Day 5: Royals

This is an essay about the Kansas City Royals, the baseball team. But in order to get to my point, I have to talk about my great uncle.

Every few years my great uncle and aunt would have me over for dinner in their run-down Kansas apartment. They would make me fried dumplings. She would construct them by hand. He would sit next to the electric wok and dip them in the hot oil. He’d wait until they were golden brown, with crispy blisters on the shells, and fish them out with long chopsticks. Then he would align every one of them inside a Costco box, except for the freshest ones which were plopped onto my plate.

When you look at most family trees, you see lots of triangular shapes, and the couples with lots of kids are at the apex of very obtuse triangles. But on our family tree, which has lots of obtuse triangles, there is an empty box on the far left, where my great uncle and aunt reside. Underneath them, there are no sons, daughter, grandchildren or great grandchildren.

While that’s quite sad and deserves a chapter of it’s own, it also meant they had no problem loving me like their own grandchild. They called me every few months, leaving messages that said, “You’re probably really busy, but we just wanted to check on you.”

My great uncle and aunt raised my mother for a few years — no one ever gave me a straight explanation why — but when they were so kind to me, I figured that was the reason. When I was in third grade, my great uncle shared some baseball cards with me and introduced me to some of his favorite players — people like George Brett, Bo Jackson and Mike McFarland. He also gave me my first baseball, on which he hand-drew a Kansas City Royal logos. And he gave me a Royals’ schedule, which I put in my velcro wallet.

They were a terrible team back then, but he watched every game, keeping score on notepads that he made out of old calendars. Many people grow up in Kansas feeling lukewarm about baseball, because it’s hard to be passionate about a futile team. But my great uncle loved that team, even if only it was to pass the time. So because of him, I learned baseball. I loved baseball.

I first started writing this essay about four years ago. I wrote it as a cover letter for a job application at Sports Illustrated. I filed it away after I didn’t get the job. But when he died about a year ago, I thought about reviving this piece. But thing is, I didn’t know him too well, other than that he loved baseball — and that he cared about me. It was largely a language barrier, but also because the time I spent with him was either dominated by my loud great aunt or at doctor’s appointments, where I would translate. One time, I remember taking my great uncle to the optometrist because I was supposed to help him fill out the forms in the waiting room. But instead he took the forms himself and filled out every row; they were so perfect that the pen marks hardly touched any of the printed boxes. Everything was fine until he filled out his year of birth: 1918. The receptionist insisted that the birthday was wrong — that the records said he was born in 1914 — so, after some discussion, he conceded and settled on 1914.

He was a tool maker, a factory worker, a baseball fan and an avid gardner. He was probably many other things, but the language barrier always prevented me from finding out. He was also gentle and quiet, and while I can think of many reasons this world was so unfair to him, he stayed in his recliner, not disturbing anyone, while filling out his Sudoku book and watching the Royals games.

At some point I found out that my great uncle was born in 1918 but had to change his official birthdate to 1914. It was to avoid being drafted into the North Korean army. Age only exists as a number, and when that number changes — when you have to tell others that you’re four years older than you actually are — it has to affect your identity.

When my great uncle died in the middle of the night, no one was alerted for hours because, well, we were sleeping. Not too many people from our family showed up to the funeral, and not too many tears were shed. During the funeral, the pastor recited shallow life achievements like the year he became a deacon. The pastor also said he was born in 1914, just like the receptionist. The funeral service even started 15 minutes late because they had trouble printing the programs, which also listed the wrong birth year.

He was a man who liked things to be right — to be precise — though there were some thing that could never be right. When I last saw his tombstone, they had not yet filled out his birth date, but it would not surprise me one bit if it also read 1914.

But all that said, there is one thing that constantly reminds me of my great uncle, and that is the Royals. It has been 29 years since the Royals made the playoffs, and about that time since they’ve played a meaningful game. But this year, maybe this year, they could make it. I’ve never known what it is like to root for a winning baseball team. This is literally the first year I am experiencing these emotions. But when they play well, I feel like they are honoring my great uncle.

The brutal truth is that the Royals organization never knew he existed. But that’s not what matters. What matters is that there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of people in the world who are watching the Royals win, and thinking, “God, I wish he had the chance to see this.”

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