It’s crazy how much we take after our role models. It’s unfortunate that you sometimes don’t fully understand their impact and the similarities between you until those people are gone.
My grandfather passed away early Sunday morning. Ramiro Blanco was 91 and thankfully passed away peacefully. He had a few ailments that came with old age, including prostate cancer, but it was just his time.
He was at peace with that. And so is the rest of the Blanco Family Circus, as we so lovingly call ourselves.
If we’re a circus, Abuelito, as he was known by his five grandchildren, was our ringleader.
He lived an incredible life. Born in Guatemala in 1930, he lived there until 1959, when he immigrated to the United States and met his wife, Maria. We call her Abuelita. They married in 1960 and raised their three children in Takoma Park, Md., starting our family.
Our family of which he was the patriarch. We all looked up to him. His three children and their spouses. The five grandchildren, or “nietos” as he called us, who he was the most proud of. The two most recent additions in my cousin’s wife, Kailey, and my fiancé, Megan. Even Abuelita, who was always by his side.
He was always the one to raise a glass for a toast at family gatherings. The one who sat at the head of the table. The one we all looked to for advice. Or to just hear him tell a story.
He and Abuelita were the first ones to arrive at a party and the last ones to leave. They were the first ones on the dance floor and the last ones off it.
For family gatherings, he was the one to hand you a glass of scotch the moment after he greeted you with a hug. He was the one to play his Frank Sinatra records on repeat.
Abuelito’s punctuality was always a running joke in the family. He and Abuelita would always arrive early, so 2 p.m. really meant 1:45 p.m. for them. You always had to be prepared for their early arrival.
They also usually left early, or whenever Abuelito was tired and ready to go. Whichever came first. He would put on his coat and hat and pace by the door, signaling that it was time to go. When he was ready to go, it was time to go.
Fitting that’s how he passed as well.
But his infectious loving spirit lives on in all of us, especially the five nietos. My cousin Andrew has that patriarchal characteristic that comes with being the oldest. My cousin Tommy has his love of music. My sister Nicole has his sense of humor. My cousin Grace has his love of family, friends and food.
As for me, I have his love of sports.
Growing up in Guatemala, he obviously was a huge soccer fan. But he also loved baseball by following his beloved Yankees. A fandom he passed down to me.
I know, I know. “You grew up a Yankees fan?! How?! Why?!”
Let me explain.
First of all, I grew up an Orioles fan and am now a Nationals fan, when I’m not covering the teams for work. As a kid, I would watch Yankees games with Abuelito and he would tell me about all the great players he grew up watching and all the championships they won. And sports were something we bonded over. So, yes, I grew up sort of a Yankees fan.
Of course, one of my worst memories as a Yankees fan was the 2004 American League Championship Series. I was in seventh grade and the only one in school rooting for the Yankees. For Abuelito. The rest of the kids were sick of the Yankees winning, so they all wanted the Red Sox to win, even though they weren’t actual fans.
The Yankees went up 3-0. I probably gloated.
The Red Sox won four straight to pull off the biggest comeback in baseball history. Everyone else gloated. Toward me.
Kids can be mean. But that’s OK because I had Abuelito on my side. “Ask them how many championships the Red Sox have,” he would tell me to say. “Then say, ‘Twenty-six,’ ” referring to the then 26 titles the Yankees had as a franchise.
He always knew what to say. Quick with a comeback.
If it’s any consolation, that fandom skipped a generation because my father, Ramiro Jr., hates the Yankees. Can’t stand them. And for me now, that fandom is more like me not actively rooting against them.
But think of the teams Abuelito saw growing up. The Yankees won 24 of their 27 World Series titles during his lifetime. He caught the tail end of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig’s careers and possessed commemorative signed baseballs from each of them. He remembered Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle vividly. I’m sure he bragged to my dad about Reggie Jackson’s postseason success during his Yankees glory years in the 1970s, especially since Mr. October had just left the Orioles to don the pinstripes. And he and I loved watching the teams with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada together.
My dad was able to put his hatred for the Yankees aside at times. He took Abuelito to Game 4 of the Subway Series in 2000 at Shea Stadium. Jeter hit a leadoff home run on the first pitch of the game. He then tripled leading off the third inning and scored on the next batter to give the Yankees an early 3-0 lead. Rivera locked down the save for a 3-1 series lead. The Yankees won their third straight championship the next night. Jeter was named World Series MVP.
Abuelito loved Jeter. He would always point to The Captain as an example of true leadership. He made sure my dad and I knew that.
I was a senior in high school when the Yankees won their last World Series in 2009 and he bought me an authentic pinstripe Jeter jersey. No name on the back. He never understood why Yankees fans had jerseys with players’ names on the back. I certainly wasn’t going to have one.
I also have hats from all three of those late 1990s championships. He would buy himself one and one for me as well. He loved wearing those hats. Even in places he probably shouldn’t have.
Our more recent baseball memories were as simple as putting the game on when we would get together during the season or going to Yankees-Orioles games at Camden Yards. I was a few years into my career at MASN, so I was able to get him good seats.
There was the time his younger brother, Antonio (Tono), visited from Guatemala. Another Yankees fan. There was another time when his niece (my cousin), Taty, visited from Guatemala. Another Yankees fan.
