Let me preface this entire entry by saying that I will most likely refer to Matt and various situations in the present and future tenses at times, but I am okay with that. When I revise the piece upon completion, I will not be editing those parts. I have instructed my editors as well to please leave them be. They are not mistakes. They are lapses in my thought. I simply cannot comprehend the happenings of the last 48 hours, nor do I really want to at any point in the near future. Until next week’s games at home against the Rays, I don’t think it will hit me fully that Matt is gone. Again, I am okay with that. It makes complete sense knowing the link between Matt and myself, so let me give a bit of background on the friendship that I shared with Matt Hersl.
I met Matt five or six years ago at Oriole Park when he struck up a conversation with my friend and helped us to get season tickets in order to get into batting practice early. From the start, I knew him as nothing more than an Orioles season ticket holder trying to help some teenagers enjoy the full baseball experience. Matt was a big fan of “battin’ practice,” as he always called it. I never heard him pronounce the full word “batting.”
The next years after that leading up to two days ago are all a blur. By that I mean that I cannot tell you day by day, year by year details of how our friendship developed. It just did.
I have gotten to know Matt as a baseball fan, generous family member, and a lover of life. To be honest, I had no idea how much he accomplished for the Little Italy community and all of Baltimore before yesterday. Tweets and articles popped up about how much of a community leader and catalyst he was for change in his neighborhood and the safety of those around him, not to mention the countless boards he belonged to as a volunteer to help various causes and organizations.
Matt was the definition of a character. He had so many quirks about him, but that’s what made him Matt. The oddest moments excited Matt on a day to day basis, almost like a kid in a candy store. He would approach people in the stands at batting practice and pay them for baseballs at times because he had only caught eight that day and wanted to hit double digits. As I said in this video interview, we don’t really understand a lot of what Matt did. But that’s why he was so great.
I look forward to getting to the park every day and hearing Matt’s stories about the orange Nikes he found for only $15 even though they were women’s size six, but don’t worry, he had a family member or friend already in mind to give them to. He brought me random items like a book on the pricing of baseball cards and an Ohio State t-shirt, all because he knew they were things I had interest in. He never asked for money but would always just say something along the lines of “you’ll get me back later.” Matt gave to me much more than I ever was able to in return, but he had no complaints about it, as long as he could have his space during batting practice.
Student tickets at Oriole Park are $6 a piece for every Friday night home game. We get into games for $9 each as Orioles season ticket holders. Of course Matt was interested in $6 tickets as opposed to $9 ones. Who wouldn’t be? Over the last few years we would find ourselves making many exchanges. I would buy him three or six student tickets and he would give me two or four regular tickets, respectively, in return. Sounds even, right? Not so fast.
While Matt was getting three tickets for the price of two, he was giving me two of his season tickets for one game’s worth of tickets. That being he may have had three tickets in hand for a Friday night game, but he was only using one. He always had his brother or relative or buddy out at the game, tickets on him. Not to mention the countless times I saw Matt dealing with stacks of tickets because his whole family was coming to the game and he was paying their admission.
Matt’s bag at the ballpark over the years must have been worth hundreds of dollars at any given moment. We would catch him at times searching through his belongings and holding up piles of future tickets, $20 bills, and old giveaways. To this day I don’t believe Matt owned a wallet. Well, I’m sure he had a stack of wallets at his house from the thrift store, I just never saw him using one.
Matt was living his American Dream. His wants and goals each and every day seemed so relatively simple. If he could find some Under Armour shops at Goodwill, grab a slice at a Little Italy shop, come to Oriole Park four and a half hours before first pitch, and stay past the game ends to wander the seats looking for baseballs and assorted souvenirs, he would be content.
Matt didn’t drive. Didn’t own a car. I don’t believe he owned a bicycle. I certainly can tell you that he wouldn’t be found skateboarding or rollerblading throughout town. Though, if the Orioles had a ticket promotion where you needed to show up on a skateboard, Matt would totally take part. Not only that, he would have bought ten skateboards and given them out to others to use for the event. As much as Matt got excited by such little things, he was even more thrilled to share experiences with others.
One story I remember so well was from a week in June or July of 2010 or 2011 (seriously, it’s all a blur) when Matt decided that since ballpark concession prices were so high, he was going to cook some hot dogs at home to bring into the games. Fast forward to the next day as Matt shows up at Gate H on Eutaw Street with a ten pound bag. Matt had prepared 12-15 hot dogs, all in buns and individually wrapped in foil. He only realized when he got there that he had made too much food and didn’t feel like carrying it into the park, mostly because it would inhibit his ability to be on the move during batting practice. Matt went on to hand out hot dogs to the folks in line. One by one he went through the few little groups and offered up food to anybody who wanted. When he ran out, he not only didn’t have one left for himself, but he proclaimed that he would bring more the next day.
