Friday, December 23, 2011

Mark Lazarus 1953-2012

Sometimes I lay awake at night thinking about how I became the person I am.  We are all the sum of  our experiences, and all of the people we meet in our lives play a role in shaping us.  Having said that, however, some people stand out above all the rest. First of all, it is undeniable that my parents influenced me heavily, especially for my first 18 years .  As a young boy they taught me morals, shaped my outlook on the world, and are largely responsible for the goals that I have set in my life.

For the last two decades it is my wife, Courtney, who has played the biggest role in shaping my personality and character.  I have lived with her since I was 22, and I consider her to be the lodestar of my life.  Her goodness and generosity of spirit have been an inspiration, and give me a lot to live up to.

But to quote Yoda, "there is another". My uncle, Mark Lazarus, has shaped my life in so many ways that, when I tried to count them all, I was amazed.  Just a brief sampling of the things that I do because of him will show the impact he has had on me.  Without Mark, I would not:

  • watch sports
  • play sports
  • research sports history and stats
  • play guitar
  • love classic rock music
  • love Star Trek
there are more, but that should do for going on with.  Mark entered my life when I was very young, and even before marrying my Aunt Lisa he was a fixture (they were college sweethearts who got married in 1977, as soon as Lisa graduated school).  For many years we saw Lisa and Mark nearly every week, even after they moved to Philadelphia and Mark began an arduous commute to Manhattan every day.

 He had season tickets in section 525 behind home plate at Veterans Stadium from the early 1970's until it closed in 2003.  Mark attended virtually every home game every year, and he made a point of bringing me to several games each season as I got older.  Mark kept score at a ballgame using his own, highly detailed system (one that I have tried to teach to others in my turn).  But as much as he hated to miss a single play, he never quibbled about getting up to buy me pizza, hot dogs, and sodas, or to take me to the rest room.  All the while he made a point of teaching me fine points about the game, such as the communication between middle infielders, the positioning of the players, and pitch selection.

Mark took me to my first game when I was four, in what was literally a formative moment for me.  Neither my mother nor my father really cared much for sports, but Mark could tell that I did, and encouraged it all the time.  And since he was my hero, it didn't take much encouragement for me to follow along.  Mark kindly took me to out-of-town parks, including a visit to now-vanished fields such as Baltimore's Memorial Stadium in 1979, Yankee Stadium in 1980, Shea Stadium for the sign day double header in 1982 and Tiger Stadium for my 17th birthday in 1987.  He also took me on overnight trips to Cooperstown during the 1981 strike and to Boston's Fenway Park in 1983, shortly before the birth of his son.  At Boston that weekend, Hall-of-Famer Carl Yastrzemski was having the final good series of his career, including a 5-RBI game on Saturday.   As Yaz came to the plate in the fifth, Mark said that if the legend hit a homer, he would name his child "Yaz Lazarus".  Well, #8 hit one to the deepest part of Fenway, missing a homer off the wall of the triangle, and settling for a double.  And that is why my cousin is named Dan.

In 2003, Mark invited me to the final two games at Veterans Stadium.  I have written about this experience elsewhere, but it is safe to say that it was one of the most thrilling and emotional weekends (sports-wise) I've ever experienced.  I am glad that we were able to get some photos to commemorate the experience.  In the picture at right, Mark is wearing his uniform from when he did Phillies "Dream Week", and I am wearing my late father's Phillies cap.  It later got soaked in the rain that fell in buckets that day, and the red color ran all over the P.  So that was the last time that cap was worn.  But I still have it today.

On long drives to ballgames, Mark would often have music playing.  In fact, Mark was the first person I knew with a Sony Walkman ("Take It Easy" by the Eagles was the first song I heard on headphones).  He was a fount of information about progressive rock acts like Yes and Chicago, and of classic rock like Elton John, Billy Joel and most significantly, the Beatles.  I remember being impressed that both Mark AND Lisa had first pressings of the White Album (with the embossed serial number on the front).  I borrowed dozens of his old LP's and they became the cornerstone of my musical appreciation.

As a good child of the late 1960's, Mark had tried to learn how to play guitar, and he gladly loaned me his old instrument when I expressed interest in it in 8th grade.  I played that guitar (with only four strings) for a year before graduating to Lisa's much nicer classical guitar (and lessons) and then to my first real guitar.  And music and guitar are the main hobbies and diversions of my life to this day.  

