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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

September 28, 2011: From a dead car in the morning to elation after midnight



For as long as I live, the entire day of Wednesday, September 28, 2011 will forever live in my mind.

But to set this up, I have to go back a couple of weeks beforehand. So here it goes:

It was just over two weeks earlier. I had already stated an interest with the NFL team I cover home games with since 2003, the Jacksonville Jaguars, that my one road trip would be to Charlotte, N.C. to see the Jaguars face off with rookie Cam Newton and the Panthers and their new head coach, Ron Rivera. That was planned for Sunday, September 25.

The only thing I had not done yet was call Dan Edwards, the Jaguars' marvelous media coordinator, to get those passes. Figured I'd put that off a day.

Well any thought of those plans happening would get shot out of the air by one simple phone call. My sister called me and hit me with this news:

"Mom's coming down to Florida to visit cousin Marcia and she's expecting to fly back from Orlando with you."

"When is all this taking place?" I ask.

"She's going to be there until the 28th. You are going to take her with you that Sunday home."

Well that was that for that. No trip to Charlotte. The way things went with the Jaguars that 2011 season, it wasn't worth the trip in the end anyway.

So instead of Western Carolina, I'm now making new plans for a trip to South Florida for September 24-26. I had already asked my boss, Andy, off for that day since I didn't want to have to rush home from Charlotte and get right to work at 7 p.m. on that Monday. So I was cleared.

My next job was to call my friend outside of Fort Lauderdale, Doloria, who had spent some time with me in December 2010 in Palatka. Told her I was heading her way and if she wanted to hang with me. She was glad to see me again since we hadn't seen each other for ninth months. All that Saturday morning and afternoon, I traveled to South Florida. It was about 4 p.m. when I got to Doloria's place in Davie. Her son, who was 22, was there and I was happy to meet him for the first time.

We took off not far after that and checked in at a hotel in Jupiter, not far from my cousin Robin's place. We went out to dinner and I called Marcia to ask her if we could come over. It was late by now and we agreed we'd all meet at Marcia's the next day.

That Sunday, I get to hang with Doloria near the pool of the hotel, even though it was a slightly overcast day. By 6:30 that night, she and I were on our way to Marcia's. I've made the trip to my cousin's house enough times to know where it is, even as darkness was becoming more obvious with the daylight savings time coming.

We arrived at Marcia's where my mom was along with Robin. I gave my mom a big hug and then introduced her to my friend. I had not told them she was African-American, but I didn't think it would matter anyway. I just wanted to see a response.

I never got one because they treated her like she was one of their own. We got to hang out all night and catch up on things. We had a good time with dinner and dessert. Doloria and I took off for the hotel at just after 11:30 that night.

The next morning, the 26th of September, I had to take Doloria back to her place, which was a 45-minute ride one way. When I was done with that, I had to meet Marcia at her place to pick up my mom to take back with me to Northern Florida. She had packed most of her stuff with my mom and I picked her up to go at about 2 p.m. We were on our way to a restaurant in Stuart to meet my ex-girlfriend, Beth, who was living in West Palm Beach with her husband.

We get in, catch up on old times, and I can see Steve was a little uncomfortable with his wife's ex-boyfriend and his mother there. I think he was trying hard to impress, but he didn't have to. Hey, he got my ex in the end. He had nothing to prove, really.

We spent about 90 minutes in the restaurant and left around 3:40 p.m. when my phone goes off.

Marcia's calling me, telling me my mom forgot her watch.

"Meet me right off I-95 by the Sunoco station," she said.

So I did. About 15 minutes later, she arrives with the watch and once again, we say our goodbyes.

Now I'm heading north up I-95 and I have two options: My mom and I could go see my late girlfriend's mom and brother, who still live up in Vero Beach and she'd get to see her 3-year-old son, Nio, who she was pregnant with when I first met her in 2007. I got no answer on the phone from her brother at all, and I wasn't up to springing surprises on the family one bit.

That idea went out the window. My next option was calling my step-grandmother Gladys, who lives in Clearwater. I get her on the phone and tell her I have mom with me. She was delighted to see her and I put her on my phone with her. It was around 4:45 p.m. and the exit for Vero Beach was coming off -- State-Road 60. You go east, you get into Vero Beach and to the ocean. You turn left, you get the Vero Beach Outlets and just about nothing for 75 miles other than the Florida's Turnpike exit for Yeehaw Junction.

