The Marine sergent once threw me up against a fence during a game. He grabbed the front of my shirt, peered into my eyes, and lifted me a foot off the ground. If you were driving by on Columbia Avenue, you could have seen it. It was in the first base dugout by the football field. I forgot what Niksic said, if he said anything at all.
"You probably deserved it," dad interrupted. He pulled a gasket off the fuel tank. I didn't bother telling him the rest.
I was a decent baseball player. Niksic knew that. I went on to play college baseball, but only by accident. I was more interested in living on the edge of an alternative life style. It started in high school and culminated with a couple years in a "cooperative," which is code for commune. Niksic sensed where my life was headed. Perhaps he thought he could change the trajectory by throwing me against a fence. Either that or he just couldn't take my attitude any more. Either way, my trajectory didn't change.
Bob Shinkan was also a coach of Munster High baseball. He did it for 37 years. "Shink" would have never grabbed a kid by the shirt and thrown him against a fence. It wasn't his style... and times are different.
When Shink was just starting out, he and Laura lived in the apartments next to the "Little Store" at Elliot and Fisher in Munster. My family lived across the power lines in a house. When I came home for summer break, Shink and I would run into each other in his parking lot. We'd talk baseball. After a couple of these encounters, Shink invited me in for a beer. Imagine that, your first beer with one of your coaches. I felt as if I had grown up, that I wasn't the punk that Niksic threw against a fence anymore.
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. I had plenty of punk life left to live. But for a few hours when Laura was working late, Shink and I would drink beer and watch baseball. It was a cool moment, a lot cooler than getting thrown against a fence in front of all my friends.
Fast forward to yesterday. It was the first nice day in a long time. It's been nothing but rain and snow and wind and gray skies for weeks. This weather has gotten into all of our souls. It is necessary for high school baseball and softball to start.
It wasn't just the first home game of the year for the Mustangs. It was the first time in the history of Munster baseball that Mike Niksic or Bob Shinkan wasn't the manager for Munster baseball. Think about that. Munster High started in 1966 or so. Niksic was the first baseball coach. He died tragically in the late 80s in a boating accident. His assistant took over. That was Bob Shinkan. He died a couple months ago after a long fight with breast cancer.
I had heard that there was gonna be a eulogy for Shink before the game. I had one of my guys out there with a camera to catch the moment. But what I really wanted was to be present. I knew Niksic and I knew Shink, and I wanted to be there for the ceremony. I pedaled furiously down Columbia Avenue into a 25-mile-an-hour wind to get to the field by 4:30. I got there at 4:29.
"There's no umps," athletic director Ira Zimmer said to me as I parked my bike against the press box. "You don't mind standing behind the mound calling balls and strikes, do you, Dedelow?"
I would have gladly done it, although Andrean's Pishkur knows I'm a Munster guy. He most certainly would have objected.
"You got an extra set of ump gear in that storage shed?" I told Zimmer. "I'll put it on. I will."
The umps eventually arrived. Starting lineups were introduced and the coaches and players - including my nephew Al - lined up along the baselines. Assistant Munster athletic director Beth Raspopovich read a beautiful tribute to Shink. Shink's son Mike threw out the first pitch. Munster players ran on the field and starting throwing balls around.
I looked around - doesn't anyone realize the moment? I felt incredibly sad. I thought of Niksic. Despite our differences, we would talk a lot in his office by the Phys Ed lockers. If you could talk intelligently about baseball, Niksic would give you time. Lots of it. I thought of Shink. He took it gracefully that one time I prematurely announced on the air that he was retiring from coaching. I was fake news, had to make a retraction. Shink just laughed. We both laughed.
I looked around at the Munster stands - isn't anyone sad? Doesn't anyone understand the gravity of this moment? Why are we moving on so quickly?
I looked for a face, just one face, of someone who would understand. There wasn't any. People were eating popcorn, laughing, padding down their blankets on the rock-hard Munster bleachers. But no one - no one besides me, I figured - felt the moment. So I moseyed on over to the press box. I sat there kind of quiet for a couple innings with Raspopovich and Dave Funk of The Times. They both knew the history, but they weren't moping like I was.
As I got up to leave, what I was looking for appeared. I had been looking for someone who was gonna be as sad as I was. And I found it. Leroy Marsh came hobbling around the front window of the booth. This Munster football coach of nearly 40 years entered the press box. We shook hands, locked eyes.
"Sad day," I said.
"Yep. Sad day," Leroy said as he shook his head. "Sad day, Jimmy."
It was a similar moment to when Leroy retired a couple years ago from coaching. Munster had only had two football coaches in its 50-plus years - John Friend and Leroy Marsh. But Leroy and coach Friend are still alive. I went to that first night when Jason Gruenwald coached his first game. It was the changing of the guard, but it wasn't nearly as sad as yesterday.
Leroy realized that. I didn't have to pull it out of him (like I do to people on the morning show... which starts in less than an hour, by the way). Leroy's good friends were gone. Maybe he needed to see me as much as I needed to see him. Mission accomplished, I got on my bike and started to pedal away. That's when I ran into Laura, Shink's widow.
"How are you doing, Laura?"
"I'm here, Jimmy. That's all I got."
"Mike did a good job throwing out the first pitch."
"Yes, he did. If I had to do it, I might have collapsed."
Gotta go do a morning show. R.I.P. Bob Shinkan. And you, too, Mike Niksic.