In recent weeks, as it became harder to move, harder to breathe and harder to speak, Gretchen Piscotty would pat her right hand on her chest. It was her way of telling her family she loved them.
On Monday night, Oakland Athletics outfielder Stephen Piscotty was by his mother’s side as she lost her yearlong battle with ALS, a neurodegenerative disease with still no known cause, and no known cure.
As Piscotty stepped to the plate for his first plate appearance back on Tuesday night, Houston Astros pitcher Lance McCullers stepped off the mound. The crowd stood, and Piscotty tapped his hand on his chest twice. Then, as umpire Joe West went out to “inspect” the ball, he tapped his chest another three, then another four times as the crowd’s noise swelled. Gretchen was the reason he came home. She was his inspiration.
“You’d never believe just how strong she was,” Piscotty said before Wednesday’s game. “I can’t imagine what she was going through, what she was feeling, putting on that front like she was OK. I think she was doing that for us, but she was just so strong.”
His voice cracked.
“She’s just a warrior,” he said. “That’s something that’s at the front of my mind, something I’m always going to remember.”
After speaking with a choked-up Piscotty last week — following his emotional return, but before his bereavement leave for a Monday celebration of life — I called my mom. I shed some tears. I told her I love her. Today, you should do the same.
Three Mother’s Days ago, I bought my mom something special: A wooden sign. It said, “The only thing better than a dad who knows baseball, is a mom who knows baseball.”
Yeah, my uncle and my grandfather taught me how to hit. But it was my mom and my grandmother who stood in my grandparents’ backyard as outfielders, shagging Wiffle balls I hit off a PlaySchool tee.
It was my grandmother who would pack a bag of sliced apples and chocolate chip cookies when we went to Dodger Stadium. She’d wake me up the mornings after late-night games at Chavez Ravine with the smell of pancakes and bacon.
My mom kept score at most of my PONY games, and when the wind and the cold bit hardest, she never left her seat behind the plate. She drove me to practice and to the batting cages, and when I got cut from the junior varsity team as a sophomore in high school, she let me cry in her car for 10 minutes before she told me to suck it up and get to class — she didn’t tell me to rub dirt on my broken heart, but she might as well have.
One day, a few months back, I was visiting my hometown. My mom, my best friend, his twin boys and myself went to take an offseason tour of Dodger Stadium — the first time the boys had ever been. My mom nudged me as we walked into the press box. “So this is where you sit?” she asked, smirking. “Pretty cool.”
Later, when my best friend and I had to go to Home Depot to pick something up, interrupting some front-yard batting practice, the boys asked who would play baseball with them while we were gone. He said, “Mommy will pitch to you.” The boys protested, saying girls couldn’t play baseball.
His response? “Who always plays baseball with you when Dad and Uncle Gorcey aren’t here? Mommy does. Girls can play baseball too, so don’t you ever say that.”
Early in her illness, Gretchen Piscotty made it out to see her son play in St. Louis. It was for Gretchen that the Cardinals traded Piscotty back home, to Oakland. The organization — and the rival Chicago Cubs’ Yu Darvish and Jon Lester — publicly expressed their condolences and donated large sums of money to the family’s research fund to fight against ALS. The A’s matched up to $50,000 in donations to the fund.
“It’s going to such a good cause,” he said. “It warms my heart, and I want to keep the momentum going. Once the dust settles, I want to speak to my agent and see if there are other cool ways to continue raising money. It’s going to be my mission.”
Gretchen made sure to see her son’s first game back at the Coliseum — the same stadium he’d visited regularly in his youth. It was the only one she would attend before the illness advanced too far.
On Tuesday, as Piscotty stepped onto the field to warm up, he looked out to the right field bleachers. There was a simple sign in green and gold: A heart, with the letters GP in the center. In batting practice, he hit five home runs on five swings — something he’s never done. In his first at-bat, he lined a single to right.
“That’s one of the most memorable for sure,” he said, with tears welling up in his eyes. “I felt like all day, I didn’t feel alone. I felt like someone was with me … I just didn’t feel alone. I felt like there was someone with me yesterday, and I know it was her.”
Between those two lines is freedom. Between those two lines, well, there’s a reason Shoeless Joe asked Ray Kinsella if it was heaven. Baseball’s been called a game passed between fathers and sons, but it’s our moms who teach us unconditional love, and without that, we don’t play. They’re always behind home plate, even when they’re not. They’re always our biggest fans, and they always bring us home.
So, call your moms today. Tell them you love them. Tell them thank you. For every early morning hockey practice they drove you to, for every pair of baseball pants they stitched up, for every 0-for-4 they soothed with ice cream, for every home run rewarded with a trip to your favorite burger joint. For every bag of orange slices they brought to your soccer games, for every pair of sneakers they bought for you, for every bat you got on Christmas morning, or the fourth night of Hanukkah. For the carpets you ruined because you forgot to take off your spikes or your muddy socks. For every broken heart mended. For every dream encouraged.
Piscotty went to Stanford. I went to Cal. He plays in the big leagues. I just write about it. But there’s one thing holding Stephen Piscotty and I together: We’re our mom’s biggest fans, too.
Ryan Gorcey is the sports editor of the San Francisco Examiner. He grew up a Dodger fan and graduated from Cal, so he’s used to crushing disappointment, yet is oddly optimistic. Or just plain odd. Follow him on Twitter at @RyanGorcey or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.