A good friend of mine died recently, and since I found out, the memories of the time we spent together have been running through my head. I don’t know how to best respond to the tragedy, so for better or worse, I’ve decided to write a few memories down to pay tribute to my friend. Please ignore this post if it doesn’t apply to you personally. This one is for me, and for those who knew Jason.
I don’t remember when I first met Jason, but my first memory of him is around the 6th grade. As I remember it, he was on my friend Brent’s baseball team – I was playing on a different squad in the same league – and one day we both ended up at Brent’s house. We decided to play baseball in the front yard. One guy batting, one pitching, one in the outfield, the neighbor’s fence for a homerun and a garbage can flipped on its side acting as the strike zone. I remember Jason singing a song I’d never heard, Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend,” while standing in the outfield. He’d sing loud enough to try to distract me, which worked well. He was bigger than me and a lot better at baseball, and seemed a whole lot cooler.
I remember playing against Jason that year. He was the hardest throwing pitcher in the league. I had convinced my parents to allow my girlfriend to attend the game that we played each other, which in hindsight was a bad idea. Jason threw so hard that I realized I had to literally decide before he threw the ball whether I was going to swing or not. With two strikes on me and Jason in his windup, I decided I was going to swing, and I whiffed on a pitch that was over my head (Jason never had much control, which scared the bejeezus out of me at the time). I probably missed it by two feet. I put my head down and walked to the dugout, trying not to cry out of embarrassment.
Jason and I ended up at the same junior high, and we became close friends. He was still bigger than me, still a better athlete, and still much cooler. He was never a jerk though, never teased me or acted like a big shot. While most of the seventh graders well on their way through puberty were itching to drink or smoke or cause trouble, Jason wasn’t interested in any of that. He was a good kid in pretty much every way. Humble, funny, happy.
We ended up becoming best buds and spent most of the next three years together. Played on the same baseball team, went up to my grandparents’ cabin, tons of sleepovers on the weekends, all that.
One thing we had in common from the get-go was our awkwardness around girls. We were the worst, the worst ever. One of my favorite memories of Jason happened during one of our baseball games. I think this was in 9th grade. Jason and I were both on the bench, and Jason looked to me and said, “I’m thirsty. You want to get a drink of water?” When I said no, he rolled his eyes and pointed toward the nearby water fountain. Two girls around our age were standing next to it. I probably said something nerdy at the time along the lines of “now that I reconsider, I am actually quite parched,” as we got up to walk toward the fountain.
Here is how cool we were: we both sauntered over, slowly took our turn at the fountain, paused for a few moments, took a deep breath, summoned all the courage we had, and … turned around and walked right back to the bench. Didn’t say hi, didn’t ask their names, didn’t even acknowledge their existence. Just sat right back down on the bench and quickly changed the subject. Even at 15, women terrified us. (It didn’t get much better in time, either. A few years later, we were walking around the state fair when two girls waved at us. We kept walked for about 100 feet arguing about who should be the one to wave back. Two absolute wusses.)
While baseball was our life back then, we also had some our best times at my grandparents’ cabin. We tubed for hours on end, sometimes on the same tube trying to push each other off, and sometimes on our own while my stepdad would delight himself cranking up the boat speed to about 80 and having us fly off the tube and skip on the top of the water for about 50 feet. We loved it. Later we’d watch movies, hang with my family, usual stuff. My cousin Hayley, about 6 years old at the time, was always up at the cabin too, and decided she had a crush on Jason. One year she made him a valentine and sent it to his house, and he actually sent a valentine back to her. My family still talks about how nice that was.
One memory I’ll never forget as long as I live. While at the cabin, Jason and I decided to try to stay up all night. I don’t remember the original discussion, but I recall us thinking how cool it would be to play catch at sunrise. So we made it our mission.
