This morning, I made my way down to the ballpark for the second time in as many weeks. I was one of the nearly 5,000 in attendance to mourn the passing of Jerry Coleman. I'd shed plenty of tears in the last two weeks, so it seemed like a good idea to bring some tissues.
On my way to Petco Park. I’m prepared. pic.twitter.com/qN6bb8LfWF— Richard (@gdarklighter) January 18, 2014
The tenor for the day was set before I even entered Petco Park. Walking from the parking lot to the gate, I saw a fan wearing a jersey bearing the name of the Padres late bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds. That handful of Kleenex in my pocket suddenly seemed woefully insufficient.
I entered through the East Village gate to see the Colonel's statue. The memorial at his feet had grown even larger since I visited on the night of his death. There were flowers, hats, stars, and mementos of all sorts. From there, I worked my way up to the main concourse, pausing to watch the photos of Jerry being shown on every screen in the park. Ushers were distributing brief biographies of Jerry, not that there was a soul in attendance that didn't know it by heart: Four World Series rings, two wars, and fourty-two years behind the microphone.
Dick Enberg took the stage to introduce the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Band, who played the national anthem before a group of Marine F-18 fighter jets flew over the field in the missing man formation. Watching that lone jet pull away from his squad, I pulled out the first of many tissues. Enberg spoke briefly about his time working with Jerry on Angels broadcasts before introducing Randy Jones and Bob Chandler. Chandler described him as "the most beloved sports figure in the history of San Diego." It's a hard to disagree.
Padres Chairman Ron Fowler talked about his father's love for Jerry and his role with the Padres. He described him not just as the one constant through more than four decades of Padres baseball, but "the very soul of this organization." He announced that the Padres will wear a patch on their uniforms this season. Fittingly, it's a star bearing his initials.
Fowler was followed by County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who told a story about riding the New York subway with Jerry, who claimed to know the system like the back of his hand. When they went the wrong way after leaving Yankee Stadium, Jerry amended that claim: "It must have been my glove hand."
Former Padre Tim Flannery played his tribute to the Colonel, "The Man Who Hung The Stars". Another tissue out of my pocket. "I can hear that old familiar voice spilling from a local bar." There goes another tissue. I managed to stop sobbing for a little bit as Joe Torre took the stage, representing the Office of the Commissioner. I'll be honest, I tuned him out a little bit. I barely caught the moment where he flubbed and said Pirates instead of Padres. It's no "Rich Folkers is throwing up in the bullpen," but I think Jerry would have appreciated it.
Then it was time for what everybody knew would be the most difficult part of the ceremony: Ted Leitner's eulogy. I ran out of tissues about halfway through. It was filled with stories of his more than three decades in the broadcast booth with Jerry. "All I had to do was show up and say, 'Jer, what did you do today?'" He reminded us of why we all loved Jerry so much: He made us laugh. He made us smile. Even in the middle of a terrible baseball game in the middle of a terrible season, he put so much joy into our lives. He talked about Jerry's best friend: His beloved German Shepherd Gus, who was also in attendance (oh god, why didn't I bring more tissues?). Perhaps most poignantly, he absolutely refused to speak of Jerry in the past tense.
Lieutenant General John Toolan spoke of the Colonel's military service. He hailed him as a great Marine, extolling him as a role model for all the other Marines in attendance. He was followed by a 21 gun salute, the playing of "Taps" (I might have resorted to using my sleeve as a tissue; don't judge me). There was one more flyover: A plane just like the one he flew in World War II.
His daughter Chelsea was the last to speak. She thanked the Padres and the thousands of fans for their support in such a difficult time. She ended the ceremony in a way that I'm sure would have made Jerry smile: "Semper Fi, and BEAT L.A."