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NICHOLAS MERCER: To my grandfather

Wilbur Sparkes of Bay Roberts was a dominant pitcher in the St. John’s men’s baseball league in the 1950s.
Wilbur Sparkes of Bay Roberts was a dominant pitcher in the St. John’s men’s baseball league in the 1950s. - Contributed

The earliest memory I have of my grandfather, Wilbur Sparkes, is from when I was four years old.

We are in the kitchen of the family’s Bay Roberts home on Cable Avenue and we’re doing something we did many times after — we’re playing catch.

Thinking back, I don’t know if anyone else is in the room, I can’t see them. The only things I see in my mind’s eye is Mr. Sparkes and the kitchen table.

The rest is enveloped in a fog akin to an early morning haze before the sun burns it off. The light fog hides any details of what is going on around us.

Everything else exists in a silhouette.

He’s standing in the doorframe and I’m at the kitchen sink. It is my first time catching overhand pitching and he is not taking it easy on me. We’re using a rubber ball, so there is a lesser chance of breaking something.

Every time the ball hits the palm of my glove, a cracking sound resonates around the room. That’s one of those sounds you never forget.

I’m not throwing it near as hard, but he isn’t disappointed. There is a sly grin on his face every time he catches one of my throws and delivers it back to me.

The glove cracked again. Each time I’d throw the ball back, he’d offer a subtle tip. I didn't know it then, but he was watching everything I did. From how I threw the ball to how I caught it or moved my feet.

Mr. Sparkes died on Sunday. He was 90 years old.

He was a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He served the Town of Bay Roberts for 24 years as its mayor and the principal of Amalgamated Academy.

He played baseball and hockey into his 70s.

Mr. Sparkes loved Harry Hibbs, Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves.

We are sitting around the kitchen table and he’s talking hockey. If you knew him, you know he talked a lot of hockey.

Bobby Orr is his favourite athlete of all time. He used to marvel at how smoothly he skated and lamented the physicality of the game that robbed Orr of his prime years.

He hated the dump-and-chase of today’s game. He found it boring and took away from the inherit skill of the athletes.

When it came to baseball, he didn’t believe in wasting pitches. Any pitcher who didn’t go for the out up 0-2 didn’t have a fastball or didn’t trust his changeup.

He cherished his short time in the St. John’s senior baseball league and time spent travelling the province for old timer’s baseball.

He was always teaching.

Many of our chats ended up as a quasi-coaching session. Mr. Sparkes would grab a napkin, a piece of paper or whatever he could write on and grab a pen, usually from his chest pocket.

He’d scribble out a centre line, a blue-line and the goalline, complete with a net. A couple of circles later and he’s showing us the proper technique for breaking out of our own zone.

Sometimes you’d turn your attention back to the plate of food in front of you and he’d tell you to pay attention.

Whether on purpose or subconsciously, I wrote the first draft of this on a napkin.

To pay tribute to someone isn’t to leave out the details of his personality that you didn’t always agree with.

The person you loved is the sum of all of their parts, good and bad. Everything lends itself to everything else and you cherish them for it.

It wasn’t always roses with Mr. Sparkes. He could be stubborn and hard-headed at times — like all of us.

He wanted things his way and could be hard to deal with.

He always meant well, just the execution wasn’t there all of the time.

There were many times we’d watch baseball or hockey and there would be a disagreement that would eventually lead to a heated argument.

There was never animosity. The next game or the next period would be the same.

I’m not a great eater. I don’t always choose the best foods for me.

When we’d sit down to eat, he’d always remind of that.

My brother got a piece of steak caught in his throat once when he was in his teens. He is 30 now and every time we’d eat a steak together for the last 15 years or so, Mr. Sparkes would remind him to cut his meal into small pieces.

It seemed annoying at the time, but he was just trying to help the best way he could.

Mr. Sparkes’ health had been deteriorating for the last couple of years. In the last year, he took a turn for the worse and it seemed like it was only a matter of time.

Preparing for the inevitable phone call that came over the weekend doesn’t make the pain or sorrow any easier to bear.

Death comes for us all. It is up to us on how we confront it. We can shrink from it or we can let it fuel us to be better.

We can use it to help us become the person our loved ones always thought we were.

We can use death as cause to celebrate the man he was instead of soul sucking pain we’re feeling now.

Mr. Sparkes was a great man.

He taught me how to throw a baseball, how to skate and how easy it is to treat someone with respect and dignity.

He said please, held the door for people and never spoke ill of someone.

Prior to my move to Corner Brook, I got the opportunity to live with my grandparents for the six years I worked at The Compass.

For those six years, we’d talk hockey, baseball and something he always loved above those two sports, Bay Roberts.

He loved his town and the people in it.

And, we loved him.

I am the second oldest of his grandchildren and I don’t know if I ever truly thanked him for everything he did for me.

I don’t know if I’d have enough time to do it properly.

All I can do now is hold his memories close and reflect on those lessons.

Goodbye Grandad. I’ll never forget you.

Nicholas Mercer is an online editor for The Western Star.

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