Family dinner Sunday night was supposed to be Chinese food.
We're Jews from the Northeast. It's always supposed to be Chinese food on Sunday night. Instead, we ended up at a Japanese steakhouse - myself, my wife, my sister and her husband and two kids, and my parents. It wasn't the tradition, but hey, we knew the kids would enjoy it, and there was something on the menu everyone liked.
Monday's going to be a rough day, the latest is a series of rough days and the first in the start of a whole new stretch of them. My sister has cancer, and Monday is when they wheel her in for surgery. Our other sister also has cancer, and had surgery earlier in the summer, but then again as a family we've always been very good about taking turns. There was a tricky moment back in 1979 or so when my sister - the one who's getting operated on Monday morning, not the other one - got impatient waiting for me to listen to her and brained me with my pinewood derby car, but what siblings don't have those sorts of moments.
But Sunday night was family dinner, seated around the big hibachi grill while the nice gentleman in the tall hat flipped seared shrimp tails into his toque and danced eggs on his spatula. My 5 year old niece sat between my mother and my wife; the two of them are My Little Ponies buddies. My nephew, who is ten and whom I have occasionally written about in these pages, sat between me and his mother. And he wanted to talk baseball.
"Who are the good players on the Pirates?" he asked. So I mentioned Pedro Alvarez, who is strong like bull, and Andrew McCutcheon, and we had a debate over which of the two of them was better. Then he wanted to know who were the best players on the Cardinals, so I rattled off Holliday and Carpenter and Molina, and then he added in Beltran, and we went back and forth a little bit on Craig and Wainwright and Mujica. Then the waitress brought out the soup, which my nephew didn't want. His mother tried cajoling him a few times - "It's got mushrooms in it" - but no dice. "When you're done, can we talk more about baseball?" he asked instead.
I finished my soup. We talked more baseball. He asked me who would win if the Astros and the Marlins played, because they're both terrible. I told him that the Marlins had better players, with Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton, but that the Astros were doing a good job of rebuilding their farm system. Then he mentioned that he didn't want to play outfield, he wanted to be a catcher, which led to talking about the bumps and bruises catchers got, which led to talking about why Mike Matheny retired. And that led to my asking my wife, who was a Whitey Herzog-era Cardinals fan, to tell young nephew Jacob why she's mad at the team.
She leaned over, and she explained it very simply: that Jose Oquendo was one of the best players in Cardinals history, and that he's a really good coach, and that the Cardinals were supposed to make him the manager when Tony LaRussa retired. Instead, they hired Mike Matheny, and she was so mad at them she wasn't a fan any more.
Then we argued a bit over whether he'd ever played all 9 positions in one game (he hadn't, which my wife got right) and the salads came, and my nephew, after trying a piece of lettuce swimming in ranch dressing, decided he didn't want salad, either. Instead, he asked me, "When you're done, can we talk more baseball?"
So I ate some of my salad and then we talked about the 3000 hit club, and he was appalled that Big Papi wasn't a member when Derek Jeter was. Jacob is, as you might have guessed, a bit of a Red Sox fan. He also likes the Mets, which means 1986 would have been hard on him. So I pulled up the list of 3000 hit club members on my iPhone, and he saw names like Kaline and Clemente, which I think are good for a young baseball fan to see. Then he wanted to know about standings, so I clicked over to that page, and he started speculating about the Mets' chances of catching the Nationals in the NL East and if the Orioles were going to make the playoffs, because they had Chris Davis and Manny Machado. I tried to explain how last year the Orioles were 29-9 in one run games, and that it wasn't the sort of thing you could do every year. Start them with the sabermetrics early, and you've got them for life, right? Or at least until Harold Reynolds starts talking on the teevee.
Right about then was when the chef started doing things like making volcanoes out of onions and actually serving food that Jacob would eat - grilled mushrooms and onions, yes; grilled shrimp, double yes - and conversation got sidetracked for a while. Other things were discussed. My sister's order somehow got skipped, and the immensely apologetic chef ran back into the kitchen to prepare it for her. Balloons were acquired by the kids and, inevitably, floated up to the ceiling. It was a good dinner, and nobody talked about the elephant in the room. We talked baseball instead.
Monday is the surgery. My nephew is 10. I don't know how much he knows about what his mom is going through, and what he's facing. Hell, I don't know how much I know, but I know I'm scared. I mean, she may have hit me with a pinewood derby car, but she's my sister. And Monday's going to happen. My nephew could have been angry. He could have been sad. He could have been a lot of things, and he would have been perfectly justified in any one of them.
Instead, he wanted to talk baseball. And for that, I am grateful.
ADDENDUM: I am very pleased to report that my sister is now out of surgery and is resting comfortably.