Next year is finally here, but a dear friend is missing

Clichés, Crash Davis counseled Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh on a “Bull Durham” bus ride through baseball’s bushes, are our friends. Learn them, know them, use them - and they’ll return your faith in kind. Sportswriters know this, but try their best to avoid clichés, and the players that favor them. It’s nothing personal, mind you., but someone who doesn’t offer a pithy observation isn’t much use to a scribe.

I’ve been thinking a lot about clichés lately, trying to reconcile with a baseball standby: “There’s always next year.” Because despite all the hope and hoopla surrounding today’s Orioles home opener at Camden Yards, my heart is heavy. I can’t help but think about one of my best friends, Barry Diffendal, who passed away suddenly last Aug. 24, way too young at 64.

Barry was a simple guy who worked in retail sales for Best Products and then Kohl’s; the only thing he disliked more than holiday shopping season and its grueling hours was two weeks of returns after Dec. 25 (“You’d think no one keeps a single gift they buy,” he’d tell me every year at Christmas. “I see the same people rushing to buy on Dec. 24 and they’re back again at 6 a.m. on Dec. 26.”). He loved Ritz crackers, Arby’s roast beef sandwiches and crab cakes - and never forgave Nabisco for stopping production of Brown Edge Wafers, a favorite guilty pleasure. He delighted in people-watching from the Boardwalk train in Ocean City, delivering some of the funniest under-his-breath comments you barely heard. He loved his family and friends, too, and I always told him he was the brother I never had. Barry was always willing to listen, and he’d do anything he could to help out a friend.

Most of all, Barry loved sports. All of ‘em. He sat in the stands at Memorial Stadium during the Colts’ heyday, when the concrete lady on 33rd Street rocked as the world’s largest insane asylum. He cheered the Orioles through thick and thin, though he never quite understood why he couldn’t get a proper fried onion on his ESSKAY hot dog. He traveled to Hershey to heckle chocolate farmers and root for the Clippers and Skipjacks. We embraced at a friend’s party the night the Ravens won their first Super Bowl in Tampa and the tears in his eyes told me how much a Lombardi Trophy meant for a faithful fan devastated by Bob Irsay’s indignant middle-of-the-night exit to Indianapolis. And when the Blast was filling the Civic Center on cold, winter nights, Barry was there behind a yellow-and-red afghan, sitting with his brother and sister-in-law, Ron and Carole. He cheered Dale Earnhardt’s pursuit of a checkered flag at Dover International Speedway, and he wept during the first race at The Monster Mile after No. 3’s death as he thrust three fingers skyward on the third lap.

Like most Baltimore sports fans, Barry had weathered his share of disappointment. And he’d always respond to a subpar season the same way. “It’s OK, bud,” he’d tell me. “There’s always next year.”

Except when there isn’t. Except when someone is missing. Except when a good friend isn’t there to enjoy it.

Barry loved opening day, whether he was watching in person at Camden Yards or nestled in his recliner with remote control in hand (he was a convert to satellite television long before it was widely popular, so he could watch all the games at the same time). It wasn’t the pomp and circumstance as much as the return of a game and a team he adored. He’d watch any game, and visited me a couple of times for spring training in Fort Lauderdale. When then-Orioles general manager Jim Beattie was waiting in the same baggage claim area for his brother to arrive one year, I introduced him to Barry. “Wow,” Barry told me, tongue in cheek, as we headed to the garage, “you must have some pull around here to get me a welcoming committee.” It didn’t matter that he didn’t know some of the players wearing uniform jerseys in the 80s and 90s by the end of the games. It was all about being there, preparing for another season, seeing the team before most of the home fans did.

Predictably, I was at the ballpark when I learned of his death. His big heart gave out in the middle of the night on the morning the Oriole Advocates hosted their Hall of Fame luncheon at Camden Yards. When his brother delivered the news, I shut down. Baseball became unimportant, even in my home away from home, a place where I’m infinitely comfortable. And for a guy who makes his living covering the sport, that rarely happens.

The last game we attended together was Dylan Bundy’s debut for Single-A Frederick in May. Harry Grove Stadium was packed as we listened to the way Bundy’s fastball popped into the catcher’s mitt and agreed that the kid had a promising future. Barry was impressed with how the O’s were playing under Buck Showalter, noting the energy on the field. When the Orioles were struggling in early August, Barry was sure they’d finally come back to Earth. He’d tell me he’d already seen the movie and knew how it ended. But that was just bluster, an attempt to deal with the frustration of a losing streak. He always had hope. Barry was an eternal optimist.

Barry didn’t live to see the Orioles’ amazing charge to the playoffs in 2012, and he would have thrust his right arm up in the air, crouching at the television and screaming, “Yes!” when they won the wild card game in Texas. He didn’t get to see Camden Yards packed to the rafters again, full of orange and black, and voices loud enough to drown out the Yankees fans he despised. He missed seeing the Ravens’ run to another Super Bowl. And when the big game in New Orleans ended, I felt empty because he wasn’t there to share the experience.

Because he donated his body to the state anatomy board, there wasn’t a viewing or funeral service for Barry. Truth be told, he probably wouldn’t have wanted the attention. Barry liked to blend in - orange in the summer, purple in the fall and winter, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. jacket and cap at the race track. He just wanted to be one of the guys, part of the crowd. At the celebration of his life, friends, family members, folks from the Woodlawn Volunteer Fire Department where Barry used to drive an ambulance hoisted hot dogs in a toast. It was a fitting tribute amid tears and laughter.

I think about Barry every day. But now that the O’s home opener has arrived, the memories have been flooding back.

I miss talking to him about sports and life over lunch. I miss hearing his voice on the phone. I miss having him pick me up at the airport when I arrive home from spring training, and his first question being, “Well, how do they look?” I miss my friend, and the idea of a season starting without him only reminds me that he’s gone. Not that I needed reminding.

For most people, the first year after a death is marked by series of firsts - the first birthday, the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas and so on. With Barry, it’s the sports-related firsts - the O’s return to the playoffs, the Ravens’ Super Bowl victory, the Blast’s recent Major Indoor Soccer League championship, and now another home opener. Each is a reminder of someone dear, someone missing, and the normally upbeat atmosphere surrounding today’s festivities is a little less joyous.

Next year is here. Barry isn’t. And it seems just as hard to comprehend now as it did in August.

Of course, Barry will be at Camden Yards in spirit, along with hundreds of thousands of devoted but departed fans. He’s probably already munching on a dog - with mustard and the good fried onions - with a Coke close by. And he’ll smile in appreciation of the long-awaited renaissance of a team he loved.

I can hear him now. “Never thought I’d see this again,” he’d grin.

I know, buddy. I just wish you were here to experience it with me. There’s already a lump in my throat the size of baseball. But I wouldn’t trade the memories of all the games and times we shared for anything. Right now, they’re all I’ve got as I check another first off the list.

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