April 28, 2006

The perfect moment: Cardinal Ritter dedicates field to late coach, rallies to win game

By John Shaughnessy

The perfect moment.

For nearly all of us, there are special times in our lives when we hope that everything will be just as we dreamed.

We have that wish for births, engagements and weddings. Yet there are also moments from everyday life when we desperately want our dreams to come true.

So it was for Paige McCracken and Andrew Salmon on the afternoon of April 10, a day when they hoped that everything would be perfect for a special tribute to a man who had touched not only their lives but so many others.

On that day, 20-year-old Paige McCracken walked toward the baseball diamond of Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis. As she looked toward the cloudless blue sky, Paige felt the sun and the slight breeze on her face, and she just knew this scene would bring great joy to her father, John McCracken.

After working most of his 56 years, McCracken was supposed to begin his dream job this spring—serving as the head coach of Ritter’s varsity baseball team, a job that would let him combine his love for baseball with his passion for making a difference in the lives of young people.

Yet everything changed when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Jan. 22. Now, instead of coming to cheer her father in his first home game as the varsity head coach, Paige came to honor him as the school dedicated the baseball field in John McCracken’s name.

“It just shows how much of an impact my dad had on everyone,” said Paige, a 2004 Cardinal Ritter graduate and member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. “It’s really a special day. I think he would be really proud.”

As Paige talked, it was still 30 minutes until the dedication ceremony in which several people would comment about the tremendous influence her father had on Ritter students in his two years as a staff member and an assistant coach. The comments would bring tears to Paige’s eyes. Yet, before the ceremony, she smiled as she recalled her father.

“We were best friends,” she said as she sat at a picnic table near the field. “I was an only child. He taught me everything I know. He taught me how to play golf, and he taught me how to live life to the fullest. I was 9 when he started teaching me to play golf. It was something we would always do together.”

She then recalled one of the perfect moments in her life—the day in November 2003 when she accepted a scholarship to play golf at Butler University in Indianapolis.

“Both my parents were there,” she recalled. “We were all together. We were all healthy.”

A month later, her mother, Laura, was diagnosed with cancer. Three months after the diagnosis, her mother died. Paige acknowledges that the sudden deaths of her parents have challenged her faith.

“When we ask God to give us faith, he gives us challenges, too,” she said. “My faith has helped me through it. I’m not saying it isn’t hard to go to church, but I still do it. Faith was the cornerstone of my parents’ relationship. It’s what they based everything on for almost 30 years.”

As she looked toward the baseball field, Paige remembered one other constant in her father’s life: “He always said if he could change one life, he’d be happy.”

Andrew Salmon is among the countless people John McCracken met and changed. He was one of the nearly 3,500 people who attended McCracken’s viewing in the Ritter gymnasium in January.

Andrew is also a captain on the Ritter varsity baseball team, a 16-year-old junior who wrote an emotional tribute to McCracken when he learned his head coach had died.

Andrew began his tribute by recalling an unusual yet perfect moment with McCracken—a moment that came during Andrew’s first high school summer league game when he struck out.

“It seems like it was just yesterday when I heard, ‘You’ll be all right. Get in the weight room. You’re gonna be one heck of a ball player,’ ” wrote Andrew, a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis. “Those words didn’t mean too much then but they stuck with me. ‘You’ll be all right.’

“He loved the game of baseball but not even close to how much he loved his daughter, Paige. Much he told me of how great and beautiful she’d become. He’s one of the strongest men I know—losing his beloved wife to cancer, and being able to return to his team and show the same heart and passion he had for the game.

“The concern he showed for my behavior and my classroom achievements made me love the man. I only wish I had done more for him.”

It seemed fitting that Andrew would be the starting pitcher for Ritter on the day the field was dedicated to McCracken. It would also be the first game Andrew started as a high school pitcher.

During the pre-game dedication ceremony, Andrew and his teammates listened respectfully as McCracken’s friends and relatives talked about “a man who touched so many, a man loved by all, a man we will never forget.”

The players knew those words were true and lasting, but they desperately wanted something else besides a dedication plaque to mark this day. They wanted to win the first game ever played at McCracken Field—for the coach who had always told them to “play hard, play fast, play like a champion.”

Before the game, Andrew envisioned a perfect moment for the occasion—similar to the one that McCracken had achieved long ago when he threw a no-hitter in his first game at the University of Louisville.

“I’d like a no-hitter, a shutout,” Andrew said as he looked toward the pitcher’s mound. “I’ve thought about this day a lot—basically all the stuff he used to say, all the stuff he taught me.”

For the first three innings of the game against Broad Ripple High School, Andrew’s dream was a reality. He didn’t allow a run or a hit as Ritter took a 1-0 lead. But Broad Ripple struck for three runs in the fourth inning to lead 3-1. Tiring, Andrew still came back to keep Broad Ripple scoreless in the fifth inning. In that same inning, he doubled and scored a run to draw Ritter closer.

All the time, Ritter’s current head coach, Vince Purichia, told his team to “battle”—the same kind of approach that McCracken wanted his players to have.

“The kids were very excited to have him be the head coach,” Purichia said before the game. “I was excited to be his assistant. His death was shocking. It was so unexpected. The players have focused on what they need to do. They didn’t want to waste all the effort John had made. They wanted to play this season in his honor. This will be an emotional day.”

The emotion overflowed in the sixth inning when Ritter rallied to take a 6-3 lead that led Andrew and his teammates to pump their fists and roar with raw joy.

After three quick outs for Broad Ripple, the game ended and the Ritter celebration continued, this time more subdued, more reverent, as the full emotion of a day dedicated to Coach McCracken finally swept through the players.

“We basically did what he always told us to do,” Andrew said, his voice cracking with emotion.

They kept the faith. They stayed together. They fought through the adversity. It was almost like Coach McCracken was looking down on them, telling all of them what he had told Andrew a few years ago: “You’ll be all right.”

On a sun-kissed afternoon that McCracken would have cherished, Paige McCracken, Andrew Salmon, his teammates and everyone who knew John McCracken needed to have that feeling.

They needed that perfect moment. †

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