GOODYEAR, Ariz. — On more afternoons than not, big ol’ Newk would rise from his seat behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, the one he sat in on all the afternoons, and trudge to the batting cage. In his 80s, then his 90s, he was stooped to something less than his full 6-foot-4 frame, and sometimes it seemed he was testing his legs as he went, making sure this one would hold, then the other, then this one again. It wasn’t a long walk but that didn’t make it any easier either.
Newk would arrive where the players were and he wouldn’t say a word. He’d only get far enough to reach his long right arm, the one he threw with, to the back of Matt Kemp’s pants, at which point he would tuck the out-turned and flapping material back into the pocket of those pants. Where it belonged. Then big ol’ Newk would turn and head back to his seat, the one he sat in on all the afternoons.
Kemp would smile at the gesture, the one he figured meant, “I love you.” And, maybe, “And get your act together.” That it happened about every day suggested Kemp was setting up ol’ Newk. That Newk bit every day inferred he didn’t really mind, that he sort of enjoyed it.
Don Newcombe died Tuesday. He was 92. Not two weeks ago, Frank Robinson died, at 83. The last generation to have touched Jackie Robinson, to have known the game when most of us wouldn’t have recognized it, has left us or is well on its way to. Born 2 ½ decades after Newcombe last threw a pitch, Kemp was coming off the field here Tuesday afternoon when someone told him about his old buddy Newk, who’d packed an awful lot into those 92 years and still seemed gone so soon.
On so many afternoons they’d set in those cluster of blue seats together, in the sun or the shade depending on the time of year, and Newk would greet him the way he always did.
“What you got for me today?”
Kemp would smile.
“I just wanna hit the ball hard about three times today.”
“Well then do something, dammit.”
Then they’d kill time before it was Kemp’s turn to hit.
“So, yeah, he was always on me,” Kemp, now a Cincinnati Red, recalled Wednesday morning. “When I wasn’t playing the way I was supposed to be playing he’d let me know. And every time I did something good I’d look up there in the owner’s box, where he always sat, and you know just kinda look up there and see if he saw what I was doing.
“And, he thought he was a better hitter than me.”
When a visitor raised his eyebrow, Kemp laughed.
“No, he wasn’t,” he said. “No chance. He was not a better hitter than me. But he was an amazing person.”
The world feels a little less gracious today. A little less dignified. A little less forgiving. I suppose it always does when a good person has to go. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t settle in your heart for a while, time spent considering all those memories Newk and others like him kept alive, the happy ones and the ugly ones. All the secrets they maybe believed were better left alone. Wouldn’t do anybody any good now, goin’ on about the ugly.
Besides, there’s still enough of that to go around. Kemp sighed at the thought of it, how different it can be out there beyond this job, beyond this ballfield, beyond the micro society that is a ballclub.
“Our world today,” he said, “we’re in chaos right now. There’s a lot of craziness going on, as far as racially, all those things. Those are guys who set the tone and paved the way for us to be able to play this game. I definitely think we have to do a better job of everybody sticking together. For me, I don’t see race. I try to love everybody. I would hope everybody would love me. You know, not because of the color of my skin or whatever. I don’t want to be judged by the color of my skin. And I don’t want anybody else to be judged by the color of their skin. We definitely need to do a better job in this world of just coming together and being one.
“Definitely time for it. Less judging. Just everybody be happy. We live in a, we’re supposed to live in the greatest country in the world. It’s not supposed to be like this. It’s tough to see. You lose guys like that, who stood for what they stood for, it’s tough to lose them. Especially at this point in time.”
He’d say goodbye to Newk, to his friend, to his mentor, in his own way, in his own time. It’ll get harder before it gets easier, he said. He’ll save a hug for Don’s widow, Karen. He’ll have to return to Dodger Stadium, see the empty seat, tuck his own pocket, have no one to talk to. No one like Newk.
“He knew how much I respected him,” Kemp said. “I knew how much he respected me. It was love. He’s gonna be missed. Especially going back to L.A. and not seeing his face during batting practice in those clean suits. He was the one who taught me to always smell good. That man always smelled good, man. Karen always made sure he had some type of new cologne. He always smelled really, really good, man. So now I try to smell good all the time. He would tell me certain places to spray it, so it would last longer. Just certain places. He educated me well on a lot of things.”
He paused to remember not the conversations so much as the effort. Ol’ Newk made sure Matt Kemp knew he had a friend. That their stuff was their stuff. That a lot of folks busted their asses so that Matt Kemp would have a good life. A fair existence. As fair as it can be anymore. And he remembered how they always said goodbye. Every time.
“I love you, baby.”
“I love you, too.”
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