Sunrise came. We were out on the road in front of the house, a frontage road to a highway located up the hill about 50 feet away. Jason threw one over my head (which happened a lot) and I sprinted after it. When I grabbed the ball and turned around, I saw Jason, silhouetted by the sun, with his back to me facing the highway and looking at an oncoming semi while pulling his arm down in the universal “honk your horn” fashion. The semi honked, and Jason turned around and started cheering like a maniac, pumping his fist and jumping up and down. He was just standing there in the middle of the road cheering and dancing and laughing. I have no idea why he was so happy about the guy honking his horn, but I fell down laughing at the sight. Just one of those random teenage moments. We had been up all night, we were delirious, and this was the funniest thing that had ever happened to us.
There is one other memory that immediately comes to mind when thinking of Jason. We were at my place having a sleepover, and for some reason got the idea of putting nylons on our heads, bank robber-style, to see how we would look. Upturned eyes, crunched noses, mangled mouths; the effect was hilarious. We had my cousin and sister take pictures of how dumb we looked. Then, to increase the effect, we put on our baseball hats and tied bandannas around our necks, to hide the nylon tops and bottoms to make it look like those were our real faces. Even funnier. I remember us laughing uncontrollably while still wearing the nylons. I still have that picture. It has always been one of my favorites. We look like cartoonish drawings of Asian gangsters who love baseball.
Pointless activities like that pretty much sums up our junior high years. Spending hours on our friend Jeff’s front porch, going to Twins games with our friend Pat, riding bikes, listening to Loveline religiously, watching Clerks about a hundred times, playing video games, swimming in his backyard pond, all that. We were the guys that got started on a joke and cracked ourselves up for what seemed like hours on end (and likely annoying everyone else) taking the joke further and further. We would stay up late and try weird dances to the first Weezer CD and just be in tears, though as I look back I can’t begin to understand what was so funny at the time.
There were times, occasionally, when Jason would open up about the death of his father, which had happened a few years earlier. Jason never talked specifics, but every so often on Jeff’s patio or at my place, he’d start out saying how much he loved our families, how great it must be to have them around, to have people that close to you, etc, and before long he’d be crying quietly while we’d try to console him. It was an issue Jay would deal with forever, the pain impossible for any of us to fully understand.
Throughout those years, Jason was the funnier, more mature one, while I was dorky and a know-it-all, but we were good kids who rarely got into trouble. We were both close to our families, though Jason one-upped me by actually being willing to hug his mom, which I never ever did until my mom saw Jason and his mom hugging goodbye before a weekend trip and required me to do the same from then on. We also had a great group of buds – so many friends – and had more fun than most junior high kids ever do.
We went to separate high schools, but stayed close. Jason and Jeff were my ties to the old school, the old neighborhood. Jay would still stay over, and we’d spend hours playing pool in my basement or driving around listening to the Beastie Boys. We also got jobs together, a cakewalk warehouse gig that allowed us to spend more time talking, hanging out, pranking co-workers (one of our favorite games was “throw a hacky sack at a co-worker for no reason and run away”), stuff like that.
One time sophomore year, we snuck some drinks during a sleepover at my place. Neither of us had been drunk more than once or twice, and again, our innocent spirit reared its ugly head. We had probably three vodka shots apiece and all of a sudden became a couple toddlers. We were trying to play darts and throwing them off the wall, bouncing them, just not even close to the board. More laughing, more acting like idiots. We were basically the opposite of smooth.
While we were still very close friends, high school was when Jason and Pat became more and more focused on baseball, and developed a bond I have envied. They spent their nights at the batting cages and entire summers in elite leagues and camps while I stayed home and played in town. Both had a much brighter future in baseball than I did, and they worked hard to realize it. It was their life.
We were all recruited to play college ball, which led us to split up once again. I headed up to UMD, Pat went away to Butler, and Jay went to a JC in Iowa. We caught up with phone cards, the occasional email and during our breaks. Our bond was just as strong, but life was happening, and we didn’t get to speak as often as we intended. Luckily, Jason and I worked together again in the summers, caddying at a local country club. We drove to work together and celebrated the rainouts by hanging out at one of our parents’ houses.
