July 12, 2005
The Greatest Man I've Ever KnownFour years ago, when my mother-in-law passed away, I didn't get the chance to say the things to her that I would have liked to say. Some of those unspoken words found their way into a tribute that ran here at the site, but that wasn't enough, after all she'd done for me.
Last Thursday, I made sure I didn't suffer that same fate with my father-in-law. With him battling the final stages of pulmonary fibrosis, I sat down with him and told him what he'd meant to me, and how much I appreciated all that he'd done for me. I told him that I loved him.
See, my in-laws never really acted like in-laws. There was no sitcom-caricature hectoring, no overbearing judgments, no interfering with the decisions Sophia and I made. When we made the mistakes young couples make, when I meandered into one of the stranger career paths you could imagine, they stood not aside, but behind us, providing support and allowing us to find our own way. I have no doubt at all that there were times that they wanted to tie a brick to my ankle and throw me in the ocean--not unlike you, dear readers--but they never did. They, like so many other very silent partners, are a piece of Baseball Prospectus because of the support they gave to me.
Henry Gonzalez had an amazing life. He joined the Army at 17, but was discharged shortly thereafter when they discovered his true age. From that point, he embarked on a journey that would see him raise five children and a goddaughter, including a son, David, and three daughters from my mother-in-law's first marriage, girls who were never less than his own. From his early days working three jobs, including working as a cook at the L.A. Coliseum when the Dodgers played there, Henry would advance from a lab assistant at the University of Southern California all the way to the Director of Space at the university's Health Sciences campus. His 40-year career at the university, which culminated in 1995, stands as a tribute to hard work and dedication. To this day, he remains a beloved figure at the USC medical school.
Henry was more than his accomplishments, though. He was a man of tremendous dignity, with a keen sense of right of wrong. I didn't know him untill late in his life, but the man I came to call "dad" was a man for others, always putting the needs of his family ahead of his own. He was devoted fully to my mother-in-law, also a woman of strength and character, and her 1998 stroke and subsequent death in 2001 took pieces from him that he never quite got back. Still, he enjoyed his time with family, especially when it involved any of his 16 great-grandchildren.
Henry was active, and took a lot of pleasure in caring for his house, tending bushes and plants and the lawn, taking on little projects in the home. Even as recently as nine months ago, before the disease took its toll, he was able to be active and enjoy the hands-on tasks that gave him pleasure. As someone who usually has to be reminded which side of the hammer to hold, it was a side of him I admired, even if I didn't share his enthusiasm for the work.
No tribute to Henry would be complete without mentioning hot dogs. Henry loved food, loved to eat, would try just about anything, but had fairly simple tastes. Mom's spaghetti (a standard after playing baseball with his friends) or her beans, a "garbage pizza" with everything on it from Petrullo's, seafood while walking along Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, the city where he spent most of his last years.
One of my favorite stories--and it looks silly to me written down, actually--stems from 1996, when he and Angie came out east to visit my family in New York. We took them to a Broadway show ("Smokey Joe's Café"), and while waiting to enter the theatre, I ran across to a street vendor and got us a couple of dogs. I mean, if you love hot dogs and you're standing on 54th St. between Broadway and Eighth Ave., you have to have a dog, right?
It's a ridiculously silly memory, but I still remember him sneaking that dog inside and eating it during the show, shooting me a smile as he did.
Henry and I spent a lot of time together over his last few months. As the fibrosis made breathing more difficult, the range of activities he could perform decreased, a frustrating process for someone who valued independence and hated sitting still. He kept a brave face, focusing on following his doctor's orders and doing what he could do combat the disease. Even towards the end, Henry was thinking about other people rather than himself, worrying about what would happen to his children after he was gone and working hard to make that process easier.
On Sunday, the disease got the best of him. Late that night, after a long weekend in which dozens of people came to see him, Henry picked a rare moment when none of his chillden were at his bedside and left us. His death was not unexpected, and for the people who loved him, the knowledge that he would be reunited with the great love of his life was more than enough to assuage the pain of losing him. As Sophia put it to me shortly after his death, "What do you want to bet that he's dancing with mom right now?"
I love you, dad. You're the greatest man I've ever known.