I figured I'd get to her place by about 8 p.m., but well over 100 miles seemed to take forever, especially after getting out of that nothingness of an area known as Central Florida and hitting every single traffic light on the way to Tampa. We had to make two bathroom breaks along the way.

By the time I reached Tampa, it was 8:40 p.m. and I still had the Campbell Causeway to drive on to get to Clearwater. By the time I reached her development where she lived, it was 9:10 p.m. Thankfully, she was still up and about and watching the first game of a three-game, season-ending baseball series between the Yankees and the Rays at Tropicana Field.

She was delighted to see us get there. She would catch up on times with my step-grandmother since she hadn't seen her since 2007 when her stepbrother Lewis got married. He came over for a while, and after that, his wife Eileen came over. We ended up leaving sometime before midnight, but I'm glad we got everyone together for a few hours that evening.

Now I wasn't going to tell my mom I had some issues with my automobile, a 1998 Toyota Corrolla, which had just got over 200,000 miles six months earlier. After pushing that car as far as I could, I wanted to take the back way to Palatka, even if it took an extra hour to get there. We traveled up U.S.-19 into Crystal River, then veered off onto SR-44. It was a turn after that onto SR-491 through Beverly Hills until connecting onto SR-200. Once I got back into Ocala nearly two hours later, we hopped on I-75 to Exit 358, where I knew my normal way around there to SR-326, then onto US-301, and onto SR-20 where finally sometime around 3:30 in the morning, we arrived back at my apartment in Palatka.

I had her sleeping on the sofa in the living room and I was in my bedroom. That morning and afternoon, we went out to a pair of places in town, the last was my place of employment, the Palatka Daily News. Unlike seven years earlier when my mom and dad came to town to visit, it was during the day and she got to meet Andy, my boss, Larry, and my publisher and personal savoir, Rusty. She got to see I worked with very good people while I was there. We stopped over at Publix where we picked up the dinner for the night -- I made us grilled salmon with green beans and corn.

Then I showed her the television clicker and told her I would be home sometime around 12:30 in the morning. It was an easy night for a Tuesday and I left to come home at around 12:45 a.m. But as I pulled into my parking lot at my complex with my tail going in first, I started to hear a noise in my car.

I didn't think anything of it at that moment and just came in to see mom was up. She had done little unpacking since she was only going to be with me for a day. We had to be out the door by 9:15 for a 2 p.m. flight out of Orlando.

It is 8:15 in the morning, Wednesday, September 28, 2011. My task at hand was to get mom to the airport after we first picked up her phone that she forgot her charger for on the trip down to Florida at the nearby Radio Shack. Those folks were nice enough to allow her to keep the phone overnight. If my sister or dad needed us, they could get her on my phone since I had left it with her.

Getting things packed wasn't that difficult a task. I made coffee that morning and around 9:10, we were to get on our way for the 2 1/2-hour trek to Orlando International Airport. Got everything settled, turned the ignition on.

Nothing! All I heard was the rattling sound of something in my car that sounded like a belt was out of place. I opened up the hood of my car ... and it was. The belt to my fuel pump was snapped. I didn't have many options other than a rental car at that particular moment.

The only place in town I had business with and knew would get the job done for me was Enterprise. But I had to wait. It wasn't until about 9:45 when we could be picked up, make a side trip to get mom's fully charged cell phone at Radio Shack, then be on our way to Enterprise to pick up the rental. It seemed as if it would take forever to get the business of the rental over with. But they were only going as fast as they could as they figured out which car I was going to take for the day.

We got to the rental desk at about 10:15. We didn't leave until 10:50, which now put me behind a serious 8-ball, trying to get my mom down to Orlando as fast as I could. One obstacle that was in the way was gas -- they don't give you more than just over a quarter of a tank to begin with, so you are on your own to fill the tank up. It was 12:30 in the afternoon and I had just arrived at the gas station off of I-4 in Deltona to get some gas in. I put in about $5 since that would take care of the rest of the trip to the airport.

By the time she finished going to the bathroom and I had picked up something to drink for us, we were out of the station by 12:40. It was still another 10 miles to the exit for the Greeneway toll road and another 35 minutes to the airport.

To this day, I still don't know how cops didn't catch me going 85 mph in a 70 zone. Once we got to the airport, I was able to get her to where she needed to check in. I told her to call me to make sure all was fine as I found a place to park after she got in.

