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Sean Kirst: World Series stirs cherished memories of a childhood friend

Sean Kirst

I waited to write this piece until the World Series, this dramatic showdown between the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers. The afternoon light and scattered leaves of late October always carry me back to childhood. We'd run home after school to catch the end of each game, in an era when the World Series was played in the afternoon, and maybe we'd grab our gloves and play a little catch ourselves.

The kid who often joined me lived just down the street.

I think, in your own way, many of you have known a David.

David Stokes died in July at age 56. I found out when his mother called from her home in Texas, where she moved years ago from Western New York. I hadn't seen Jeanne Foley Stokes for decades, and the fact that she picked up the phone tells you the kind of bond a mother understands.

I don't think I'd stood face to face with David, her fourth of nine children, since I was a teenager. I don't think I'd had a telephone conversation with him since we were children. I can't find a single photo of the two of us together. Our correspondence amounted to an infrequent back and forth on Facebook.

David Stokes: Around 1980 (Family photo).

Yet the truth is, in quiet ways, the guy mattered in my life.

We were kids together in Dunkirk, a few houses apart. My father worked on the coal pile at the steam station. His dad was a plant official at Kraft Foods. David and his brothers were known as "the Stokes boys," a wonderfully notorious flock of siblings who were always together, always fighting and arguing – and, as my mother pointed out, always looking out for one another. I hung around with them, singularly and communally.

We lived on Willowbrook Avenue, the same street as the old Allegheny Ludlum steel plant. We'd play 2-on-2 touch football in the street, David and I on one team, his brothers Tom and P.J. on the other, with telephone poles as touchdowns, three completions as first down. On weekdays, we always braced for the same thing: The steel plant whistle blew at 4 p.m., and hundreds of cars poured out of the plant gates.

For 15 or 20 minutes, our football field became a parking lot.

And, then, just like that, it would be quiet again.

Like his brothers and sisters, David was a good athlete, but I don't remember him spending that much time with organized sports. The Stokes boys, all strong-willed, often preferred pickup games on streets or playgrounds. What David and I shared as 11- or 12-year-olds were certain lonely obsessions.

We'd go into my backyard and spend hours shooting foul shots at a backboard nailed to a tree.

We'd go to a nearby high school football field on cold fall days and compete, until our toes hurt, to decide who could kick the longest field goal.

And we'd go in my backyard, with a Wiffle ball and bat, and play home run derby until the neighbors grew sick of us hitting their garage.

As for me, I played Little League, which had outsize meaning. My older brothers had been terrific baseball players. What I wanted, more than anything, was to match up to them.

Yet I struggled. Mightily. As a 12-year-old, everything fell apart. At bat, I was pulling my head. Worse, I was "stepping in the bucket." Translation: Bailing out, or ducking away from the ball. I could feel myself doing it, and the coaches told me I was doing it, and I thought I couldn't change it.

I was decent enough with my glove that I didn't get benched. But in memory, it was all failure, childhood humiliation. In memory, it was strikeout after strikeout, game after game, until I thanked God when I drew a walk.

David, routinely, would come to watch me play, a solitary kid with his bike balanced next to him, against the bleachers, so no one would rip it off. He was built like a fullback, with a shock of short blond hair. One day, not long before the season ended, he showed up on my front porch with a few tennis balls and told me to grab a bat.

We went to the playground by the steel plant, a playground a few hundred feet from an area used to dump brick and industrial waste from the furnaces. I stood next to a cinderblock wall covered with graffiti, and David started pitching. Hard. From up close.

His idea was simple: Stay in there with a tennis ball, and it would happen with a hardball. At first, I flailed. But the place was deserted. There were no grownups to impress, no anxious parents in the stands. On a hot summer day, after a while, I fell into a rhythm.

Cicadas singing, steel plant humming, I started hitting the ball, with David throwing it harder, from closer, than I'd see in Little League. I can remember the feeling as it came together, as I started to bang line drives past a half-dead tree that stood out in a swamp, as head, hands and stride finally meshed together. We took turns pitching, took turns chasing down the tennis balls.

That night, in a real game under the lights, I doubled twice.

A few days later, in my final Little League game, I hit a home run over the left-centerfield fence. I can see the pitch, a high fastball on the outside of the plate. I can see the ball on its white arc against the black night. After it was over, I rode with my mother to pick up my father when his night shift ended at the plant.

My father – long dead now – walked through the door by the gatehouse, lunch pail in hand. More than 45 years later, I remember his reaction when I said:

Dad, I hit a home run.

I never did anything extraordinary with baseball. Not even close. I played Babe Ruth for a few years, accepted all I couldn't do and went on to other things. But that day at the playground stays with me because it led to a feeling as good as anything in life, and because of the quiet lesson about resilience, about confronting and outworking your own fear.

The one who got me there, who gave me his time when I needed it, was an 11-year-old named David.

We went to different high schools and drifted apart. By the early 1980s, I had moved away from Dunkirk. He eventually took a job as a supervisor for U.S. Cotton in New Mexico. We probably hadn't seen each other for at least 35 years.

Last summer, he was in Buffalo for a family wedding. He sent me a Facebook message asking if I wanted to get a sandwich. I told him I was buried with commitments from a new job, and he said he planned to return in the fall.

We promised we'd get together, right about now.

"Awesome," he wrote. "We will catch up."

What I didn't know is that he was diabetic, with stage four kidney disease. What I didn't know is that he'd go into work one day and say good morning to his assistant, and that they'd find him dead from a heart attack a few hours later, at his desk.

He never had kids of his own. At his memorial service, I learned how – for many years – he brought the same insightful patience to his many nephews and nieces that he'd brought to all of us.

The World Series always takes me back to childhood, when David showed up when it mattered. I wish now I could have thanked him, that I could have told him how the simple way he worried about a friend created a threshold moment I've treasured for a lifetime.

I can't.

But maybe, in his honor, I can at least do this for you.

If you hear from your own David, get that lunch.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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