How do you honor a guy who loved baseball for almost 100 years? With a ballgame, of course.
Not long after Elijah “Lucky” Miller passed away at age 104, I started thinking about having a game in his honor. I knew it should be at West Field in Munhall, a 1930s field where I had met him and where he had played ball and carried bats for the Homestead Grays. It was pretty rundown in 2010, but still had its original grandstand, locker rooms, pro-style dugouts and 1940s-vintage lights on standards similar to those at Forbes Field.
My original plan was for the players to be 12- or 13-year-olds wearing throwback Grays and Crawfords uniforms in a game similar to the one I did at Mazeroski Field in July 2006 before Pittsburgh hosted the MLB All-Star Game. But West Field was a full-sized field too big for Little Leaguers. So I started thinking high schoolers, maybe from Pittsburgh and Steel Valley School District, which has kids from Homestead, Munhall and West Homestead. Then reality struck: Why would kids play to honor a 104-year-old guy they never met and who would come to watch?
I decided then that it should be a charity game. But for who?
Jim Krenn, who was then on WDVE-FM’s top-rated morning show, had introduced me to Jim Kuzak, a Clairton police officer who was left paralyzed from the waist down when he was shot responding to a home invasion in April 2011. I was immediately impressed with his upbeat attitude, the love of his girlfriend, Cris Okulanis, and the support of not only his fellow Clairton officers but of every cop who ever met him.
Together we came up with the idea of a charity doubleheader, a short high school baseball game and a softball game pitting local police against a celebrity team led by Jim Krenn. We would call it the Heroes Game.
While we tried to find a Saturday that fit everyone’s schedules, I began designing jerseys that said “Jimmy” in script similar to the Crawfords and “Lucky” in Grays-like lettering. The black and red caps had an H for heroes and the date stitched on the side. Dan Marsula, an artist at the Post-Gazette, designed a wonderful poster and Jim Kuzak’s friends gathered donations of food, drink and raffle prizes.
We finally settled on a date, Oct. 29, 2011, awfully late for a ballgame but hey, we’ve had 70-degree Halloweens in Pittsburgh, right? What a mistake!
The first snowfall of the year came the night of Oct. 28. Several inches of wet snow forced many cancellations, but the only one I cared about was the Heroes Game.
My wife Abby and I met Jim and Hedy Krenn for breakfast that morning to drown our sorrows in orange juice and pancakes. I showed Jim blow-ups of the pages of “Lucky Bats,” which was almost finished (I thought). We vowed to reschedule the Heroes Game for a summer day in 2012.
I felt like I had let Lucky down, but he had something better in mind.