Five minutes later, the phone rings.

"It's OK," she says. "The flight's been delayed an hour."

There was a sigh of relief. I met her outside the gate she was supposed to go through. We hugged, kissed, told each other we loved them and I left her to go through security and wait for her flight back to New Jersey.

I had done what I was asked to do -- get her to the airport and on her way home. I jumped back into my car and decided to take a leisurely trip back to Palatka. Heck, I had the car for the day and it wasn't as if there was a huge day of work ahead of us. Wednesdays are rarely ever busy because of how religious it is for activity that night where I was living.

After getting gas at the closest Mobil in Orlando, I took SR-436 onto I-4 and back off onto US-17 to take it all the way back up to Palatka. By the time I arrived somewhere between 5:30 and 6 p.m., I had contacted a guy named Troy, who happened to see what was going on under the hood earlier that morning when I first had my issue. He was willing to come look at it and evaluate if he could fix it or not. He looked at it after I got back and figured it shouldn't be a problem. Told him I'd see him in the morning.

I had picked up something to eat from Publix that night and headed to work sometime after 7 p.m. Mom had already let me know she got back safely, so all was good.

My job on the night was normal -- make sure our Scoreboard page was set up properly to put our weekly football picks grid on the page and to pick up the two local events that were taking place.

But my mind was somewhere else. It was the final night of the Major League Baseball season. What was a tradition to end the season on a Sunday, now it was ending on a Wednesday night, away from the frenzy of Sunday NFL play. The Rays, my favorite American League team, had done an amazing job of cutting the deficit from nine games behind the Boston Red Sox in the search for the American League wild card to tie them after taking the first two games of their series with the rival New York Yankees.

Early in the night, I had already gotten my two events on the evening: Palatka High's volleyball team had beaten Interlachen in four sets, and the Palatka High boys golf team took second in a three-team competition with Nease and St. Augustine at Ponte Vedra's Valley Golf Course.

That gave me plenty of time to finish up my end of the scoreboard page as we waited on the outcome of this Rays-Yankees game. And it didn't look good in the second inning when Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira sent a ball in orbit for a grand slam, giving the Yankees a 5-0 lead. He added another home run in the fourth and when Andruw Jones went yard in the fifth, the Yankees had a 7-0 lead.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox had taken a 3-2 lead in the top of the fifth inning and needed a win and a Rays loss to get the AL wild card.

Those scores would stay like that for a number of innings. I had already started thinking about a Red Sox-Rangers first-round series. It was about 11 o'clock, and normally at that hour, you start getting into the final stretch where the deadline is 12:30 a.m.

While that was all taking place in the American League, the National League picture had become clearer with the Philadelphia Phillies taking out the Atlanta Braves in 13 innings, 4-3, over an hour after the St. Louis Cardinals had shut out the woebegone Houston Astros, 8-0, to steal the National League wild card away from the frustrated Braves. My boss, a diehard Braves fan, was not too pleased by that outcome.

Now the game was in the bottom of the eighth. The Rays, who I grew to love as my AL team once I started covering games in that ballpark in 2007 and enjoyed conversations with their outgoing and knowledgeable manager Joe Maddon, still the best manager or coach I've ever interviewed in all these years, were down to their last six outs. It wasn't looking good still.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi had started Dellin Batances and had used six relievers by the time they got to Boone Logan. Johnny Damon singled and Ben Zobrist doubled him to third. Casey Kotchman was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Out goes Logan and in came Luis Ayala. He walks Sam Fuld to bring in Damon. It's 7-1. Sean Rodriguez is hit by a pitch, scoring Zobrist. It's 7-2.

And I'm wondering all the while, "Why the hell does Girardi not have Mariano Rivera up to pitch? The Rays still need this game to make the playoffs!"

But no Rivera. Ayala is still pitching. After a strikeout, B.J. Upton lofted a sacrifice fly to make it 7-3. There's two outs and runners on base for All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria. On the first pitch, I could hear the crack of the bat, look at the ball flying on TV over the fence and realize, "Oh my goodness ... it's 7-6!! Just like that!!"

At the same time this is going on, I turn back to ESPN to see the bottom of the ninth in the Red Sox-Orioles game. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon is on the mound to close out the game and the Red Sox playoff berth. Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds strike out, leaving the Orioles down to one out left.

