Talking story, Genuine Curiosity and Baseball

“There are many kumu (teachers) and kÅ«puna (elders) who know much more than I; as charted by their own life’s course, they may tell you of more insightful experiences. I encourage you to listen to the stories that are shared by elders, for their lessons learned can inspire you, and may enrich your own understanding.”

Managing with Aloha, page 19

Yesterday I received a wonderful May Lei from Dwayne Melancon. He wrote a very generous recommendation for Talking Story on his own blog, Genuine Curiosity – great name, don’t you think?

I read what Dwayne had written for a second time this morning, and it reminded me of a nice experience I had on Saturday afternoon at my son’s ballgame talking story with a kupuna (elder), Mr. Rivera.

Zach’s game was at the Ka‘u ball field. There are two short stacks of bleachers there, but no dugouts, so each team normally camps on the bottom rows of the bleachers. To give them their own space, all those who come to watch the game bring our own canvas beach chairs to perch on the hillsides behind the bleachers. With the normally bright Ka‘u sun, we usually have the better end of the deal sitting in the shade of the trees with great views of the field.

When I first spotted Mr. Rivera he was getting comfortable on a patch of grass about twenty feet away from me. He was dressed way too nicely for a ballgame, with a crisply pressed aloha shirt, dress shoes and slacks, so I didn’t expect him to stay too long and turned my attention to the game. However he was still there at the end of the second inning, and I noticed him again as he shifted to get more comfortable. I started feeling that I shouldn’t be the one with the canvas chair while an older man sat on the ground, and I offered my chair to him.

At first he declined, but at my insistence he took it, settling in gratefully. I sat down in the grass next to him at his left, and it didn’t take long at all for Mr. Rivera to start talking story.

I never would have guessed it just by looking at him, but turns out that Mr. Rivera was all of 95 years old, and he was there to watch his son at the game — the home plate ump, just turned 71.  Full rich lives, far from over.

Mr. Rivera has a passion for baseball, and he told me about his own playing years in plantation Hawaii, when the lunas (plantation bosses) would drive everyone to the ballpark in the cane haul trucks when their shifts were over, stopping at street corners to pick up their families on the way. He took his turn at coaching, and eventually he became the team manager. Much later, Mr. Rivera would be home plate ump all through his three sons’ games. He was sure to teach them much more than the rules of the game so they could once day take his place behind the plate. Things like consistency, fairness, professionalism, and how to handle unruly coaches.

Most of the time Mr. Rivera talked story without taking his eyes off the game. In his soft but certain voice he rhythmically called every play and pitch a split second before his son did, telling me his stories in the inning breaks when each team took the field. He cheered and spoke his admiration for every player having a great at bat or fielding with precision, and his delight was infectious when bases were successfully stolen. Bases loaded, the Waimea pitcher persisted, pitching three strikes for the third out, and Mr. Rivera spoke of the boy’s focus and determination with immense pride: Ho‘omau, he didn’t give up. He “won” the inning: loading up those bases before that critical moment didn’t matter. On the contrary, it created his defining moment.

I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed watching a game as much as I did Saturday afternoon with Mr. Rivera.

One of his best stories was about a playing season when attendance was particularly low at the games. His coach knew he had a great team, and he struggled to get his team better motivated when no one seemed to care about baseball enough to watch them anyway. In a flash of inspiration the coach had every player shave their heads to simply inject fun and novelty into the game, letting them play without caps in early evening games under the stadium lights. Before you knew it, more and more people came to watch, for they became known as the Bald-headed Baseball Boys. His own bald head was Mr. Rivera’s mark of distinction at school. That season’s attendance became one for the record books.

I learned some other things about Mr. Rivera and old Hawaii that had nothing to do with baseball but everything to do with the honesty and openness of talking story, even to a stranger. When I asked about his family, I learned he had been married twice, to both an older and younger sister in the same family. His first wife died at 24 when she got sick with food poisoning and the plantation doctors decided to operate, opening her up to check if they could see what was wrong.

However most of Mr. Rivera’s stories were enchanting, and he laughed at his own pleasure with the wonder of what his life has meant to him. To tell his stories was to re-live them. I got much better at asking him questions, and he’d smile at me and wait expectantly for the next one. His eyes were still on the game, but I knew his ears were for me.

Indeed, talking story and sharing our aloha with each other is a wonderful way to pass the time with someone.  Just like Dwayne says,

“After a great lunch conversation at a table full of people strangers thrown together at the conference, I commented on how cool it was that we’d had so much to talk about and share even though we’d never met before.”

“He tells me (how’s this for a cosmic nudge), ‘Yeah, I love talking story.’

So do I.”

Me too Dwayne.

Saturday was the last game of the season. Next year Zach will be at college, but I may take in another game now that I know where to find Mr. Rivera. I have a lot more to learn.

Related posts:  On Talking StoryOn Ho‘omau.