The Yankees are popular in Latin America.
One of my favorites though was a time with just me, him and my dad. Just the three of us. It was a Saturday afternoon game and I had to work, but I was able to get them club level seats. We told Abuelito that he shouldn’t wear one of his Yankees hats and to just wear blue if he wasn’t going to wear Orioles gear. He waved us off and wore the 2000 World Series championship hat anyway.
They got to their seats and I was able to join them for a couple of innings. The Yankees won and Abuelito walked out of Oriole Park with his head held high, smiling ear to ear.
Who was going to taunt a little old Guatemalan man, who enjoyed the company of his son and grandson more than the result of the game? A great memory for the three of us.
His fandom reached other sports, too. He loved watching Premier League soccer with his morning coffee and calling my dad seconds after a goal was scored. He admired the Brazilian national team and rooted for them every World Cup. I got him the iconic yellow jersey for the 2010 tournament after he got me the Jeter jersey.
“Soccer is The Beautiful Game,” he would say, “but nobody plays it like the Brazilians.”
After moving to the states and having children, Abuelito rooted for the local teams that my dad grew up supporting. He latched onto American football and picked his team: the Raiders. When my dad was a kid, the Raiders were one of the best teams in the NFL and they were always the 4 p.m. nationally televised game, right after the Redskins game locally. They also had a quarterback, Ken Stabler, who was left-handed.
It was easy for Abuelito, a fellow southpaw, to take a liking to the silver and black. That’s a fandom my dad could get in on and then pass along to me. Yes, we’re still diehard Washington Football Team fans. But if they’re not on, you can catch us yelling, “Just win, baby!”
Fitting that our two teams played each other on the day of his passing. There were no losers Sunday.
If I get you for our family secret Santa gift exchange, you’re probably getting something sports related. A few years ago I got my abuelos as a couple. Abuelito got a No. 12 personalized Raiders T-shirt, Stabler’s number. Abuelita got a personalized No. 5 Washington T-shirt for the five nietos.
Sports are the gifts that keep on giving.
Abuelito’s last gift to me was one of his most prized possessions. During the last one-on-one dinner I ever had with him, he bequeathed me his collection of Yankees World Series pins. All 26 of them. The company he collected them from stopped making them in the mid-2000s, so he couldn’t track down the one from 2009. I hope to find it one day, and any more that come.
Abuelito’s everlasting gift is his love for me and our family. He was so proud of every one of us. He was so proud of my accomplishments in academics and athletics. He was so proud when I graduated from Gonzaga College High School in downtown D.C. He was so proud when I graduated from the University of Maryland. He was so proud when I got my full-time position at MASN and covered the Nationals’ run to the 2019 World Series title.
“Now you know what it feels like to be a champion,” he said to me, “like the Yankees!” Always had to give his beloved Yankees a plug.
He was so proud of the man I have become. And I’m proud to be the man I am because I’m so much like him. Our personalities and our values are so alike: Love, compassion, loyalty and joy. Those are just the ones off the top of my head.
I’ve heard numerous stories about him over the years and even more so over this past week that made me think, “Hey, that sounds like me!”
I have his taste for coffee, scotch and grilled foods. (I’ve been drinking coffee since I was 3 because of him. No joke. At least it wasn’t scotch at that age.) His ear for the sound of Sinatra singing and his moves on the dance floor. His longing to be on a beach standing at the edge of the water.
I even have his name in a way. Not his actual name though. He’s Ramiro Blanco Sr., and my father is Ramiro Blanco Jr. My dad did not want me to be Ramiro Blanco III (to avoid record keeping confusion), so I’m Robert Blanco. I got his initials with no middle name just like the two of them. It’s oddly one of the things I inherited from him that I cherish the most. A naming tradition I intend to pass along with my future children.
Coincidentally, the one thing I didn’t inherit from him was the Spanish language. I never fully grasped that fluently. I understand it better than I speak it. But I moreso blame my dad for that.
It’s a shame that he passed away during the holiday season. But we take solace in the fact that his anniversary is the day before the anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s passing. We like to think Grandpa invited Abuelito up for a scotch and cigar party, and he just had to go. They’re raising their glasses together.
I’m grateful for the 29 wonderful years I had with Abuelito. I’m grateful he left a lasting impression on everyone he met. I’m grateful I had time with him the night before he passed. I’m grateful he wasn’t alone when he passed and didn’t suffer. I’m grateful for all of the memories and love I’ll always have. I’m grateful he got to see Megan and I get engaged. And I’m grateful for all the kind words I’ve received from friends and family who have reached out during this difficult time.
So as you gather for your own parties and celebrations this holiday season, be sure to hold those you love closely and continue to spread the joy of those who are no longer with us. Their spirits live on through us. I truly believe that.
To anyone else who has lost someone special this year or is just going through a difficult time, I hope you know you’re not alone. It’s a magical time of year and people care. I wouldn’t be able to get through this without the support of family and friends. I hope you don’t have to go through it alone, either.
Raise a glass, smile, laugh and enjoy. That’s what Abuelito did. That’s what he would have wanted. That’s what I want.