All Things Bubba

Because how can you not love a baseball player named "Bubba"?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

An Extra Home Run

This is an excerpt from a book called Haunted Baseball. I shared a different snippet before. This one is a little different. It's not really a ghost story, though some might see a hint of the supernatural in it.

Among those lost on September 11 was firefighter Kenny Marino. A lifelong baseball fan, Marino played local ball, was an avid Strat-O-Matic junkie, and rooted like crazy for the Mets. When he was killed in the World Trade Center attacks, his obituary in the New York Times was headlined: KENNY MARINO. A DEVOUT BASEBALL FAN. At the end of a memorial service for him, members of his Rescue I fire squad led a mourning procession to the organist's rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

"We used to have a running joke," says his wife Katrina Marino. "His list of favorite things. Firefighting, baseball, the kids...and then me!"

Though not a baseball fan herself, Katrina didn't really mind sharing her husband with his boyhood passion. "I was pretty easy-going about it, because it's such an innocent, sweet, good sport, you know? I encouraged it."

When it came to his favorite player, there was no contest. Kenny Marino considered himself the world's biggest Ken Griffey Jr. fan. "He followed him since he was a rookie," says Katrina. Marino had Griffey on all his fantasy league teams. The only picture in the couple's bedroom was of Griffey. When their son was born, he was given the middle name "Ken" - not just because it happened to be Marino's first name.

"He wanted it more because of that - because of Junior - than his own namesake," Katrina says with a laugh.

Early in their relationship, Katrina, then a flight attendant, flew Ken out to Seattle for a Mariner's game. Marino got to the park early to see his idol. He didn't speak to Griffey ("He was kind of quiet," Katrina explains), but he got close enough to pass the slugger a present he'd brought along for his son Trey: an FDNY

In the aftermath of the attacks, Katrina Marino "was in a tailspin. I didn't know which end was up." On September 24, she went online using her husband's account. "I just remember feeling like I wanted to connect somehow," she says. She immediately got messages from Kenny's Strat-O-Matic buddies, who saw the e-mail address and hoped it was their friend.

Perhaps that was what spurred her to send an e-mail to the Cincinnati Reds.

Ken Griffey Jr. was my husband's favorite baseball player, she wrote. If Ken Griffey Jr. could hit an extra home run for Ken, I know he will be looking down with a big grin.

"And I kinda just left it at that," she recalls. "I didn't think anyone would get it. I was just kind of reaching out in general." Katrina had no great designs on invoking any kind of spirit. "I don't really believe in the supernatural. Another life. I wasn't sure. But I thought, 'Well maybe if he sees it, or if he's around...,' you know?"

The e-mail made its way to Rob Butcher, the team's director of media relations. He showed it to Junior shortly before the game.

The 200I season was not one of Ken Griffey Jr.'s best. He sat out a third of the Reds games with injuries. After averaging nearly 50 home runs in the previous five seasons, he would hit only 22 that year. His RBI percentage drop was even greater.

In the week since baseball resumed, he was batting a mere .190. That night's game against Philadelphia seemed unlikely to turn things around: The Phillies were the only team he'd never homered against in his career. In fact, he'd never gotten a hit off them.

But in the fourth inning, having already singled his first time up, Junior got hold of a 1-0 pitch and sent it over the rightfield fence.

He hadn't been thinking of Kenny Marino when he stood at the plate, but says that "around first base, I realized what happened. I was just shocked. Things like that don't normally happen to me." More than anything, Griffey was happy for the family. He had no explanation for what he did, other than a belief that God had him hit one out for the Marinos.

Back in Monroe, New York, Katrina had been too busy dealing with the tragedy to follow the game. That day in particular had been one of the worst. "I went down into the city. We had to bring in DNA stuff [to help identify remains], like his razor, and toothbrush - whatever we could find. So I had been down there all day filling out all this awful paperwork. "

"Then I came back and the phone rang. And someone said, 'Do you know that Ken Griffey Jr.'s just hit the home run for your husband?' And I'm like, 'No! We didn't know that!' And it was pretty neat."

It gave Katrina a small ray of happiness in the midst of some very dark days.

"Everything around that time was just so...surreal. I think I said something like 'Well, I know Kenny's looking down smiling.' Because he had the biggest grin. Especially for something like that. I had a warm feeling like, I know that he saw that. I know that."

Katrina also appreciated the special home run as something her son and daughter - just one and three years old at the time - would always remember: a connection to their father, through the sport that he loved.

"He would throw balls at three-month-old Tyler," she recalls. "He couldn't wait to play ball with them. He wanted to be their coach; he wanted to teach them how to play. And I definitely feel that's one thing I haven't been able to give them," she says. She then adds with a laugh, "He might be a little angry at me!"

The Reds invited Katrina and the kids to attend a game and receive the home-run bat, but the timing was difficult. "Around that time, I didn't know if Kenny was going to be found, and flying was really hazardous.") Instead, the team sent her the bat. The following year, she met Junior for the first time at a game at Shea. "I have a picture of my kids climbing all over his back. He threw a ball with them. He's just a genuinely nice guy," she says.

Griffey had another surprise for Katrina. He still had the FDNY T-shirt Kenny had given him years earlier.

The Marinos did eventually make a trip to Cincinnati, where Junior again met with them. In 2004, when Griffey hit home run number 500 on Father's Day, he wore two armbands, one blue and one black. He sent the black one to the Hall of Fame. "He gave us the blue one, which is actually Rescue 1's color," says Katrina fondly.

The whole experience has Katrina rethinking her ideas about what lies beyond.

"I don't usually believe in that stuff, but I started kind of believing in certain things," she says. "When I went to the park and met Ken Griffey Jr. that first time, we were on the field and I remember standing out there feeling so lost. And I started tearing up. I don't cry very often. I don't usually go there. And I remember thinking, This is Kenny's moment. He knows all these guys. He would appreciate who every single person is. He would appreciate knowing all their scores and stats, and how many hits they had. And I thought, 'I hope he can see this. Because this is his moment.'"

For Griffey, the homer he hit for Kenny Marino will be "in the top five" of all his dingers.

"This situation is bigger than baseball," he says. "There's not a day that I don't think of [the family]. He risked his life for other people. That's a hero. What I do, I just play baseball. I'm not a hero."

When Griffey sent the armband on Father's Day, his mind was on the Marino children. "I was thinking about their father that they lost. I don't want them to ever forget that."

For Katrina, the story is not about her, and not about Griffey. "It was more like giving something to Kenny. This is for you. Maybe he could see that, enjoy it, and appreciate it. It was more for him than it was ever for me. Just knowing the satisfaction that if Kenny was watching, he would see it."

Tonight, Katrina Marino and her children will be at GABP:

9/11 REMEMBRANCE: On Tuesday, the Reds will host Katrina Marino and her kids, Kristin, 9, and Tyler, 7. On Sept. 25, 2001, Ken Griffey Jr. dedicated a home run in honor of Kenny Marino, husband and father, who was a Rescue 1 firefighter and died in the Twin Towers tragedy. Tyler will throw out the ceremonial first pitch and Griffey will catch it.

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posted by BubbaFan, 8:01 AM

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