in my life for B.A.S.S. or not, I'm not brown-nosing here. Even if I go somewhere else, I will still love Jerry McKinnis.

I love him, for one reason…I have walked with the greats in sports, in all types of sports, but in all these years of doing this, I have only walked with one Sportsman…only one personification of Sportsmanship.

And that would be Jerry.

To be honest, Jerry and I have had our boss to the-guy-driving-the-boss-crazy talks. I have driven him nuts, and he has made me whacked at times, but he is the only boss I have ever had that I would do anything for. He is only one of two bosses I have ever had that I respect.

For all of you other bosses I've had out there who read this, sorry…deal with it.

Yesterday, in the trailer, our talk wasn't about B.A.S.S., wasn't about the event going on outside, it was what was going on inside.

Inside us.

"db it scared the (blank) out of me. It took me so low in my life. I had no real signs, just the soreness in my arm. They caught it before it could have become real serious."

I shake my head yes, I know, there were no signs that I had cancer growing within my prostate.

"db…we guys…we need to do a better job of taking care of ourselves, we need to be making regular trips to our docs."

We both look at each other, say nothing, but in the silence of the unsaid words between us, the whisper in our heads says this:

We damn near killed ourselves.

Stubborn, kills.

"…he makes no excuses he shows no fear
he just closes his eyes and listens to the cheers.
little boy he adjusts his hat, picks up his ball, stares at his bat
says "I am the greatest when the game is on the line…"

"I was lying in the hospital bed, and Shaw Grigsby called and he finally talked Angie into letting him talk to me, and when she handed me the phone Shaw said …."

"….I told him that the next three months were going to be the worst three months of his life…."

"…Shaw was so great he predicted exactly what was going to happen when he told me…"

"…that one day it will get better, and then it will start getting better every day and that finally…"

"….one day I will be back, better than new, and darned if Shaw wasn't right. He had been through the same stuff a few years back and his prediction was right on the money, really helped me."

They tell me in their soft voice.

They tell me in their inside voice.

They tell me in whispers.

About their cancer.

Every event, I'm told…of pain.

Every event, I'm told…of struggle.

Every event, I'm told…of the gift,

we call life. And the fight we wage, to hold onto it.

And with every whisper.

And with every gentle touch on my arm.

And with every shared tear,

I get better.

"…and he gives his all one last time.
and the ball goes up and the moon so bright
swings his bat with all his might
the world's as still as still can be, the baseball falls
and that's strike three…."

Alone, in the trailer, both Jerry and I know, we are very lucky guys.

We took a full count, and got a walk.

Strike three, for us, never came.

"db…something stopped me, something stopped me and showed me, made me realize that I needed to let go of stuff…things that I thought mattered so much…turns out to be the small stuff…family…"

And there is silence in the trailer, as we both, in our minds, kiss our loved ones.

And to my loved ones, I apologized…stubborn kills, and it could have killed me.

"db…it is strange…but I feel like I have been given a second chance…I feel good…I now know…I can make this, I can reach the things I want to reach with all of this…"

And with a sweep of his hand, he shows me that "all this," is what's going on outside the trailer.

"…now it's suppertime and his momma calls,
little boy starts home with his bat and ball.
says, "I am the greatest, that is a fact…"

Pitch…

Catch…

Throw to me.

Let's toss it around.

"I called Zona up and said to him, 'You know, Mark, we haven't played catch in several years. For my birthday this year, all I want to from you is to play catch. That would be the greatest…"

"…gift, I'll tell you db, playing catch with Jerry, I think that was the greatest gift FOR ME…when he called and asked me if I would like to do it I was having a bad week, and his asking to play catch just swung that week around…I can't tell you how much playing catch…"

"…with Zona today meant to me." (See photos here.)

Making Heaven.

I told Jerry I didn't want to get spiritual, but he looked up at me and said, "It is spiritual, db. I have no problem making it spiritual. What happened to me, and how I feel now, is spiritual."

Making Heaven.

I believe, we are standing on, heaven.

And that it is up to all of us, to make it heaven.

Heaven, being however you want to take that. Wherever your beliefs take you.

To almost lose this place, and all those who stand with you on this place, is a gift.

Yeah, I said a gift.

Because only when I felt it running through my fingers, only when I started losing my grasp of it, did I see how precious it is.

Making Heaven.

We were given, and Jerry agreed, a second chance.

Not to become, richer.

Not to become, famous.

But to become, kinder.

But to become, patience.

But to become, benevolent.

Pitch…

Catch…

Come throw with me.

Take the time to do what you love, with those you love.

Let's toss the ball.

Take the time, to give yourself to others.

Make heaven,

here on earth.

Pitch…

Catch…

Love.

"…says, "I am the greatest, that is understood,
but even I didn't know I could pitch that good!"

The Greatest

Kenny Rogers

See you in Green Bay,

db

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