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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Struck Strikes Out : For Tessie and the girls

Thursday, March 1, 2012

We buried Mike J. Ryan last week.

Many of you knew him. Others didn't and that's their misfortune.

A few weeks ago, Mike decided he'd had enough of his wicked illness, ceased treatment, entered hospice, and last week journeyed on to whatever it is that's out there for one of those special people among us who never hurt a soul, never spoke ill of others every day of his life, and showed absolute, unequivocal love of his fellow man by action, rather than words.

As I struggle to see the keys through the tears, I must persevere for everybody who ever knew and loved Mike J. Ryan.

I was one of the fortunate "sons" who had the privilege to play for Mike's legendary Cherokee Hamm's Beer fast-pitch softball teams he sponsored and managed for several years back in the 1960s and 1970s.

On average, we played about 90 games each summer from May to September, including weekend tournaments Friday night through Sunday throughout a six-state area encompassing Iowa, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Nebraska.

I'm not saying we were fast-pitch superstars or anything, but people used to arrive at our games early just to watch us take infield practice. Because of Mike J. Ryan, we had the finest uniforms ("If you look good, you play good"). Because of Mike J. Ryan, we were passionate about the game and our team. We couldn't wait for spring to get to practice, a game was divine, and a weekend tournament where we had the opportunity to play five or six or more games - totally sublime!

As the fast-pitch sport peaked, the big city teams began paying their players - many college baseball players and washed-out MLB minor leaguers who gladly played for pay - and recruiting and financing stud pitchers from New Zealand and Canada where "fast-ball" was long their major league sport.

The Hamm's Beer teams were renowned for being the only truly amateur fast-pitch team in the country that could hold its own against the big boys and all those super-skilled "professionals" who then began joining together, eventually becoming monopolies, and killing the game in the United States.

Even as other top teams such as some in Sioux City and Ida Grove began hopping aboard and paying their players, Mike J. Ryan's amateur juggernaut stayed amateur, with our only "pay" lodging on the road, free beer (distributor breakage the tax man called it), and perhaps a steak dinner or two when we won a tournament, which, as I now proudly recall, was quite often.

Through the Hamm's Beer years, most of Mike's players not only achieved on the field, but they and all their families became truly lifelong friends off the field, linked forever because of Mike J. Ryan.

I always said Mike and Tessie were the parents of four beautiful daughters and about 15 (we true-blue Hamm's Beer players) of the ugliest sons who ever came down the pike.

We loved Mike and his family because they made us part of their family. We were treated like family every step of the way and to this very day there remains an unbreakable bond between we players, Mike and Tessie, and their daughters. Eldest daughter Renee and Mike are today together once again in heaven, and Tessie, Gigi, Aimee, and Ida have to contend with all their ugly "sons" and "brothers" a while longer.

When I visited Mike J. Ryan in hospice and the end was near, he said, "At the funeral, I want Giles (my brother) to talk about me, and you talk about the team."

I never said "no" to that man in my life - even when he dropped me from batting third to fifth in the order, when he inexplicably pinch-hit for me in a game-winning at-bat opportunity, or when he played me at second base (a bona-fide first-baseman my whole life) a few games because our regular second-baseman was gone and he knew I could handle it.

So, at the funeral, Giles eloquently talked about Mike J. Ryan, the man. They had a special bond that transcends friendship. If we players were all sons of Mike, Giles deservedly so was the Baby Jesus. He worked for Mike at Hamm's Distributing through high school and college and if you ever wanted an employee who actually worked when he worked, you wanted Giles Struck. They are both made of special cloth.

Probably because I'm a man of words and chronicled many of our ballgames in this newspaper, Mike asked me to talk about his teams. So I did.

It was a lovely funeral if there is such a thing and I must say that Pastor Magrey deVega of Cherokee's St. Paul (no relation) United Methodist Church, who only knew Mike and his family for a short time, totally captured the essence of Mike J. Ryan during the service with an uncanny perception into this wonderful man's life lived.

When I was leaving on my last visit in hospice with Mike J. Ryan, as I got to the door of his room, he said in his weakened voice, "Paul, if I never had my teams, I never would have met you guys."

I paused, looked back, and Mike had closed his eyes and had this incredible, contented smile on his face.

I scurried out the door down the hall, unable to control the tears welling in my eyes. And as I broke free into the chilly, dark, outside air, I said to nobody there, "No, Mike, we would have never met you."