Remembering the biggest baseball fan I know: A look at what we lost this year

Hannah Keyser
·9 min read
Arthur and Theresa Maddaloni were married for 64 years. (Photo courtesy Hannah Keyser)
Arthur and Theresa Maddaloni were married for 64 years. (Photo courtesy Hannah Keyser)

When my grandfather died in June we said it was because he couldn’t bear to see the designated hitter come to the National League. It was a pretty good joke my family repeated too many times in the days that followed his passing because it made us chuckle instead of cry and almost made it feel like there was some order to the senselessness that accompanies any death.

We needed ways to talk about his absence that soothed the shock without ignoring the loss. The blunt-force fact of his death was still so present and painful it didn’t need the embellishment of all the ways it would come to affect our lives. It would be weeks before I thought about how now he would never meet the next generation in the family.

And yet, like scratching at a sunburn to add a level of acute sensation to a severe ache, I found myself fixated on the injustice that the baseball season hadn’t yet started. Along with everything else, the pandemic robbed my grandfather of the last few months of Mets games in his lifetime. A ridiculous loss to even notice, except that stands as a stark testament to how so many of the losses of this year won’t actually be recouped even if we return to normal.

The last time I talked to Arthur Maddaloni, whom I called only Pop Pop, I asked him if he had ever seen the Dodgers play in Los Angeles. I don’t know why I expected him to say no. I knew he was young, or even just younger, once — eager and able to travel. I’m lucky, and so was he, that I can remember when he took river cruises in Europe where he made use of the many languages he spoke. And he had good cause to go west; a Dodgers fan by birth in Brooklyn who became a Mets fan when his first love left him for Los Angeles.

Still, I was surprised that he had. I asked almost just to be polite, because he was growing hard of hearing and nuanced conversations about my life had become difficult to conduct over the phone. But baseball was always there as a fallback and the phone was all we had in the final months of his life since the pandemic meant the 50 miles between our homes might as well have been the distance between Ebbets Field and Dodger Stadium.

*****

Pop Pop left Brooklyn shortly after the Dodgers did. My mother, his eldest, was born the first year the team played in California. First, they moved to Queens, and then a few years later, the growing family decamped to the suburbs where my grandmother would spend the next 60-some years romanticizing a return to New York proper. They raised four kids, who attend the same school where Pop Pop taught French and Spanish and drivers ed. As a young teacher and new father, he taught Joe Torre in summer school and told the story for the next half century.

They were fervent Mets fans who couldn’t afford to go to Shea Stadium. Instead, he and my mom would watch the games on television together every night. If they both hurried home from school, they could even catch the end of day games. He told her Gil Hodges slapped his glove before every close play at first so the umpire would think the ball got there before it really did, and all these years later she’s not sure if that’s true but she never forgot it.

First baseman of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gil Hodges, in 1952, in New York.  (AP Photo/Harry Harris)
First baseman of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Gil Hodges, in 1952, in New York. (AP Photo/Harry Harris)

And then, sometime in the ‘80s, he and my grandmother went to L.A. to see the team he’d grown up watching from city rooftops. On the phone, a few weeks before he died, he struggled to remember which of the Dodgers’ dominant aces they’d seen that day. It was a masterfully pitched game, he knew, and that meant maybe Fernando Valenzuela or peak Bob Welch. No, though, neither of those were quite right. It was that famous one, you know, but since it was before I was born I didn’t try very hard to think of it.

I said it didn’t really matter more condescendingly than I meant. I can be awkward around strained conversations, even with someone who once made me a miniature stable from scratch to house my toy horses. My grandfather, a man with the patience of a saint, said, “Love you, doll,” and, “Do you want to talk to Grandma now?”

But it did matter, to him. The years were catching up to him, leaving him slow to get around, but he still lived in the same house my mom grew up in, still cleaned the gutters himself, and could still remember a baseball game from 30-plus years before.

