My grandpa, John Orso, died on September 13. He wasn’t just a grandpa to me. He was my best friend. In fact, he taught me everything I know about baseball and the New York Yankees.
When I was a kid (about 10 or 11), he would take me on his rowboat and tell me stories about the great New York Yankees of old—Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, etc. He would tell me about his brother, Tony, a centerfielder who the Yankees wanted to sign back in the 1950’s, but wouldn’t. Why? My great-grandmother didn’t want him in Spring Training all the way in Florida. He respected his mother’s wishes and stayed in New Jersey.
On nights I slept over at his house, we would stay up late to watch the Yankees play. He would sneak me ice cream without alerting my parents (though I’m sure they noticed the sugar-high the next day). The most memorable game was July 1, 2004—the John Flaherty walk-off single game against the Red Sox.
As years passed, I wasn’t able to visit him as much as I wanted to. However, I would call him every night during the baseball season. In recent years, we had the same conversation every time the Yankees homered. I would dial the phone.
“Did you see the home run?” I said.
“Yeah, I saw it,” he replied. “That was some shot.”
“Hopefully they can hold on to the lead.”
“Love you too!”
Click. The call ended. 10 minutes later, another home run was hit. The same phone call took place.
With COVID and the 2020 season in doubt, I was afraid my grandpa wouldn’t be able to see his beloved Yankees play again. Thank God there was a season. On Opening night, I went to his house and we were able to watch a (albeit a rain shortened) Yankees’ victory.
Giancarlo Stanton began the scoring with a first inning home run. Since I was next to him, I didn’t have to call to ask if he saw the home run. But, I called anyway—just to make him laugh. I used my cell phone to call his home number. He never looked at caller ID.
“Hello, who’s this?” he asked.
“Did you see the home run?”
He looked at me and began laughing.
“You think you’re funny, huh?”
“A little bit, yes.”
September 13 was tough. I knew my grandpa wasn’t doing well, but no one thought he was going to die that day. So, I went into work just as I would any normal day. Around 11:30 am, I got a call from my aunt. She said Fa (his nickname among the grandchildren) wanted to talk to me.
“Just want to say I love you.”
“I love you too Fa.”
Something didn’t seem right. Then, I found out minutes later he was given the “Last Rites” of the Catholic Church. My heart sank. I knew there was nothing I could do there for him. So, instead I tried something else. I was able to get in touch with the Yankees (long story for a different day). I was told by someone very high up in the organization that the club would unofficially dedicate the game to him.
I called Fa to let him know. He was in his bedroom but asked to be moved to the living room where the television was to watch.
New York was down 1-0 in the third when Tyler Wade hit a homer to tie the game. I had a free moment at work and was able to call him.
“Did you see the homer?”
“I’ll try and call you later. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
New York went on to win the game, 3-1. The member of the New York Yankees I spoke with texted me.
“A victory for John Orso!”
I was walking back to my desk from the bathroom at 4:07 and I smelt lake water. It was a familiar scent–my grandparents lived on a lake for nearly 60 years. I remember thinking “wow that’s weird.”
The game ended at 3:49 pm ET. At around 4:20, I got a call.
“Fa just passed away.”
My aunt told me Fa was ready to go hours before he did, but hearing of the Yankees’ kindness kept him going. I was told he died at 4:07 pm
It’s been about two months and my heart is still heavy. Due to COVID and family members being unable to attend the funeral, we will be burying his ashes in a couple of weeks. I think about him more and more as we approach that day.
Fa taught me everything about baseball. I wrote a book “Baseball Card Generations” about six years ago and based the main character on him—a grandpa who taught his grandchildren life lessons through baseball cards. That’s who he was. A man who taught, who helped and loved his family beyond compare.
It’s ironic that the Yankees went on to hit 19 homers in the first three games following his death. I looked up at the sky and mumbled “couldn’t you have waited at least three days so we could’ve had 19 more home runs to talk about.”
We can’t prove it by numbers or science, but I have a feeling he was behind that home run barrage. No one can tell me otherwise.
Fa will never really be gone. The lessons he taught me. The baseball we watched. The memories we shared will always be with me. Every time Michael Kay says “see-ya” or John Sterling says “that ball is gone,” I will think of Fa.
I love you, Fa. Always. Forever.