Remembering Mike, Number 17
I can’t believe it has been 30 years. The phone call on April 2, 1985, thirty years ago began a series of events that changed everything for me.
My perspective of mortality.
Thirty years later, I regularly think of that pivotal day. The story of April 2 of the spring of my freshman year of college is the final chapter in my first book, Lines in the Gravel (and 52 Other Re-Told Childhood Tales). Many of the remaining vestiges of my childhood were wiped away on that day.
On this important anniversary of that turning point in my life I wanted to share that chapter, “Remember Mike,” here on the Values Storying blog. I’ll share a little more about the significance of the anniversary after the story. First, take a few minutes to join me in remembering Mike Abel.
I finished high school on top of the world. I graduated with top honors and played in the baseball state tournament a week later. One of my graduation gifts was the first car that I could ever call mine, a 1973 Comet GT. I had earned a nice scholarship to the University of Southern Mississippi, my school of choice. I was all set.
I have only recently been able to piece together how my world began to crumble in the fall of ’84. During the summer before my freshman year began, I began to attend parties hosted by various USM fraternities. I already knew which one I would pledge, but I checked out the others, too. I couldn’t have been more out of my comfort zone, and I couldn’t have had less in common with the “brothers” with whom I spent most of my time for the next few months. I had had my first taste of alcohol as a high school senior and had experimented with it more than I would like to admit. During that first semester at Southern Miss, though, alcohol became my increasingly-present companion.
Only after years of hindsight did I realize just how badly I felt the need to fit in somewhere. Baseball was over for me; I knew that, but I didn’t appreciate the depth of the bonds I had made on my high school team, striving for a common goal and enjoying the camaraderie that comes with that.
I returned to school in January 1985 for the second semester of my freshman year with a resolution to make some changes. Only a couple of weeks after my return to Hattiesburg, I realized that I had little in common with my fraternity brothers if I removed alcohol from the equation, which I had done. Under the threat of financial retribution, I quit my fraternity and began to meet some guys who would be my friends for free.
I returned home for spring break of 1985 and spent a great deal of it following my old high school baseball teammates as they competed against the best talent in the Jackson area. I still felt a part of the program that I had help build, and spring break that year may have been the best part of my freshman year of college.
I spent a great deal of time with Mike Abel that week. “Deadeye” was a newcomer on the team my senior year, but he fit in as if he had been around since the beginning of the baseball program my sophomore year. All my teammates would concur that he never seemed younger than us.
School started back, and I would still talk to Mike from time to time, and he kept me updated on the progress of the team. On Monday night, April 1, I talked to Mike for about 45 minutes, and he informed me that the upset of the century was taking place in the national championship game. Georgetown had been so heavily favored over Villanova that I hadn’t even bothered to watch the game. Mike sent me off to watch the second half, and we promised to talk the following day when McLaurin would play their first district baseball game.
On April 2, I was sitting in my dorm room late in the afternoon, and my phone rang. Beth, one of my high school classmates who also attended Southern Miss, was on the line. We had not talked much since arriving on campus, so this phone call was unusual.
“Al, have you heard the news from McLaurin today?” she asked.
Oh no, I thought. I could tell by the tone of her voice that this was not good news. They lost their first district game today, I surmised. That’s okay, we had lost one in each of the last two years and still won district. They would be okay.
“Al,” Beth said, reminding me that she was still on the line, “Mike Abel had a seizure or something like that on the baseball field today.”
I had just begun to process what her words meant when she followed with the bombshell, “And, Al, he didn’t make it.”
Those words have now hung suspended for almost 30 years. No, it couldn’t be! Not Mike. I just talked to him last night. I just spent time with him two weeks ago. He was there. He was real. NO!
I made my way through the line at the funeral home the next night, still in stunned disbelief. After going through the motions of paying my respects to Mike’s family like it was still just a bad dream, I had to walk outside to catch my breath. I remember one of my former teammates – I can’t even tell you which one – putting his hand on my shoulder and telling me that I had to let it go…the grief, that is. As I had done the night before, I cried long and hard. I swapped Deadeye stories with my teammates, and we laughed a little and cried a lot more.
I made my way to my friend Steven’s house that night, where his mom answered many questions that I had about death and eternity. I don’t remember a single question I asked her or a single one of her answers, just that my curiosity was satisfied, and I was ready to make the seemingly long drive back to my parents’ house.
Somewhere between Shell Oil Road and what would soon become Ainsworth Road, I made my peace with God. My own mortality had become evident, and I confessed that I did not have what it took to be in control of my own life, and I asked Him to take over. I may not have said the words just like I would later learn as the language of salvation, but that night Jesus became Lord of my life.
On April 2, 1985, Mike Abel passed away from a heart attack on the field that now bears his name. I think that much of what was left of my childhood came to a stop that day. On April 3, 1985, Al Ainsworth was reborn into God’s family. The two events will forever be tied together, inextricably joined together as the worst and best moments of my life.
My son Drew (known here on the blog as the Little Fella) bears Mike’s name as his middle name. I certainly don’t need the reminder of who Mike Abel was and how special his memory is to me. People for generations to come, though, will ask Drew Michael Ainsworth about the origin of his name. The legacy of my friendship with Mike and the legacy of the work that God has done in my life will live on every time he tells…and re-tells that story.
Note: My high school teammates played valiantly through their pain for the rest of the 1985 season, landing a berth in the state championship tournament but falling a few wins short of a title. Though none of my teammates ever won a state championship, we laid the groundwork for something special. In the spring of 1991, in just their 10th season as a high school baseball program and six years after Mike’s passing, McLaurin High School won the Class AA State Championship. I was in the first base dugout as the players piled onto Mike Abel Field to celebrate.
I just stood there and remembered. And smiled.
Remembering Mike: 30 Years Later
I will join many others in remembering Mike 30 years after his passing when his number 17 is finally retired next week. No one has worn it since he last did on that fateful day, but the school is making it official. I’ll have a long drive to spend doing what I do every spring:
- appreciating the rebirth of nature that coincides with the high school baseball season
- pondering how much my participation in baseball has shaped my life in many different capacities
- thinking about how baseball has served as a catalyst in the lessons I have taught my sons
- considering how I blessed I am to have learned and taught so many life lessons through a game
- and always, always…I’ll spend time remembering Mike.
About Al Ainsworth
Al Ainsworth is a values storyteller. He works with individuals, businesses, churches, and other organizations to pass along their values through the stories they tell…and re-tell. Al is the author of Lines in the Gravel (and 52 Other Re-Told Childhood Tales), Stories from the Roller Coaster (of a Faith Life), and Coach Dave: Season One. Subscribe to his email list for more values storying.