“It was Orel Hershiser!” I heard him shout in the background while talking to my grandmother. Orel Hershiser I mouthed to my husband, who loved Pop Pop like his own family not because he married me but because they could talk baseball together endlessly.

*****

Of course I knew he was old. And right at the end, we knew enough to get worried. My mom says that every time she called him during the pandemic, she would hang up fearing that had been the last time she would ever speak to her father. She was desperate to visit. But she mostly hid that from the grandkids and besides, Pop Pop had danced at my wedding four years ago. In December he had traveled to attend my sister’s wedding. He still drove, although we were starting to think that might be a bad idea.

There are a lot of ways to die because there is a pandemic and not end up as a COVID stat. One of them is to be 86 in fading health and not be able to get lifesaving care when you need it because a panicked, criminally underprepared medical system is dealing with a slow-rolling emergency and too many people who need it more. Every incremental act of indifference or incompetence at the federal level had a human cost that reverberated beyond even the quarter of a million death toll.

In those final days, Pop Pop, who was already dealing with congestive heart failure, developed internal bleeding that they couldn’t explain without some sort of invasive procedure. But the overtaxed hospitals wouldn’t admit him — except when they briefly thought he had COVID until the test came back negative — to protect him and because there weren’t any doctors available to treat him anyway. So he went home and we were left to fear for him from afar.

Pop Pop died in his own bed, two days after his 64th wedding anniversary. He’d married a girl whose family owned the bakery across the street from his family’s barbershop. I have a photo of them together as children around 1940. She cooked him lobster on that last night and lay down next to him not knowing it was the end of the only life she’d known. It’s not a bad way to go, all things considered. Hopefully, it hurt most for the people he left behind.

***

For the past few years, I’ve been begging my grandparents to let me take them to a Mets game. Grandma’s fandom is funnier, a little famous on my social media where I share her texts about Jacob deGrom and Pete Alonso and how I won’t be a real New Yorker until I start rooting for the boys in blue and orange. But mostly I wanted to hear my grandfather’s slow, easy analysis from 80 years of baseball insights.

Let me get you good seats, I’d say. I’ll pick you up and drive you to the stadium.

Sometimes when I was little, we would all go together — especially when the Phillies played the Mets, my parents driving their own four kids from South Jersey up to Queens. They were at R.A. Dickey’s 20th win in 2012 and loved to talk about how they’d bought tickets day-of, just knowing he would do it. I don’t know the last time that they went to a game in person.

They’d go again when Pop Pop was feeling a little better, my grandmother would say, citing some new ailment that they were pretending would improve. But that would only make me try harder to change her mind.

We’ll get a suite! And a wheelchair if we have to. I see little old people at the games all the time and you guys aren’t even that old.

It made me frustrated and scared to talk about. Age goes in only one direction and eventually, health does too. It always felt like they were being foolish waiting till next summer, but maybe that’s the sort of delusion you need toward the end of your life. Delusion or hope, depends on how you look at it. The Mets were supposed to be there when Pop Pop was feeling better.

From the other side of his passing it looks like baseball held up its end of the bargain. The death of a grandparent is practically a given, the game was always going to outlive him and I could spin a rose-colored moral of this story out of how it will always remind me of Pop Pop. But what’s any of this — life, that is — for if not savoring one more season, one more summer? Sometimes we treat the years of youth like they’re more valuable, but if anything that’s when they seem their most infinite. Sometimes we disregard a pandemic because it preys only on the elderly and compromised, as if those people aren’t acutely aware of how important every extra month is. All of life is postponing the inevitable, surviving to play another day. Or watch others play, as it may be.

He was old when he died, but trust me, my grandfather would love to still be alive now. Maybe he missed only one more 60-game season or maybe he could have seen a whole new era of Mets’ success. He’d be stuck at home like the rest of us, but at least my grandmother wouldn’t be going through this alone.

We talk about sports and culture and so much of society in 2020 as if it was put on pause, except that’s not really how it works. The clock on all our lives kept ticking. The people we lost are gone for good. So, too, are the memories we missed out on.

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