A BASEBALL STORY: TWO WIDOWS AND THE HOME OPENER

They met in a soda shop over a milkshake – he ordered it, she served it – and six weeks later, he asked her to marry him. This was 1947 and she was still in high school. So they waited until she graduated. During that time there were dates and laughs and flowers – flowers, because his work was landscaping – and there was baseball, too, always baseball.

Joyce and Jim Meyer were married 56 happy years and for most of that time Opening Day held a special place in their lives. Jim would listen to the game on the radio of his truck. In 1984, he did a huge “Go Tigers” flower display on the lawn of a Warren business. He loved the team but could never attend the opener because early April is the insane season for landscapers, cleaning up from winter, preparing the flowerbeds.

“Sometimes I told him, ‘It wouldn’t hurt you to take a day off,’ ” Joyce says, smiling. “But he just couldn’t do that.”

So every year she would make “cheesy dogs” in honor of the day – hot dogs stuffed with cheese and grilled in a bun – and the family would talk baseball when he got home, and once VCRs were invented, they would watch the tape.

One year, as a birthday present, Jim bought two Opening Day tickets for Joyce and her friend Doris. And that night, he peppered Joyce with questions: “How many hot dogs did you eat? What did the field look like? How was the grass?”

For 56 years, Opening Day was like a visit from an old friend. It was the start of things. You could see it coming.

What you don’t see coming is the end of things. Jim Meyer died three months ago of pancreatic cancer.

And now spring is here. The flowers he loved are blooming. And for the first time since she was working in that soda shop, Joyce Meyer, 74, is facing the Tigers’ home opener alone. A sport that connects lives

Doris Schultz, 76, knows what Joyce is going through. She met her husband, Bill, in the early ’50s at a small rural schoolhouse not far from Bad Axe. Doris was teaching there when Bill and some friends drove up during lunchtime. The kids were outside eating. Next thing you knew, a baseball game broke out, the kids and the men playing in the field behind the school.

Pretty soon, Bill was coming by regularly to give Doris a ride home.

They were married in 1953.

Bill got into the sod business. Springtime was always busy for him, too. But for most of the next half century, the Tigers and Opening Day were staples of the Schultzes’ lives.

“We would always watch them on TV,” Doris says. “We never missed them. And we didn’t like it if anyone said anything bad about them.”

Bill, Doris, Joyce and Jim were best of friends. Baseball was a cord that connected them. There were summer days at Tiger Stadium – when they sat together with hot dogs and beer – that life must have felt as if it would go on forever.

Life does.

People do not.

Bill Schultz died of cancer five years ago.

Doris has not been to an Opening Day since.

The meaning of the game

Normally, like a lot of sportswriters, I write a column after Opening Day is finished, the festivities, the action, the score of the game. But over the years, I realize the essence of this event comes before the first pitch, in the emotions people carry with them through the turnstiles.

Today is not about the final score. Today is not about the politicians in attendance or the media members who crowd the field before the game.

Today is about a ritual that connects the years, one to another, like fertilizing grass for spring, or watering new flower buds. Today is a day for children remembering fathers, fathers remembering grandfathers, widows remembering their husbands.

Today is a day for Joyce Meyer, who cooked cheesy dogs, and Doris Schultz, who never misses a game on the radio, to do something special.

So today, if all goes to plan, Joyce, who lives in Sterling Heights, and Doris, who lives in Clinton Township, will walk through those Comerica Park turnstiles together, thanks to the Tigers, who heard about their story and provided two tickets and an escort.

And they will order hot dogs and, as Joyce says, “maybe even a glass of beer.”

And they will celebrate their husbands.

“We’ve been crying already just thinking about it,” Doris says.

Football may be more popular now. Basketball may have more sizzle. But only one sport is aligned with the rebirth of spring, and only one sports opener is an event that can bring you to tears.

Before he died, Jim Meyer planted something in the front bed of the small condominium where he and Joyce had moved as a result of his illness. He covered it in burlap to protect it against the winter.

A few weeks ago, with the weather warming, Joyce went outside and removed the burlap. And she found a beautiful heather plant – a nod to her Scottish heritage – already blooming.

“That was his last gift to me,” she says.

Today she plans to walk past that heather on her way to a car and a stadium and a very special baseball game. Because, while people have to die, their traditions, like their memories, live on.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns by Albom, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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