Mark is one of the smartest people I've ever met, and he often turned his intellect to baseball.  He joined the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), early on, and was published in their journal The National Pastime , as well as in Bill James' Baseball Analyst during the 1980's.  I loved watching Mark do his research (which in that pre-database, pre-computer age, meant reading old issues of The Sporting News and combing the Baseball Encyclopedia), and he could tell.  Mark bought me a book called The Illustrated Book of Baseball Folklore  when I was eight. He inscribed it:

"To Ethan: The best nephew in the world--This is yours to read and enjoy and learn about baseball.  Love Uncle Mark"

Needless to say, I read the book over and over (including once more this past summer).  When Mark's article about HIS boyhood hero, slugger Dick Allen was published in a compilation book by SABR, Mark gave me a copy autographed by himself and Allen.  Mark's inscription read:

"Ethan--To a true baseball historian-- Happy Reading!---Uncle Mark"

By then my path was set.  Mark had given me a membership to SABR when I was 15, and I have maintained it for 27 years.  My first project was to comb the Baseball Encyclopedia for every player born on August 30th (my cousin's birthday).  I went on to write my senior thesis in college, as well as my Master's thesis on baseball related topics.  My favorite moment, however, was  when SABR published an article of mine in The National Pastime and I was able to return to favor and give Mark a copy of the work that he had most certainly inspired.  

When I was young, Mark played in basketball and softball leagues after work.  For reasons not wholly clear to me, the games were played closer to where I lived in Warminster, PA, than they were to his home.  Anyway, I used to love watching Mark get dressed for his games.  There was a ritualistic aspect to his preparations that hinted at a "right way" to do things, and to respect the game.  
Once, when I was 12, I went to one of Mark's softball games.  His team was short players, and faced a forfeit.  I told Mark that I could play, and he trusted me enough to run it past the coach.  The coach, umpire and other team were reluctant to agree, but they relented and I played right field.  I also reached on a walk and a fielder's choice.  After the game, Mark took me to dinner and told me how proud he was when I took the first pitch, stepped out of the box, and got back in for the next pitch.  He said I "looked like a real ballplayer", which meant the world to me.  For years I used to imagine telling this story to Baseball Digest as "The Game I'll Never Forget".

Mark had played baseball for the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science (now Philadelphia University), and regaled me of tales of his hippie teammates, running the bases with long flowing locks coming out of their caps.  Years later, when I helped found the Hampshire College Baseball Collective, I took similar pride in my team of hirsute, unconventional-looking men (and women) who respected the game and tried to play it right.   

My family is not very big, and Mark has always been a key part of it.  My father was sick for most of my life, and Mark definitely bridged the gap between uncle/older brother and father figure.  And after my father died, Mark has been the last "older man" left in my life.   I remember when my father had his lung removed when I was in college, Mark had to be out of town on business.  Mark called the hospital for an update, telling the Intensive Care nurse that he was asking about his "brother".  For my whole life my father was estranged from his actual brother, and when he heard about this act of Mark's, my father was moved deeply.  I'll never forget this.  And while Mark is "only" a relative by marriage, I can't imagine my life without him. Even as I have moved into my 40's, I still look up to him. 

When I think about how eagerly I soaked up everything Mark had to give, whether it was baseball (real or Strat-o-Matic), music, or what have you, I sometimes get embarrassed.  It must have felt strange for Mark to see the hero-worship--I know it would for me.  

But he never made me feel odd or uncomfortable.  I never knew the Mark Lazarus who  was "the only white would-be Black Panther" at a "Free Bobby Seale" rally.  I never knew the 18-year old who made the trip to Chicago to stalk Dick Allen during his 1972 MVP season, while wearing his homemade "Dick Allen Superstar" t-shirt.  And the Mark Lazarus who for two decades was on the cutting edge of performance fabric technology and marketing was only a rumor to me. But the Mark Lazarus I have known, the Mark Lazarus who was the best man at my wedding, who taught me a lot about patience, love and devotion, the person who can send me text messages about the Phillies and Eagles while suffering from a particularly awful cancer will always be a huge part of who I am.   

Happy birthday, Uncle Mark!

UPDATE:  On March 28, 2012, Mark Lazarus finally lost his 15-month long battle with cancer.  He was the model of courage and optimism during the entire time.  When I last saw him 10 days before he died, the disease had almost completely taken hold.  But Mark's sense of humor was still there, he still wanted to talk about the Iggles and Phillies, and most of all his concern and love for his family was still front and foremost with him.  58 years was not nearly enough, but Mark made sure to make the most of his time on Earth. I will never stop missing him.

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