Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Remembering "The Ace"

"The Ace" was my uncle, my father's younger brother. He left us just hours ago. I was about ten years old when I learned that his real first name wasn't Ace. I have one younger brother and ten younger first cousins, so I knew Uncle Ace longer than even his five kids had.

I may have known him longer than his kids, but obviously, I could not have known him any better than they did.

I remember Memorial Day cookouts when I was little, and a basement full of kids every Christmas, and family reunions at my cousin's place every August, come rain or shine....the Ace was part of the scene. He was a character- in the best sense of the word- who was part of my life in varying degrees for more than fifty years.

When I was a kid Uncle Ace took me to the old Yankee Stadium for the first time. The bunch of us, my cousins, my uncle, and I, saw the Yanks versus the Detroit Tigers in 1965, the year the decline of the Yankee dynasty started. But that didn't matter. This was the Original House That Ruth Built, the monuments in centerfield, Death Valley also in centerfield, the bullpen tunnels beyond the left and right field fences, the subways buzzing past the rightfield bleachers, and of course, the Facade that ran along the inner roof. And there was Whitey, and Joe Pepitone, Clete Boyer and #7, The Mick. Grass was never greener than at Yankee Stadium in those days, uniforms never whiter, days were brighter, and the seats-and the food- was so much cheaper. The next year we went to see a night game against the Tigers again....Mickey hit two that night. I'm not sure if that night was the last time Mickey Mantle hit multiple homers in a game.....but I confess, I tell people it was. It just makes for a better story.

And....if you haven't noticed....I'm a little bit of a Rutgers sports fanatic. And its all Uncle Ace's fault.

Heres' how....he got the ball rolling more than thirty years ago when my Mom and Dad, the Ace, and my aunt went to a Rutgers game at William and Mary. It was Uncle Ace's idea....and the four of them became hard core Rutgers fans for the duration. They went to games in Piscataway at the rickety old 22,000 seat stadium of the Frank Burns/Dick Anderson eras, and for the Rutgers games against the 'bigger time" opponents, which were played in the more spacious Giant's Stadium. In those days I went to games with them on occasion, but most of the time from 1978-90 I was living Colorado or Florida, with visits back in New Jersey in the fall. But its when I moved back to New Jersey for good in 1990 that I really started to bleed Scarlet....and its been going on for twenty seasons now.

Uncle Ace was part of each of my football Saturdays...and some Thursday nights....from 1990-2001. It wasn't like what the fans see today at a Rutgers game. As far as the games we had glimmers of hope every year, usually extinguished by Hurricanes, Hokies, Orangemen, Mountaineers, or Nittany Lions before Columbus Day. There was the heroics of Terrell Willis, Ray Lucas, and Marco Battaglia...but it was never enough...those guys couldn't play defense, too.

The new Rutgers Stadium was at best half full most of those seasons after 1993, and by the time those cold November games rolled around and the team was 2-7, the place became like a ghost town- the only thing missing was the tumbleweeds. It seemed that the all of the people in the stands knew each other on a first name basis- there were so few Rutgers football fans in those years.

But it wasn't about the was about the gameday experience, done with family, the people you cared about, and who in turn cared about you. Sure it hurt to watch the team you love go 2-9 or 0-11, but the games were secondary to the rites of fall; that's something the casual football fan can't grasp.

We were family....and by our association with Rutgers sports and the university, the players, the coaches, and the administrators became part of our universe, and even occasional visitors. Uncle Ace was with us for the 50-49 1992 win against Virginia Tech on Halloween when the fans stormed the field...that was a preview of things to come in the Greg Schiano Era. He was with us for the first Big East football game ever, a win against Boston College....he was with us on trips to Navy, Army, and Wake Forest. He was a fixture in the Scarlet Lot for our tailgate parties for a decade, in the little grove with the trees about 20 yards from the West Gate entrance.

He gave me Scarlet Fever....and for that, I'll remember him always.

Its one of the mysteries of life of how one isolated incident from decades ago can manifest itself years later. To those of you have have dropped into this blog to read my opinions on Rutgers sports, the Mulcahy/ Star-Ledger affair, or anything involving Rutgers University consider this....if Uncle Ace didn't talk my folks into going to a football game that few cared about in 1978, I more than likely wouldn't be writing about RU in this blog; that is, if I decided to start a blog at all. Who knows?

Lives impact other lives, usually in ways that don't become obvious until many years have passed. That's something that each and everyone of us needs to remember.

The Ace was in failing health for the last seven years...and ironically, after all of the seasons of watching losing Rutgers teams, he started to fail physically at about the same time Rutgers turnaround began, with the Greg Schiano Era. Yesterday I was in a room with him for the last time- my Dad, my aunt, several of his kids, and a daughter in law. It was in a hospice. And as I type this, I'm sure he's in a better place now.

I'm sad to see my uncle pass on....but I can't help but smile when I think of him during those very special (and fun) afternoons and nights we spent together over the years.

Here's to you, Anthony Francis....we'll have that beer I promised you a couple of weeks ago....hopefully in about 30 years.

Before he became a Rutgers football fan, The Ace was a big fan of Army football. He left us a couple of days after Doc Blanchard did. I'm sure he'll swap some stories with him, just like he did with all of us.

But if Doc is just a bit busy at The Pearly Gates....why not spend some time with Lawrence Welk?

Miss you.........and God bless.

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