With the coming of the warmer weather, I have been thinking about how much I miss Steve Garvey. Since I’ve never actually met the real Steve Garvey (who was a first baseman for the Dodgers), that sentence might not make any sense, so allow me to explain.

When I was growing up, my brothers and I used to play a game in our back yard called Home Run Derby. Essentially, it was a game of Wiffle Ball, but with no base running and no fielding to speak of, just pitching and hitting. Hit a ball off the porch for a single, off the siding was a double, the gutter and windows were triples, and a blast onto the roof was a home run. If you swung the bat and the result was anything other than the ball landing on some part of the house on the fly, you were out.

My father was not the biggest fan of Home Run Derby. With Wiffle Balls constantly bouncing off of his house, he was convinced that we were going to break something, or ruin the roof. Also, there was the time a line drive struck my grandmother, who was sitting innocently on the deck during a party. It was nothing more serious than a bit of a startle and a spilled beverage. My grandmother was a good sport about it, but seeing his mother get plunked didn’t raise my father’s opinion of the game any. There were other incidents, as well (like the time he got hit by a ball that had flown through an open bathroom window) but in general, since nothing ever broke and it kept us from destroying the inside of his house, Dad mostly tolerated the Derby.

That was good, because we played a ton of it.

Each of my brothers had a specialty pitch, crafted for years before I showed up – my brother Mike had a rising fast ball (thrown at about 100mph) that would have you ducking out of the way as it swept through the strike zone. My brother Jim had “The Floater,” which would come dancing up to the strike zone, pause briefly, and then pull your pants down. My brother Bill had a variation of The Floater he called “The Blooper,” but in my memory The Blooper spent most of its time flying up onto the roof (Bill will likely not be pleased about this recollection). Me, I just threw as hard as I could and hoped for the best.

My best, playing against people at least 9 years older with their fancy pitches, was often not good enough. I lost and lost, but I loved to play so much that I would just keep on plugging. I remember one game in particular where my brother Jim and I were pretending to be major leaguers – I was the Red Sox and Jim was the Dodgers. I was actually leading, 3-2, in the 9th inning and I was desperate to win.

That desperation is a funny thing. My brothers were not people who would lay down for anyone, not even their little brother. I had to earn it. That might have been discouraging for some people, but it drove my competitive fire. I wanted to get better and better and keep playing until I could dominate and pay them back for all the years of losing – even at a game like backyard Wiffle Ball.

So, on this particular day, the sun was shining and it was hot, probably July or August. I was standing in my backyard with sweat rolling down my back and into my shorts. I was pretending to be Dennis Eckersley, with his high leg kick, and I was going for a complete game victory.

There were two outs when my brother announced that Bill Russell (the old Dodger shortstop), was batting. I reared back and threw a medium ball on the outside corner and Russell (who, after a long career of being right-handed, was suddenly batting in my brother’s lefty style) flicked it off the siding of the house for a double. The tying run was on base. This was before the World Series collapse in 1986, but I had already been trained to expect bad things for the Sox, even the Wiffle Sox, in the 9th inning.

I tried to reason with myself as Jim announced that Steve Garvey was batting. One out to go and anything – a foul tip, a ground ball, or even a swing and a miss – would mean victory. Sweet, precious victory could be mine. I smiled greedily at the thought of it. I took a deep breath as Jim waved at me with a couple of practice swings. His face was all concentration.

I kicked and threw as hard as I knew how. The tendons in my shoulder strained from the effort, and there was a soft grinding sound in my elbow. The ball tumbled over itself as it whistled unevenly toward my brother. The long plastic bat cut through the air, and in the next instant the ball was bouncing down the shingles of my father’s roof. Home run. Steve Garvey. Ballgame.

My brother wasn’t one to gloat. He patted me on the back, then shook my hand and said, “Good game.” As we walked back into the house, I snuck a look back at him, and noticed him smiling to himself. It was a wide, contagious smile, and it was clear that it came from a place of joy and was not at my expense.

I saw the smile again this past November. Jim was bed-ridden from the cancer that would soon take him from me, and he was quiet, as he often was then. I was sitting on his bed, trying to think of something to say. I looked at him, held his gaze for a moment, smiled, and said, “Damn that Steve Garvey.” He chuckled, and for just a split second we were in the backyard with only Wiffle Balls to worry about.