Tuesday, May 21, 1996
9-year-old's little story is a big deal

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hey, look what I found. Good news. At the ballpark. Yes, our ballpark. Better than that, this is a story about the Cincinnati Reds and Opening Day that will not humiliate or defame anybody. Hard to believe, I know.

Furthermore, it's not about winning or losing. It is not provocative or controversial. It won't get anybody in hot water or on Nightline or on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Jay Leno won't find anything here for the opening monologue.

It's even - get this - a story about children who are neither troubled nor troublemakers.

The tale starts with a little boy named Christopher Harris, a third-grader and Reds fan who was struggling with cursive while Eric Davis was batting on April 1. When Christopher, a wiry kid with dishwater blond hair in a skater cut, got home from school, he watched television clips of the game he had missed that day.

He saw replays of umpire John McSherry collapsing at home plate in front of 50,000 Opening Day fans. He saw the 51-year-old man try to stagger off the field. Then he saw some Cincinnati fans boo when the game was canceled.

"He was sad - and embarrassed," says his mother, Vickie Harris. "He said he wanted to think of something to make the man's family feel better and let them know that not everybody in Cincinnati felt that way."

Didn't we all.

An ageless sentiment

The boy talked his mom out of some construction paper and hauled it off to Shawnee Elementary School in West Chester. "Christopher explained to the class what had happened," his teacher, Pat Lamas, says. "Some of the children were afraid they wouldn't know the right thing to say." A girl whose father died recently told them how she felt.

The children produced 23 hand-lettered cards "from the heart." The artwork was original. The sentiments, more or less along the lines of "I hope you feel better."

In the midst of a swarm of people who were worried about how they felt about this man's death, these kids got it right, and they figured it out without any help from Hallmark or their parents. Or, certainly, from anything they were seeing in the news.

Christopher's mother bundled up the cards and sent them off to the Reds office, asking that the cards be forwarded to "John McSherry's loved ones."

The cards went to the veteran umpire's longtime companion, Marion Doyle, and her son and daughter, who lived with John McSherry in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. She told Pat Lamas that the package arrived on "a very tough day" and that she was "touched and uplifted by their innocent thoughtfulness."

This is why if you go to the baseball game Wednesday, you may see a big group of 9-year-olds who appear to be playing hookey. They are not. They are at the baseball game in honor of Mr. John "Big John" McSherry, a good guy who loved the game.

A fitting tribute

They are there courtesy of the loved ones they tried to console.

The day John McSherry died, a fellow umpire said, "A lot of people say nice things about somebody after they died, but John was the tops. I don't think there was anybody who disliked the guy."

That nice guy got lost in the media shuffle.

So, when Marion Doyle got a manilla envelope filled with cards from a bunch of kids who seemed to understand what really happened at Riverfront Stadium on April 1, she answered back.

She sent 30 tickets to Shawnee Elementary School, enough for the whole class plus their chauffeur - moms. "This will be the first Reds game for a lot of the kids," their teacher says. It will be everybody's first VIP tour of Riverfront Stadium. Then they'll meet some of John McSherry's colleagues.

If you happen to be at the game Wednesday and hear somebody booing the umpires, I can guarantee you that the boos will not be coming from the green seats, Section 223.

Big deal. So it's just a baseball game, a bunch of kids, a nice woman. There are plenty of worse reasons to celebrate.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.