That brings up Chris Davis, the team's third baseman and a midseason acquisition from the Texas Rangers. Davis laces a double to right field.

There's something. Then No. 9 hitter Nolan Reimold takes one deep to right-center field that bounces over the fence for a ground-rule double to tie it up at 4-all. At the least now, there's extra innings after the blown save.

But it wasn't ending there -- leadoff hitter Robert Andino singled to left field just out of the reach of Carl Crawford. Reimold was waved home to the plate. Crawford -- who had signed a deal to leave Tampa Bay to play for the Red Sox -- fired to the plate, but he was not in time to cut down Reimold.

The Orioles had done it! They had done it for themselves and for the Rays. Now it was up to Tampa Bay to take care of business.

But down 7-6 in the bottom of the ninth, it wasn't feeling good. Still, where the hell is Mariano Rivera?!? He should be out there finishing this!!!

Cory Wade was the newest pitcher to come into the game for the Yankees to close out the game. He got Zobrist to pop out and Kotchman to ground out. There was one more obstacle in the way -- Dan Johnson. Three years earlier, he had come up in a pinch-hitting role against Boston and hit a September home run against Papelbon to help lead the Rays to the win and ultimately clinch their first American League East title.

Now he was being called on in a pinch-hitting duty to do something again. The count got to 2-2. Then Wade grooved one inside the strike zone. Johnson crushed it. It was only a matter of whether it would stay fair or not.

It did. Home run! Tie game!! Oh, my goodness, this really is happening!

An hour really goes by and nothing happens. It's now just after midnight -- 30 minutes before deadline -- and the game is in the bottom of the 12th inning. The Yankees were on their 11th pitcher of the game, Scott Proctor. He struck out Upton swinging, bringing up Longoria. He worked the count to 2-2. Somehow, I knew something was going to happen, whether it'd be a double, maybe a home run. I felt like it was "time" for something amazing to happen.

Sure enough, on the next pitch, it did.

When Longoria's bat met ball, I thought it was a line foul at first. But the way the ball was travelling,  a low line drive, I figured at best it would be a one-hopper off the wall. However, visiting that ball park a number of times, I always noticed that short cutout in the wall between left field and the left field foul pole. Never thought in a million years it'd come into play.

But when that ball disappeared over the fence on the right side of the foul pole, I ... literally ... lost ... it!

I'll never forget Dwayne Staats' call of that shot: "Two-two and a line shot down the left field liiiiiine ... THAT BALL IS GONE! AND THE RAYS WIN IT! A LINE DRIVE HOME RUN BYEVAN LONGORIA AND THE RAYS STORM THE FIELD!!"

"YEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!! PLAYOFFS, BABY!!!"

They could have heard me in Crescent City and I didn't care. The Rays had pulled off the absolutely impossible and helped finish off one of the greatest collapses in Major League history. The Red Sox had a 99.4 percent chance of making the playoffs as of the beginning of the month. Now they were going to sit home and watch the playoffs as the Rays got the wild card.

All my Facebook friends who thought the Red Sox were a lock to make the playoffs went suddenly silent. For a long time, too.

It was a very good night to say the least. The Rays had ended what was an absolutely horrible start to my day. It made it worth getting through in the end. And something I won't ever forget in my life.

The next day after that, I took the car back to Enterprise, they drove me home, I met Troy, who drove me to one of our local auto supply stores to get a belt for $46. But he didn't have the tool to get the belt in. Thankfully, one of our Daily News carriers, Don, knew a lot about cars. He and his son would eventually come over on Saturday morning, October 1, to get that belt on because they had the tool that poor Troy didn't. And for my gratitude they got the problem fixed, I took both Don and his son to our local eatery, Angel's, for lunch because they asked that.

And Troy would be happy -- even though he was frustrated for not getting the car fixed, I was a man of my word and bought him an 18-pack of beer ... just like he asked. He did everything he could up until fixing it.

Unfortunately, my mom wouldn't do so well after I got her on the plane in New Jersey. She had a stroke in November 2011 and it was also figured out she had ongoing dementia, which would ultimately claim her life in February 2014.

For as long as I live, I will never forget that Wednesday when baseball ended its season without any football interference. To this day, many call it the greatest day of baseball ever.

I'd agree with that. After what I went through in the morning when I had one job to do and barely did it, it was well worth the ending.