BRADENTON, Fla. – Jim Tracy's father, Jim Tracy Sr., died this winter. He was 79 and a pretty fair minor-league pitcher in his day.
He rests now in old St. Mary's Cemetery in Hamilton, Ohio. Jim's brother, Tom, passes by almost every day, a fresh cup of coffee warming him against the frigid mornings. He often stops his car and rolls down the window.
"And they just talk," Jim said.
Their mom, Ginny, is getting through it. The three boys – Jim, Tom and Mike – and their children are, too, the best they can. Tom tells his father so, though they assume he already knows.
Jim Sr. – Trace, most called him – had assured them they would, before he relented to cancer and all of its wretched complications on the final day of November.
"I'm ready," he had said in his final breaths. "I'm ready. And I'm not afraid."
He looked at Jim.
"You take care of this family," he said.
"I will," Jim whispered. "I will."
Going on three months later, Jim Tracy Jr. sat just off the four baseball fields at the Pittsburgh Pirates' spring-training complex here. He won't hear from his father today, just as he didn't yesterday.
They shared plenty in Jim's 51 years, but their conversations were drawn to the game, particularly when the cancer came and wouldn't rest. It was Jim Sr.'s past, and Jim's future, and together they rode every moment of Jim's five seasons as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, then his first as manager of the Pirates.
Jim Sr. wore a Dodgers cap and watched on television, or he'd listen on the radio. If neither found the Dodgers, he'd listen on the Internet. After more than half-a-decade, he traded the blue cap for a black one, had better luck with television and radio, and became a Pirates fan.
In his last months, Jim Sr. had moved back into the house where he raised his sons, now owned by Tom, and set two chairs and a television in the middle room. There, the baseball came to Ginny and him, the Pirates out slow and finishing with promise, his boy jutting his jaw and hoping to change a culture, the pitching coming, the offense slower, the organization showing a little life.
As the Pirates rallied, Trace began to slip away again. He was down to almost nothing. Hardly a body left.
Jim would get back to that little house on Arlington Avenue in Hamilton, and Jim Sr. would tell him, "Aw, I'm fine, Hoss. Everything's good." If Jim caught him rubbing his knees, he'd say something like, "Aw, the knees are a little sore today, kid. I think it's the weather change."
They knew better, and Jim would nod and mention the cold front coming in. Besides, there was a lineup to talk about, a rotation to consider.
"He loved the game and he played the game," Jim said. "So he understands the game. He was so excited about what took place over the last three months and even when I was sitting there with him – he would talk to me about, 'Hey, we need to get that hitter, don't we? We need to get that bat. We need another bat in that lineup to help [Freddy] Sanchez and [Jason] Bay out.' He knew what was going on. He really did."
He didn't make it to the Adam LaRoche trade, but he surely would have approved.
"Over the course of the last six years especially, his whole life revolved around the first pitch in April," Jim said. "From that point forward, until the last pitch of the season was thrown, he's on every game. Every game."
In fact, the boys were quite sure Trace had made a deal in his prayers.
"Hey, look," Jim said, speaking as his father, "if you're coming to get me, you gotta do it between the end of the season and prior to spring training of the next one, or I think I'm gonna stay."
In one of their final conversations, Trace reached out and tugged on Tom's shirt sleeve. They were in the middle room, Trace in the chair he was always in, his boys coming and going, always nearby.
"He pulled Tommy over close to him," Jim said. "I mean, he constantly sat in that chair with either his Dodgers or Pirates hat on. He had his Pirates hat on. He said to Tommy, 'Don't let 'em take the hat off me.' "
Trace died in that chair with his Pirates hat on.
"When my dad was laid out, he had the suit on that my mom had picked out," Jim said. "And he had his Pittsburgh Pirates hat on. In the one corner of the coffin, my brother Tom had a picture of him when he played professional baseball. He was finishing his delivery. Right after we played our last game last October the first against the Cincinnati Reds, as only Tommy can do, he took the back off the frame and took the picture out and wrote on the top across the picture, '2006 Pirates Fan of the Year.' That was in the casket. And each one of my boys laid their baseball caps up underneath him. … The Pirates gave me a jersey and the jersey was laid right up under his hands, down to about his knees."
At the viewing, as people drifted past, Jim saw Tom take a long last look at their father, the minor-league pitcher. The cap. The jersey. Tom said, "Hey look, he finally made the club."
"It tore me up," Jim said, pausing for a long moment.
Then, he smiled and shook his head.
"You should have seen him in there with his hat on," he said and laughed. "It was unbelievable."
Two months later, Trace's only brother, Steve, died as well. Then, as it always did, baseball came. Jim went to Florida. He sat at a picnic table, under a tent, and rested his forehead on his palm.
"I'm going to miss him," he said. "All I hope is wherever he's at, he still has a good view of all this. Because he could take up days at a time, everything else could be a whirlwind around him, but he loved this so much that he would be totally oblivious to anything else going on. I just hope where he's at, he's sitting there with his brother and he's watching it all. I know if he is, he'd love every minute of it. I hope he's dialing it up the same time like he always did. I really hope that's happening for him. I really do."
Trace, Jim is sure, would be delighted. For the boys – men – he raised, then left on their own. For another springtime of baseball. For the assurance that his final words were not wasted. He said he was not afraid.
"What he was saying to us," Jim said, "was, 'Don't you be afraid of anything either.'"