GARY SMITH: Missing the pitch

Busy life sometimes gets in way of what counts

Posted: September 7, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Greg Ballard may have been the nicest person I've ever met. At least the nicest I'm not directly related to by blood or marriage.

Ballard was a friend of mine. Or, more accurately, I was a friend of his, since he managed to collect friendships the way Imelda Marcos collected shoes. The old cliché holds that some people have never met a stranger and it is possible that, at least in Rogers, Arkansas, that was literally true of Greg.

And he was, genuinely, nice. Not the clinched-teeth nice that allows people to go ahead in line while forcing a smile that covers slightly less pure thoughts. And not the nice of privilege that sacrifices something of little consequence in an effort to "elevate the masses."

Greg was nice. In an old-school, rural America way. The way that scans a room to make sure all the elderly have seats or goes out in the middle of the night to help someone change a flat tire. And winds up doing all the work while the car's owner holds the flashlight.

The nice that is ingrained, not learned, and certainly not faked. Because if there was one thing he was more than nice, it was sincere.

In small-getting-increasingly-larger Southern towns, friendships tend to originate through one of three channels: your children's school, work or church. One of the three and you are an acquaintance. Two of three and you're friends. Three of three and you might as well marry into each other's families.

Since the Venn diagram of our lives overlapped on at least two of those points, we became friends. It was a mismatched friendship, at best. Greg was more approachable in his sleep than I am on Christmas Day, so as apparently was often the case with him, he wound up doing all the heavy lifting.

At first we talked about kids and work and sports and before long the exchange of stories that passes for conversation became actual discussions of life. We were both raising children, caring for elderly parents and trying to navigate a world not necessarily well-suited for us. And that put us in the same foxhole.

Circumstances change. I took a different position and moved to a new office. Our children grew, as they have a tendency to do, and that connection because more tenuous, our conversations less frequent. Life moves on, and it tends to carry you with it.

Things were not always easy for Greg. Careers are hard to manage and we're often carried along on tides over which we have no control. I can't pretend to have enough insights into his life and nature to determine just how bothered he was with those tides. But my impression was that he was, by nature, almost Zen-like in his ability to focus on what he considered important: his family, his faith and his friends. And sports. Any sports.

I also have to admit that I wasn't a very good friend. Not when we moved in different directions. Not when he faced challenges. And not when I learned he'd become ill.

We are vain, or at least some of us are, about life. We presume too much, believe our size is the one size that fits all. We think we understand what success looks like and we're not afraid to measure others against our understanding.

But as I sat in a church this week, listening to stories about my friend and theirs, seeing scores of people whose lives were touched by Greg, and who considered him their friend, I came to realize that he was as successful a man as I've ever known. And I missed my friend. And the friend I could have been to him.

A few weeks ago, I was at a baseball game. A group was at the park raising awareness for research to combat a form of cancer, and one of the group threw out the first pitch. I was a little late to the game, a bit consumed by conversation and perhaps a little preoccupied, so much so that I was only vaguely aware of what was going on.

I know now that I completely missed seeing my friend Greg throw out that pitch. And that I might not have recognized him, so affected was he by his illness.

That's what disease does. It damages and changes and warps and eventually it takes our friends from us. But I know what memory does. It carries us back to a firm handshake and a hearty laugh and good story or two. Or 12. Because Greg always had a story.

And we remember.

Commentary on 09/07/2018