There’s an old saying that “there’s no crying in baseball,” which was said by Tom Hanks’ character, Jimmy Dugan, in the movie “A League of Their Own.”
While this phrase may ring true for some, I think the baseball gods were perfectly ok with me and my mom shedding some tears at the Red Sox/Rays Spring Training game on March 15.
When I originally chose to attend this game as a part of the Spring Training immersion experience, I was simply excited to see two American League East rivals compete against one another at an iconic Spring Training venue. It was also my favorite team: the Rays, playing against a team that so many of my family members from New England grew up loving: the Red Sox.
However, after the death of my grandfather on March 4, this game took on a completely new meaning for me and my mother.
Ronald Manton Briggs was born on Halloween in 1934 in Malden, Massachusetts. He went by many nicknames over the years, from “Homer” to “The Clown” to my personal favorite, “Happy Feet.” We all loved that movie when I was a kid, but I think he got the nickname because of how much he used those “Happy Feet” of his over the years.
Growing up, my grandfather was a tap dancer as well as an exceptional runner. In 1951, he recorded a time of 4:56.9 for the 1-mile run, which was a new record at the time in Boston. My grandfather told us that he made some phone calls years later, and we believe his record still stands to this day.
At age 17, he entered the military and joined the United States Navy. In the Navy, my grandfather held the title of “Communication Technician Master Chief Petty Officer,” better known as a CTRCM. He served on the USNS Jose F. Valdez ship from 1963 to 1964 and was stationed in places such as Guam; Okinawa, Japan and Panama during his 22 years of service. My family still shares stories to this day of their time spent at the various locations that my grandfather was stationed.
Over the years when I first got to know my grandfather, we bonded a ton over sports. I never got him to love hockey as much as I do, although we did attend a couple Carolina Hurricanes games when the Capitals were playing them in Raleigh. We also talked a lot about golf, and we both attended the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 after my grandfather won tickets from a contest in the local newspaper. Our favorite golfer was Keegan Bradley, who we both called “Weirdo” because of all the little things Bradley would do before he took a shot.
However, the biggest bond me and my grandfather formed was through the game of baseball. If there’s one thing you should know about my grandfather, it’s that he was the biggest Boston Red Sox fan I know.
My Mom told me that when he was younger, he and his friends would sneak into Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox play. One kid would pay to go in and then open a secret gate to let all of the other kids into the stadium for free. Going to those games allowed him and his friends to watch Red Sox legends grace the field of the iconic ballpark. They wouldn’t be able to sneak in today, but that story just adds to the charm that Fenway possesses.
Some of his favorite players over the years included Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Fred Lynn as well as David Ortiz, better known as “Big Papi.”
When I was growing up, anytime the Red Sox came to Baltimore, my grandfather (and sometimes his brother, Bert) would make the trip up to Maryland so we could go to a couple Red Sox/Orioles games. Back then, the Orioles were not very good, so Camden Yards would transform into “Fenway South” for each series because of how many Red Sox fans would be in attendance at the games. These years were also some of the best for the Red Sox, with players like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek playing for the team. The Red Sox usually won these games, so my family would always leave the game in a good mood. I switched my allegiances to the Rays at a young age, so I would root for the Red Sox when they came because I didn’t have a dog in the fight.
One of my favorite memories with my grandfather was our trip to Boston in 2012. My mother, twin sister Audrey, my grandfather and grandmother took the train up to Boston so we could see the city as well as see the Rays play the Red Sox, marking my first trip to Fenway Park. It was also the 100-year anniversary of Fenway Park, so that made the trip even more special.
I have always had a crazy good memory when it comes to sports, so I remember the results of both the games we attended. The first game ended with a Jarrod Saltalamacchia walk-off, 2-run home run that sent the Fenway faithful into a frenzy.
I was upset my Rays lost, but I remember how happy my grandfather was to see the Red Sox win the game. The following day, the Rays won on a go-ahead home run by Sean Rodriguez, so me and my grandfather each got to see our teams win a game while we were on the trip.
As he got older, he didn’t follow the team as much because all the players he grew up loving were all gone at this point. The only sport he could really keep up with was golf, so we still talked about that a lot.
We did our best to stay in touch, and I was able to visit him one last time in February in North Carolina after he was hospitalized with double pneumonia. I was in Raleigh that weekend for the NHL Stadium Series game between the Capitals and Hurricanes, so it worked out perfectly that I could see him before I went back to school. However, I knew deep down that God had me in North Carolina for a reason and that reason was because my grandfather would not be with us much longer.
My grandfather passed away on March 4, but I knew he fought hard until the very end. When he had triple bypass surgery on his heart in 2017, he told me not to worry and that “nothing would keep this old sailor down!” Those were the words I held onto as his health continued to deteriorate from when I left North Carolina up until his death.
We were fortunate to get a military funeral with honors scheduled just five days after he died, which meant I wouldn’t have to miss any time from my trip to Spring Training. It was a beautiful ceremony, but one that was met with a lot of tears.
Before the game on March 15, my mom and I had already attended a game involving the Red Sox, but it was a road game in Sarasota, Florida. Our emotions were fine that day, but the emotions really got to us when we arrived at JetBlue Park at Fenway South, the Spring Training home of the Red Sox.
I held it together for the most part, but the emotions got to my mom first. She picked up on all the New England accents and how everyone looked similar to my grandfather, which was a little spooky.
As I explored JetBlue Park and took some photos for my photo gallery, my mom texted me asking to bring her some napkins. I knew exactly what the napkins were for.
Later in the game, I noticed something that really made the day all the more special. Most of the seats in the stadium were full, but there were two empty seats: One to my left and one to my mom’s right. I realized in that moment that those seats were not empty, but reserved for two special people: my grandfather and my mom’s brother, Allan. Allan passed away long before I was born, so I never knew him. However, I think my grandfather wanted Allan to be at the game with us, too, so he reserved two seats instead of one.
The game finished as a 9-1 victory for the Red Sox, and their win is what made me emotional. Not because my team lost, but because I know my grandfather was up in heaven somewhere smiling after the win.
I don’t know what “Happy Feet” is doing in heaven right now, but I know he’s got plenty of tee times lined up. I hope he’s also spending time with the Red Sox legends that he grew up idolizing, who probably love hearing some of my grandfather’s great stories.
So, in conclusion, there is crying in baseball. And I think that’s the way it should be, from now until the end of time.