Search This Blog

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Screwball's Odyssey with Life, Death and Tim McGraw...

Tug McGraw
There's something to be said about a biography when you know going into it how it's going to end and still get choked up while reading it (of course, for me that's not saying much since I've been known to shed a tear from time to time).

There I was sitting in my reading room (aka bathroom) after my family had gone to bed. It was around midnight and silence reigned throughout the house (not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse).  And, as I came to the last few pages of the book, I was sobbing like Brett Favre at a retirement press conference.  But, through the tears, as I thought about the situation; a near-middle-aged man crying over a book, sitting alone in his bathroom on a Friday night, I had to laugh at myself (not exactly the image I envisioned as something I would be doing when I was 21-years-old).

I just finished the memoirs of former Mets and Phillies relief pitcher, and team screwball, Tug McGraw, titled Ya Gotta Believe! My Roller-Coaster Life as a Screwball Pitcher and Part-Time Father, and My Hope-Filled Fight Against Brain Cancer, co-written by Don Yaeger. The screwball is not only a description of the man but his most lethal out pitch, which earned him a living in the big leagues for nineteen years. However, some might know Tug better as country music star Tim McGraw's dad.

Ironically, before being known as Faith Hill's husband, Tim, who aside from being a multi Grammy and Country Music Awards winner, is now making a name for himself in Hollywood (The Blind Side, Friday Night Lights and more), was better known for being Tug McGraw's son. The son Tug never acknowledged as his until meeting Tim in a hotel lobby at 17 and realizing the kid looked just like his old man.

Ya Gotta Believe is a surprisingly engrossing book. I say surprisingly because I got it as a gift from my brother and it sat in my bookshelf for several years before I picked it up towards the end of last year.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying my brother would give me a boring book.  I have just been more preoccupied with reading books on theology and the Catholic faith recently.

Being a lifelong Mets fan, I remember growing up watching the Mets of the early 70's almost every night with my mom, dad and younger brother while living in Port Chester, NY. My dad liked Rusty Staub. I was a big Tom Seaver and Duffy Dyer fan. My brother and mom liked Tug McGraw.

I particularly remember the 1973 season, where they came from fifth place and nine games under .500 in late August to win the division and sneak into the playoffs.

Although I knew that "Ya Gotta Believe" was McGraw's battle cry that season, in which he almost single handily willed a lackluster Mets team into contention, the playoffs and World Series, I figured, the title was also going to be indicative of a religious conversion after his diagnosis.

I started reading it thinking it might be an inspiration-filled book high on praises and thankfulness to God for all the blessings in his life. However, my presumption was quickly dashed. About 20 pages into the book, after having his first brain surgery, McGraw describes the two things he wanted to avoid:
The one thing I didn’t do during all this was pout. I made a promise to myself that I would never sit around and ask the “why me?” question. Whatever happens to me, happens to me…
The other thing I didn’t do in the days after my diagnosis was pray. I haven’t been a particularly religious guy over my lifetime, and I thought it was pretty disingenuous to reach out to God now. I’m sure there’s a day coming when I’ll make that call to God, but I wanted it to be some time other than when I was lying there staring death in the face...
Although, I think his sense of righteousness with God was misguided (none of us is ever worthy but we turn to God in times of hardship to give us strength and comfort), I admired his sincerity. McGraw was Catholic and, at that point of the story, receives the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick but says, "not last rites." He saves that for later in the book (although some would argue it's the same sacrament!).

Ya Gotta Believe is an interesting and easy read, albeit probably written more for men because of its raw, at times, locker room conversational style, baseball talk, analogies, and written in the first-person-point of view (except the epilogue), with Tugger’s own male perspectives on life. Nevertheless, his battle with cancer and up and down emotional roller coaster ride during his last year of life will appeal to anyone with a little empathy.

Like most of us, Tug McGraw was a man of many flaws. He had a weakness for wine, women, including countless extramarital affairs, fathering children from one-night-stands (i.e. Tim McGraw), and song, even before Tim appeared. However, he was also a charismatic, generous, hilarious and contagious character that most people, who knew him, loved being around.

Amidst earnest evaluations and reflections on his life, his failures as a husband (twice married, twice divorced), father (four children from three different women) and, admittedly, narcissistic and ego-driven behavior, Ya Gotta Believe draws you into the life of a man driven by a desire to succeed, having fun and making others laughs.

As a baseball fan, there is plenty of insight on his baseball career, teammates, championship seasons, and clubhouse antics. However, the baseball stories only serve as a backdrop into his colorful personal life.

Tug with son Tim McGraw
Tim McGraw is a big part of the book as well. Despite being rejected by his father for seventeen years of his life, Tim apparently never held a grudge and was the rock that kept Tug’s life from totally unraveling after his diagnosis.

In fact, it was Tim that took over his father’s affairs after he got sick. Tim got a brain cancer specialist at Duke University to see and treat his father, he paid for the experimental and costly treatment, Tug’s home, travel expenses for family and even rented a Winnebago for Tug, his brother and close friends to travel to visit family and friends across the country.

During his final days, it was Tim who slept by his father’s side holding his hand.

On the day before his death, Tug McGraw was ready to make the call to God and asked for a priest.
On the afternoon of Saturday, January 3, after Matthew (his 8-year-old son) had left, Tug requested the presence of a priest to deliver last rites... The priest arrived and offered Tug communion. He smiled weakly when the priest placed his hand over Tug’s. Tug seemed comforted by the priest’s presence.
At this point, after investing about a month reading about his life, and to be frank, falling in love with him through the pages of a book (in a manly way!), and knowing the end was near, tears are running down my face but the ending really got to me.
At about 4:40 in the afternoon, Central time (Jan 4), Tug began to have trouble breathing. Cari (daughter), Mark (Son), Tim, and Jennifer (one of Tug’s closest friends) were sitting around his bed. That morning, Faith (Hill) had asked Jennifer where Tug’s rosary beads were, and now Jennifer blurted out, “Oh, my God! The rosary!” Then she said to Cari, “Put that cross in his hand.” Cari placed the beads with the small cross on it in Tug’s right hand, and Tim placed a baseball in his left hand. Tug opened his eyes, and at 4:45 he took his last breath. At that exact moment, Hank (Tug’s older brother) walked in…
So, the man, who didn’t want to pray because it would be disingenuous, eventually accepted God’s Will, confessed his sins to a priest, received last rites and Holy Communion before taking his final breath. Just to reconcile with God alone was a great blessing but if that weren't enough, McGraw died with a rosary in his right hand and a baseball in his left, the gift that God had given him the passion and ability to enjoy throughout his life, and surrounded by his most remarkable blessings; his children and loved ones.

Tug McGraw’s brain cancer was diagnosed in March 2003 and he was given three weeks to live.  Instead, he finally succumbed to it in early January 2004. He was 59.

No comments: