Posts Tagged ‘Jerry Witte’s Last Ballgame.’

Jerry Witte’s Last Ballgame.

September 30, 2009

JW 2001 11A few years ago now, my best friend and all time greatest baseball hero got to throw out the first pitch at an Astros game in the place we now call Minute Maid Park. The date was Friday, August 3, 2001. My late friend and hero was a fellow named Jerry Witte.

The actual game that night wasn’t exactly one for the ages, but Houston won over the Montreal Expos, 6-2, behind the pitching of Shane Reynolds, a 2 for 4 night by Jeff Bagwell, and a rare homer by Brad Ausmus. The victory bumped the Astros record to 60-49, something that always feels great late in the year of another season bound for nowhere, but the real story that night was Jerry Witte and his meetings prior to the game with Astros players Jeff Bagwell and Roy Oswalt.

As one of the people allowed on the field that evening to accompany Jerry and do a little photography, I also walked into the privilege of witneessing the first class treatment that both players and the entire Astros administrative staff all extended to the aging slugger of a Houstons Buffs team that played ball in this town a half century earlier. In fact, the big scoreboard even introduced Jerry as “the slugging firstbaseman of the 1951 Texas League Champion Houston Buffs.” How cool was that!

Most of all, the background on what led to this special evening is important to the story too. Jerry had lost his dear wife of 54 years, Mary, to cancer only two months earlier on June 10, 2001. He had been going downhill in spirit ever since, in spite of all that his devoted seven daughters and all of us other friends could do to help him rally.

With the help of Astros Vice President Rob Matwick, we were able to line up the special night for Jerry to throw out the ceremonial frst pitch. Jerry still lived in his East End Houston home, the same one in which he and Mary had raised their family, but he had never seen a game at the new Enron Field.

Jerry’s first reaction was hesitation. “I’m 86 years old,” he exclaimed. “An old bird like me’s got no place on the field anymore!”

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Jerry soon turned around to support the idea once he grasped that the Astros simply wanted to honor him with Jeff Bagwell as two slugging first basemen from Houston who played the position fifty years apart. Jerry insisted that he wanted to give Bagwell one of his 40 ounce bats for that special occasion – and he also wanted to get in some practice throwing the ball before he took the mound. For the next three weeks prior to “the fist pitch night,” I would go to Jerry’s house and work out as his catcher. At the end of this period, I asked him to sign the ball we had used. He signed it, “To Bill, My Catcher.” I will treasure that ball forever.

On the night of “the first pitch,” Jeff Bagwell came over down on the field and presented Jerry with a signed baseball for his use in the ceremony. Jeff was magnificent, referring to Jerry as “Mr. Witte” all the time. In turn, Jerry surprised Jeff Bagwell wth his gift of the big Witte model Louisville Slugger.  Jeff beamed in awe at the weight of the thing. and he said something about how he might have trouble getting it off his shoulder in time to catch up with a fastball, but that he did have a place of honor for it at home.

For about five minutes, the two sluggers of yesterday and today talked baseball together in quiet repose prior to the game: Jerry in his wheelchair; Jeff squatting to eye level with Jerry. In that brief moment of time, it felt as though the whole of Houston’s professional baseball history, from Babies to Buffs to Colt .45s to Astros, had been joined together forever on sacred ground.

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When Jerry finally made the first pitch, he did it with unintentional dramatic flair. Using a wheel chair in place of  a walker, he actually rode to the mound behind a son-in-law, Ken Katzen. He was also accompanied there by his oldest daughter, Mary Ann Crumbaugh, a registered nurse. Jerry could walk just fine, but, of course, few in the crowd knew that fact when they saw him being wheeled onto the field. It was a moment simply born in destiny as a stage for magical impression.

Once he reached the mound, Jerry began to stir, pulling himself up from the chair, and all the while motioning away leaning offers for help from anyone. The crowd roared. Jerry then walked slowly to the back of the chair to position himself for the throw – and the crowd roared even louder. Now everyone was on their feet. Jerry then matter of factly removed the ball from his coat side pocket and heaved it into his catcher, a role now played by a young rookie Astros pitcher named Roy Oswalt. The crowd gave it up for Jerry Witte with a “Standing O.”

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The brief dialogue between Jerry Witte and his “game catcher,” Roy Oswalt, said it all about the old Buff’s next encounter with the Astros’ personal respect for him on that night of long ago:

Jerry Witte: “Young man, where did you learn how to throw a baseball so well?”

Roy Oswalt: “My daddy taught me, sir.”

Jerry Witte: “Well, you tell him for me that I think he did a great job of raising you, both as a good pitcher and a fine young man.”

Roy Oswalt: “Thank you, sir. I’ll tell him, sir.”

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Jerry stayed for the whole game. We’d had plenty of discussion earlier about leaving anytime he felt tired and wanted to go home, but that didn’t happen. Once Jerry settled into the ballgame, he wanted to stay til the end. Along the way, he even caught a foul ball and gave it to a little girl who was sitting nearby. The little girl then asked Jerry to sign the ball for her – and that pleased him immensely.

It turned out to be Jerry Witte’s last ballgame. He passed away on April 28, 2002 at the age of nearly 87, surrounded by all his daughters, sons-in-laws, grandchildren, and good friends. All of us who were there at the ballpark on August 3, 2001 will never forget the joy of that moment in the days of a man who lived his life so fully, so well, and so always lovingly.

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Godspeed, Jerry! Just know that all of us from your old gang who remain in the game down here are still trying to play it out as best you taught us. Anytime that any of us are facing a tough choice about anything really important, we also know that you’re still sitting there next to us on the bench,  in full spirit, reminding us to just gut it through – whatever it is – and do the next right thing – whatever that may be – while we trust the rest to God.

Thank you for just being you – and for  staying here with us physically for as long as you were able. We love you, and Mary too, and we always will. – Jerry, I never met anyone who embodied the spirits of love and baseball together anymore than you. And I guess that’s possible because those two spirits are actually pretty darn close to being one and the same in some of us horsehided soul people.