My friend Alex was a sports fan. He was a lot of things, many more important, but he was a sports fan. When we met as kids at St. Mary's College, everyone was a punk-rocker or a neo-hippie. Alex was some of that, but he was never afraid to let his non-freak-flag fly, and I owe him for that. When I got to St. Mary's, I was 17, just a kid and a sheltered one at that. Alex was an old man by dorm standards, and I loved sitting on the hard wooden chairs in his tiny room, drinking the Bohs he was old enough to buy, and listening to him.
My dad died when I was 12, and I got some of the stuff you're supposed to get from a dad listening to Hawkwind and talking Orioles with Alex. Alex was probably a genius, and he poured that genius into some strange crannies. There was the Dead, a passion (I can't bring myself to say music) I'll never understand, but because of Alex I respect; there was the guitar, an instrument he played with sophisticated soul and the deep mind of a mathematician; and there was baseball, a sport he loved so much that he created a fantasy '70s baseball game called the Big-Hair Disco League, a league I sadly showed up a year too late to play. Looking back, a bedraggled 26-year-old Deadhead and occasional Civil War reenactor may not have been the perfect father-figure, but I'd have never learned the things I learned from a perfect dad.
All those Natty Bohs became another place for Alex to pour his genius. Even in a world where drinking health-center cough medicine from a crystal Champagne flute seemed the norm, Alex's drinking worried me. Staying up late enough for breakfast, shaking cans abandoned on desks or behind bunks, looking for a little more left behind-he sought a vessel to drain, leaving a bit of himself in its place. A perfect dad doesn't drink the beer with the cigarette butt still in it. But a perfect dad doesn't stand up in that place the way Alex did. When Alex quit drinking, I felt a displaced pride. Now, looking back at a young man not yet 30, seeing his truth, raising himself above that bottom, I am awed. The strength he drew, the fight he won, and the life he lived afterward are inspirations to me and I'm sure many others.
I'd have never said it back then, when I was a stupid college kid, but I looked up to Alex, I learned much with him, and I loved him. Even still, a few years after college, we lost touch. He became stories-the time on the beach when the diver walked out of the river, riding the Ocean City buses till the 24-hour pass expired-and a ghost shaman who'd appear whenever Eddie Murray turned up on the TV or the Dead poured out of a jukebox. Then, five or six years ago, the internet happened, Facebook brought back the past, and Alex and I started talking again.
Despite moving from Maryland to Syracuse, N.Y., Alex was still a big Orioles fan, and at first, that's what we talked about-tonight's loss (the Orioles were still doing a lot of that), the pitching they need, the hitting they don't have, and why we still bother to watch. Those back-and-forths, in the wee hours when we both should have been asleep, helped me put my heart back into the game. Without those conversations, I wouldn't be writing this column.
Last June, not long after I started writing Spitballin', I got a message from Alex. I'd known he'd been sick, but it was worse than he'd let on. Alex had cancer. A lot of cancer. Cristin, Alex's wife, created a Facebook page where we could follow their life with this disease, where we could share in the joys and hopes and sadnesses and struggles. It was a place where we could root for them. The Orioles' scores suddenly seemed inadequate, and I didn't know what to say to my old, brave friend. And he reached out to me.
As the Orioles were headed down their glorious stretch drive last season and Alex was wading into his fight with this cancer, he sent me a message. He told me I was his favorite sportswriter. He was the first person to call me a sportswriter. It didn't seem fair that I should be drawing strength from Alex when he so clearly would need every ounce. Later, as the O's battled the Rangers in the Wild Card game, Alex and I messaged back and forth. I'd say the man had a head for baseball, but I can't really think of anything he didn't have a head for; either way, his insight helped make that game for me. I'll never be able to think about that victory without also thinking of my friend Alex. I took the Orioles' victory as a sign, a covenant that someone was listening and was going to take care of that cancer.
I couldn't make it to Alex's funeral, but I did get to see him in the hospital a few weeks before he passed. He was so sick and he'd been missing the baseball games, keeping track of the times had become too difficult. We talked Orioles anyway-Alex and Cristin taught their daughter and three little boys to be Orioles fans-and we laughed, or at least I did, Alex could muster a smile. And I remembered why I'd looked up to this man, why I'd found a bit of father in him. If I had a wish, it would be that Alex's family still had their remarkable daddy at home, but as they grow, I hope they'll recognize him at their side. For me, when the Birds win, I write a message to him in my head and feel grateful.