And that he did.
As the years have gone by, I have gone to his Little Italy neighborhood where he has shown my friends and me some great restaurants, thrift stores, and the city life. That is what I got to know him by. Whenever I wanted to find a cheap Orioles shirt or grab some authentic pizza at Di Pasquale’s, Matt was our guy. If I had questions about Orioles history, I could ask and he would have an answer on the spot for me. Any given day of the week, all I had to do was give him a call and tell him I wanted to come downtown or to any specific area and he was willing to not only show me around, but in multiple instances offered to take off work and take a bus to my location to make sure I knew how to get to the destination.
Let me make this known. I am not a typical college kid. My friends are not those of a typical college kid. I have been to three schools thus far and have never established a core group of friends at any of them. Just scrolling through my text messages, 17 of the last 20 people with whom I have spoken are older than me, most by three plus years. I semi-recently got out of a relationship with a girl who had six years on my age. I am taking a trip this weekend with my buddy, 37 years of age, and his two little sons. Matt was 45, so to think that a 20 year old would be good friends with a guy of that age difference seems odd to most people.
But it worked. It’s what has seemingly always worked for me since the end of my high school days. And as much as some days it is frustrating to realize that I don’t have a group of friends in college to hang out with or call on in a time of need, I have come to terms with who my friends are and enjoy the friendships that I have built with them as individuals.
Matt was one of them. To friends and family of mine who met him at games, it may have seemed strange that we were anything beyond two guys at the park talking baseball. It never bothered me, and I certainly don’t think it ever bothered him. Matt was friendly to everybody, and even more importantly he treated everybody equally. I can recall many situations in which Matt spoke to children, teenagers, young adults, elderly folk — and never talked down to anybody. Whether you were 12 or 84 or 47, Matt would talk to you like a regular person and never acted like he was better than anybody. Even in situations where a person less knowledgeable of the sport or any subject at hand disagreed with him, Matt was able to work a conversation and enjoy hearing other perspectives. That seems like an odd trait to brag about, but it is something very rare in a society where people want to upstage the talents and accomplishments of others whenever possible.
Matt’s phone antics were yet another one of the humorous and compelling facets of his being. I get calls from Matt before and after games, while the O’s are on the road, and even during the offseason, usually about the most minute of subjects. He calls often during the season to tell me that he called the O’s offices and they said there would be no batting practice. Or he wanted to let me know that he found a Ravens hat on the ground. Or that there was a fun event in Fells Point coming up that I should come downtown for.
His text messages were even better. Matt, unless that changed over the offseason and I missed it, had always used a flip phone. We have our Droids and iPhones and such while Matt is busy trying to figure out which number dials which letter in a text message. And his texts, albeit rare, were always written the same way; with a lot of spaces. When the Orioles announce a new bobblehead giveaway, I would get a text like New bobble head : ) . . . July 6 . . . though I may be the only one who found that to be at all comical.
I last saw Matt this past Saturday, April 6th. I was on Eutaw Street at the tent set up by the Orioles account representatives trying to sell season tickets to passerbys. Matt came by, joked that I wasn’t in the spot I told him I would be at, and said he was going to meet up with a buddy to get some tickets for the next day. Or something like that. He often rushes by, says something, and is on his way. Funny that he commented on my location when he is known for being all over the place.
I was supposed to go to the game with him Sunday morning, as he had an extra ticket and offered it to me. We were going to touch base Sunday morning. I ended up sleeping in until about 11:00 AM, at which point I woke up and saw I had a missed call from him. I called back, he told me they weren’t having batting practice, so he was going to go around gametime and probably leave around the 4th or 5th inning.
And that’s the last memory I have of Matt.
I would like to think that Matt said his goodbye to us last night in Boston, where the Orioles were taking on the Red Sox. In the fourth inning, catcher Matt Wieters hit a line drive out to left field. Rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. went to field the ball, and upon attempting to transfer it to his throwing hand, the ball slipped out and hit the ground behind him, allowing Adam Jones to score. Matt was there; he needed just one more baseball. So he took a swipe at Bradley’s glove. That explains it.
I will surely miss you, Matt. And battin’ practice will never be the same again.