Remembering Rocky

March 20, 2012

Baseball players have been immortalized as the “Boys of Summer” ever since 1972 when Roger Kahn took the phrase from a Dylan Thomas poem and used it as the title of a book about his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. Indeed, the thought of the Boys of Summer playing America’s Pastime arouses in us all memories of lazy summer days and nights at the ballpark where time seemed to stand still to the most wonderful effect.

Yet, for me baseball is much more evocative of Spring, a time when bright colors return to the Earth and we all long to be outdoors to experience the same rebirth. Isn’t that what happens each Spring in FL and AZ when the MLB teams clothed in Spring colors all play baseball outdoors on natural grass? Doesn’t each player contract Spring-fever amnesia and believe that his team can win the World Series this year no matter how badly they performed the previous year – or the previous 104 years? That optimism (“an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events to anticipate the best possible outcome” – Webster’s 9th), translates from the span of an entire season down to each individual pitch. In a baseball instant, the 1.4 seconds it takes most big-league pitchers to deliver a pitch to the plate, a person’s life can change forever. (See David Freese as the most recent example). A true baseball fan always believes that such a life-changing instant can occur on any pitch, and probably will on the very next one. With the coming of Spring, we all anticipate that catharsis in a positive expectation of success and victory, not in negative fear of failure or defeat.

Today is the first day of Spring, 2012 – the first Spring since 1944 that my friend Rocky Walker is not on the Earth and the first Spring since 2006 that I will not have him in the office to talk baseball with and to see in his youthful, optimistic eyes the belief that the next pitch in life is going to result in something special and memorable.

For those of you who didn’t know Rocky, he was a distinguished litigation attorney for 37 years, much of which was spent as a partner at JW and as head of the firm’s litigation practice. He was born in Bradenton, FL and raised in Sarasota, and I’m sure that had something to do with his love of baseball and Spring. He also had the rare pleasure of having a nephew actually become a major league pitcher (Tyler Walker, middle reliever, 286 appearances), and that made Rocky even more fun to talk to since he had inside news from The Show. But what made Rocky so special to me was not what he knew about my favorite game, but the way he reminded me of it with the Spring Training optimism that he seemed to exude every day that I worked with him.

Although I knew him previously as a Christian brother and fellow parish-member, I only really got to know Rocky in the five years since I came to JW. For almost four of those years he battled his disease, but through all the stages of his treatment and the ups and down of his hoped-for recovery, he never acted like it was anything but a great day. I almost expected the first words out of his mouth any morning to be “let’s play two!” If he were reading this right now, I’m sure he would tell me to quote Lou Gehrig: “I may have got a bad break, but today I feel like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” I admired this quality in him so much, but more importantly, I was blessed by it. I never left a conversation with Rocky feeling worse than when I started it. Even when I would go to his office intending to cheer him up, I always came away having been cheered myself. This recognition today makes me feel like a very blessed man to have had even five Spring Trainings with Rocky as my teammate.

A few weeks ago, I wrote to you that our group needed a name that expressed who we are – and I didn’t mean just a bunch of guys who love baseball and want to be thought of as experts in the field. I wanted a name that was clever, but substantive – one that expressed the significance that baseball plays in our lives and, we feel, in the life of our nation.  I’ll admit that what we came up with, the Best American Baseball Experts Society, falls a bit short of those goals, but I also stated my hope that the name might one day evolve into an iconic nickname like Oscar or Tony or Grammy.  In his usual polite fashion, Rocky never let on whether he was for or against my suggestion that we call ourselves the B.A.B.E.S., even though as one of the 3 founding members of the group – and the recent recipient of the ACC’s ethical Life Award – his opinion would have demanded serious consideration.

Anyway, I understand now that there is a distinction between the awards that those nicknames represent and the organizations that bestow them. I realized that we can have an official name for our group and a separate name for our annual award. So, as your Commissioner, I am honored to announce that the winner of each year’s Best American Baseball Experts Society competition will now receive the James L. Walker Award, to become known affectionately as the “Rocky.” Since we won’t be declaring a winner until November, we have plenty of time to have the trophy commissioned. But whatever form it takes, I know that the “Rocky” will be graceful and hopeful and inspiring, just like its namesake.

Although I would much prefer that Rocky was still with us in person – and that I could beat him in this year’s competition – whichever one of us gets to place this award on his mantle in November will be in very good company, indeed.  I am pleased that we can remember Rocky in this way and at the same time honor ourselves by identifying with the legacy of integrity and optimism that he displayed all the time that we knew him.

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