It’s been almost five years since my childhood friend Keith passed away suddenly at age 40. Keith and I met in 7th grade when we started junior high together, and we became fast friends and pretty much inseparable all the way through high school.
We went our separate ways after that, as he headed off to Oklahoma Baptist University and I went down to UCSD, but we always stayed in touch, and I saw him several times over the years despite the fact that we never again lived in the same state.
Keith later married and had two children. He and his family were living in Tennessee when he passed. He had spent several years as a stay-at-home dad, working as a freelance editor and writer mainly with the Baptist church in town.
Keith was the son of a Baptist minister; I grew up in a non-religious household. Keith and his parents and sister were like family to me when I was in junior high and high school, as my own family was imploding in a sea of infidelity, divorce, and substance abuse. Their home was always a safe haven for me, a place of sanity and warmth and welcome, no questions asked.
The fondest memories I have of that period are times I shared with Keith and our other friends, Tom and Dave, and they often centered around sporting events. Keith and I both were big baseball fans, and we loved the 49ers too.
I was at Keith’s house watching the NFC Championship Game in 1981 when “The Catch” brought the 49ers to national prominence, and over the years we saw countless other 49ers games together on TV, including their first two Super Bowls.
We also went to dozens of baseball games together over the years, both at Candlestick Park and at the Oakland Coliseum. I was always more of a Giants fan, even when they were terrible, and he and Tom always were more attached to the A’s, but we all cheered on both Bay Area teams and the exciting players of the era, from Rickey Henderson and the short-lived “BillyBall” era to Dave Stewart and Jose Canseco to Will Clark and Matt Williams.
I’ll never forget the A’s-Tigers doubleheader we were at for Keith’s birthday one year, when we saw a young Rickey Henderson literally dominate a strong Tigers team with his baserunning and defense as the A’s swept both games. We were sitting along the leftfield line, just a few rows up from the field, so we had quite a view of one of the most exciting players ever on a day when he showed just how great he was.
A few years later Will Clark emerged as a force with the Giants, and he immediately became my favorite player. His smooth swing and hard-nosed, effusive personality were just what the Giants needed at the time, and they became contenders almost as soon as he arrived. We were in college by then, but we were both back home in San Jose one summer and got to see Clark play in person a couple of times at Candlestick before our lives took us both away from San Jose for good.
Recently Keith’s wife Ellen was packing up to relocate from their Tennessee home to a fresh start in North Carolina, and she wrote me asking if I’d be interested in a memento or two of Keith’s from our teenage years. She kept some items for Keith’s son, but wanted to share a piece of him with me too.
This 1987 Will Clark card arrived in the mail last week, along with an autographed photo of Dave Stewart from his time with the A’s. This card is from Clark’s second year in the big leagues, and the very year Keith and I saw him play during the summer that the Giants were on their way to their first division title in 16 years.
Needless to say, this card holds memories for me that stretch way beyond just a baseball card. Memories of that Oakland doubleheader when we were in junior high…of Keith and I skipping school to be at Opening Day at Candlestick in 1985, the year before Clark arrived on the scene…of riding BART to the Coliseum for A’s games…and of the summer of ’87 when Keith and I attended our last ballgames together.
It’s hard to imagine now, five years later, that one of my childhood friends could have passed away at age 40. He had a whole life ahead of him, a lifetime of going to ballgames with his kids and sharing stories about his childhood memories. I’m all the more thankful that I’ve had that opportunity with my daughter, and for the memories my daughter will have years from now of all the ballgames we’ve been to together over the years.
Thanks Ellen, for sharing a little piece of Keith with an old friend, and rekindling some fond memories. This particular Will Clark card will always occupy a special spot in my collection.