After college, both went on to pro ball (the three of us watched the 2002 draft – Neshek to the Twins, Cierlik to the Orioles – together at Pat’s place) while I graduated and got a job. We didn’t talk as often, but considering our past and all the experiences we’d had together, it didn’t take long to catch up. For years I’d thought of Jason like a brother, a member of the family. I always will.
And when he decided to play for my summer ball team together a few years later between minor league stints, it was the old days all over again. We’d go out after games and shoot the shit like usual. Talk about baseball, about women, about music, about whatever. It was mostly superficial banter – neither of us could ever be serious for more than a few minutes at a time. Jay had a ton of great stories from pro ball and would retell them to our teammates. They took to him quickly. Hard not to; Jason was open and funny and humble and cool. Sarcastic and happy, never a jerk to anyone. I loved having him on the squad. We hung out almost every day, and I’m happy that the last time we saw each other regularly was spent having so much fun.
Soon enough, Jay was signed to another team and took off. We kept up in the same old way – phone calls, visits during the offseason, all that. (Not to mention the time he got me tickets when his team was playing the Saints and I went out near the bullpen and heckled him. Another funny moment.)
Jason was released a season or two later – he threw harder than Pat and had a knee-buckling curveball, but he never got the control thing down – and came home for good. It was tough news for all of us; Jay had been chasing his dream since I’d met him, he’d never fully developed a fallback plan, and the realization that it was finally over wasn’t easy for him. We’d talk pretty regularly about getting together, but besides coming to my birthday party a year ago – we had a great time – we didn’t see each other too often.
I saw him last summer, playing on a men’s league team closer to his house, and he’d gained some weight. Looked a bit different. Same old Jason, though; he caught up with the old teammates before the game and mowed us down during. Poked fun at his beer belly as we chatted near home plate afterwards. We called each other a few times here or there these past few months and made plans to get together.
The last time I spoke with Jason, almost two months ago, he had called to tell me he’d like to play for my summer league team again. He was pumped to re-join, and when I told him my cousin Blaine (who was probably about 9 years old during the Cabin Years) was also on the team, he was even more excited. I said we had a spot waiting for him, he said he was in, and we offhandedly talked about catching up soon for a beer.
My last contact with Jason was a text a few weeks back, received late in the night on the weekend, when he told me he was drunk but just wanted to say how excited he was for summer ball. I agreed. We again made plans to meet up.
It never happened. Jason took his own life earlier this week, for reasons I don’t understand and probably never will. I was caught completely off-guard, and initially the feeling of shock was just as strong as the hurt of realizing I’ll never see my friend again. It seems the pain got to be too much for Jason, and I’m going to refrain from theorizing on the causes. I know it wasn’t for lack of friends or loved ones, because Jason had hundreds of people who cared for him.
As for me, I’m heartbroken. I’m doing my best not to think about what his remaining family members are going through, because it nearly brings me to tears. I’m doing my best not to think about all the good times we would have had this summer and on, because it only saddens me more. What I am trying to think about – what I am forcing myself to think about – is all the fun memories from the past.
Jason, we had some great times. You are ingrained in my childhood, and no amount of words can encapsulate all that we went through together. I will always remember tubing at the cabin, celebrating after that semi driver honked his horn, being equally terrible at talking to girls, sitting on Jeff’s front porch, going to Twins games in the Neshek family van, rating the junior high girls during sleepovers, getting drunk in high school, all those years working together, all those years hanging together, the thousands of hours we spent laughing at basically nothing, and every boring moment in between. But most of all, I’ll remember you on the mound, which is where you were always the happiest.
But mostly just want to tell you that I am going to miss you, and I am so grateful we knew each other so long. You were always such a great friend to me, Jason, and I want to thank you for that. I love you, and I won’t forget you.