Max with his broadcasting heroes, Rod Allen (left) and Mario Impemba (right)

Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games reexamines words that when used in sport, can help one find greater meaning and purpose in those games. Following are a few words that defined our visit to Detroit with our dear friends the Nartkers:

ENTHUSIASM: God within
It was the kind of day that will make me smile for the rest of my life: so Sportual and so right. And of course it involved baseball and someone linked to my volleyball team. Max is the brother of a 2012 graduate from my Kalamazoo College Volleyball Team, who in his sister’s four years with us, transformed everyone he ever met, including me. “I’m easy to meet, and hard to forget!” is his mantra. No kidding. Max’s energy reaches out and touches you, over and over. If you need a label, call it ADHD with a form of autism, but I call it Maximum energy! His life goal is to be the next Ernie Harwell, and you know, I believe him! During his sister’s senior year with us, Max announced all our home games, driving with his mom three hours each way, often arriving home well past midnight on a school night. He runs cross country, and manages the basketball team at his school. And he loves baseball. Max is one very Sportual guy – a product of a very Sportual family.
SANCTUARY: Holy place
For Max’s high school graduation, my husband and I gifted him with Detroit Tiger tickets. The stated plan was that we’d meet him and his parents in Detroit for a meal at the famous Slow’s BBQ Restaurant, visit the site of the old Tiger Stadium just down the road, and arrive early to Comerica Park in time for batting practice – two most holy places for Tiger fans around the globe. Dear old Tiger Stadium is but a field: home plate, pitcher’s mound, and base paths, but it still holds all the ghosts of those who passed through her gates from 1912 to 1999, and the feeling connecting past to present is palpable to those who still gather there in the name of community. Meanwhile, across town, Comerica Park is the shining jewel of a park, with all the bells and whistles, in the heart of a downtown working toward its renaissance.
COMMUNICATION: To make common
Unbeknownst to Max, the surprise portion of the evening included a visit to both the television and radio booths to meet his broadcasting heroes. Have you ever seen a 19-year old leap three feet in the air five consecutive times? It happened on June 20 just inside Gate A of Comerica Park, when Mike, a Kalamazoo graduate with ties to the booth, met us and said, “Hi Max, are you ready?” “Ready for what?” looking at each of us as if we should know … ”We’re going to meet Rod (Allen) and Mario (Impemba), and Jim (Price) and Dan (Dickerson) up in the booth.” After the news sunk in two seconds later, Max was transformed into a human jumping bean. As he walked away toward the booth, his mom observed, “He’s excited … his arms were flapping!” True to his faith-filled upbringing, as Max met the broadcasters, he thanked them for doing God’s work. He then told the TV guys, Rod and Mario, that he would take their jobs someday, but only after they died. Needless to say, everyone in those booths had an encounter with true Sportuality that night. Autographs and photos filled most of the time with the guys, but it was clear that they wouldn’t soon forget the next Ernie Harwell.
VICTORY: To persevere
With the broadcasting booth visit in our rear-view mirror, we watched the end of batting practice while leaning on the Red Sox dugout. This was going to be a classic battle of two first-place teams in the American League, and they did not disappoint. Max kept us and everyone in our section—including the usher and the beer vendor—entertained with his enthusiasm, communication, and joy in the game. After all, Boston is Max’s “second favorite team,” so this game was a perfect storm, and an outlet for his energy.

Years ago, Tug McGraw uttered “You gotta believe!” while playing with the 1973 Mets. Well, this was one game where the Tiger faithful had to believe. Down 3-2 going into the bottom of the 9th, and yet to have a walk-off this season, several fans had chosen an early exit to beat the traffic and listen to the sordid details of a loss on the car radio. But not us. Not Max, who had never seen the Tigers lose in person. He made us all link arms and pay attention. The entire section donned rally caps. Did those actions help Jhonny Peralta send that ball into the bullpen with a man on first? We’ll never know, but the final score does record a 4-3 Tiger win in the bottom of the 9th on June 20, 2013.

According to poet Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” All of us who had any sort of contact with Max that night, including everyone in Section 334 in Comerica Park, will always remember that feeling of immense joy as the ball made its exit from the playing field. It was more than a victory. Indeed, it was Heaven.

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