MILWAUKEE — There have been so many of these trips.
The annual pilgrimages to Lambeau Field in his hometown of Green Bay, or a journey across the pond to see West Ham in London. The Kostka family vacations always revolved, in some way, around sports, be it the time my dad accidentally appeared shirtless on the jumbotron at a Seattle Mariners game because he was flipping his chocolate-stained shirt inside out or a road trip to Indianapolis to see the Wisconsin Badgers football team get trounced in the Big Ten championship game.
The frequency of these trips, though, doesn’t dim the importance of this latest one — and, if I am being honest, perhaps the final one.
My dad, Greg, has metastatic prostate cancer. We’ve known since 2014, and while we’ve successfully kicked the proverbial can down the road this long, that road could be nearing its end.
So Greg made the trek back home to Wisconsin from Maryland, where he and my mom have lived since moving east in 1986. And on the field at what we’ll always call Miller Park before Thursday’s series finale against the Milwaukee Brewers, there stood three generations of Kostkas: My 92-year-old grandpa Marvin, my dad, my brother Stephen and me.
If this is the last trip like this, there’s no better place for it to be than the stadium of a team that has played such a large role in my dad’s life.
After all, my dad is a man of many devotions: to his wife of 37 years, Jeanine; to his two sons; to our family dog, Parks — and, without a doubt, to baseball.
Over the years, Dad’s fandom has shifted. He still wore a Brewers jersey Thursday, but since we grew up in Maryland it became easier to watch the Nationals once they arrived, because they played down the street from my dad’s office. And, once I began covering the Orioles, my dad found a place in his heart for Baltimore, too.
That’s just the way Dad is. When my brother and I attended Maryland, he adopted the Terps. When I covered Mississippi State, he suddenly found himself watching the Bulldogs. He’d never seen, let alone cared, for either college before. But my dad loves us, so he found a passion for the teams his kids were involved in.
He never missed one of my baseball games growing up. He was at each swim meet, serving as a head timer. He shuttled us to and fro and found great enjoyment in watching us — even when, later in my life, watching me meant watching the teams I covered.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was a sophomore in high school. In the years since, sports of all kinds have been therapeutic — and baseball, with its 162-game schedule, has been a constant, a nightly activity that links his own youth to my present.
Perhaps this would be a better story about his return to Wisconsin if I could write how my dad was a Brewers fan since he wore swaddling clothes, but life isn’t always that way. As it is, the Brewers entered his life at the most opportune time.
My dad had just been honorably discharged from West Point Military Academy due to a retinal detachment that left him blind in his left eye. He transferred home to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and as he studied through undergrad and then law school, Brewers games were a constant companion.
He’d sit in the law library, transistor radio next to him and the single earbud in, listening to the Brewers bat. Then he’d switch it off. My dad was a self-described nervous wreck when Milwaukee pitchers were on the mound, so he’d allow five to 10 minutes to transpire before he’d flick the radio back on, hoping the Brewers were hitting again.
Not much has changed over the course of his fandom. He was a relentless pacer, passing back and forth in front of the television as my mom — then his girlfriend — tried to watch the 1982 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. Greg’s borderline obsession meant Jeanine became hooked on Milwaukee, and as she worked summers at Fort Howard Paper Co. in Green Bay, her 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shifts went more smoothly with Bob Uecker in her ears, calling the Brewers game.
Then, the next time they’d see each other, “he’d rehash pitch by pitch as if you never heard it,” Jeanine said. “He would agonize over it.”
When the Brewers fell to the Cardinals, Dad made a vow: He’d never allow a Budweiser product inside his house (which, honestly, isn’t the biggest sacrifice) as a way to stick it to the St. Louis-based beer company. And he was very serious.
He can’t pace as much as he used to because his bones begin to ache. Now, when watching the Orioles lineup slump, a rant takes pacing’s place. Parks will wag her tail nervously, and my mom will laugh at how he sounds just like he did in 1982, when the Brewers made their first and only World Series appearance.
At its core, though, baseball has always been about the connections more than the outcome on the field.
That’s why he ventured on an impromptu trip to New York City in the early 1990s with his friend Mark Synnes, a fellow Wisconsinite who also worked on Capitol Hill, to see the Brewers play at Yankee Stadium. They pulled my mom out of work early at the Food and Drug Administration, then drove up and back through the night to report to work the next day in the same clothes. They hardly slept, but it’s a memory that won’t leave them.
Even earlier, Dad found baseball as a way to connect with his family, just as he uses it now as a nine-inning reprieve from thoughts of cancer.
As my dad’s grandmother, Bernadine Hitt Andre, was dying in the hospital with an inoperable brain tumor in 1983, a bit of herself came back each time my dad walked in. He’d come and sit. She’d remember his name. Then he’d switch on the game and they would talk about the Brew Crew, or they’d just sit and listen, together, with baseball a cross-generational connection and a portal out of the hospital, away from what they all knew must come one day.
In the back of all of our minds at Miller Park on Thursday, we knew what must come. As my dad wrote recently on his CaringBridge account, the doctors “are doing their best to delay the inevitable,” but it’s resisting an irresistible force.
That’s what made Thursday so special.
For at least one final time in Wisconsin, Dad was at the game with his boys.