CELEBRATING A DEDICATED DAD
University City Little Leaguers compete in memory of fallen coach, volunteer, father
By Kevin Acee
July 12, 2003
A cap hangs next to the bench of the University City Little League All-Stars in memory of coach Jerry Fort, who died Wednesday. Charles Starr/Union-Tribune
A son pitched, and for the first time his dad was not in the dugout.
A widow took a break after two days of crying.
A community, bonded by its love for one man and his son and his wife, got together for a baseball game last night.
Parents cheered and young boys played their hardest.
It felt like any other Little League All-Star game, except a hat hung in memoriam in one dugout and a moment of silence preceded the Pledge of Allegiance.
A team that had struggled through the past 48 hours stumbled through the first inning. By the time the players recovered, it was too late to win. Their season ended.
A manager marveled at his players' poise, that no one cried, that they seemed happy and proud to have shown up and shown well.
It would have been surreal had it not been so real.
"There's a grieving process all of us are going to go through," Philip Butler said as he watched the game through the lens of his camcorder. "This game maybe delays it another day."
Said Holly Richardson, another parent: "It's nice to be able to get together and show support without it being such a somber situation."
Tears will flow tomorrow on another baseball field, where there will be a memorial for Jerry Fort, a 59-year-old father of a 12-year-old boy, a manager in the Little League, active in charity in University City, a former San Diego city employee.
Fort collapsed at the start of the University City Little League All-Star team's practice on Wednesday afternoon and died there, on the field, of a massive heart attack.
At least 100 people, twice what the UC team usually drew, were at the Peninsula Little League fields in Loma Portal to show support for Jonathan and Liz Fort last night as University City played a team from Rancho Peñasquitos. "Jerry helped a lot of people along the way," said Rich Snapper, the city's personnel director, who was at the game.
"That's an understatement," said Ernie Anderson, another former co-worker.
Fort retired three years and two weeks ago after 30 years with the city. Snapper had tried to stop his assistant personnel director from leaving, offering him more money.
"He retired early simply because he wanted to play baseball with his kid," Snapper said. "And he died coaching him on the field. He was the smartest guy alive. He spent those last three years with Jonathan."
Jerry Fort was on the UC Little League board of directors. It was his job to maintain the fields. It seemed there wasn't a parent at last night's game that didn't recall driving past those fields at 7 a.m. many days and seeing Jerry with the rake or the hose or the lawnmower.
"The guy had such dedication to the kids out there," Glenn Castan, the league president said. "Really, every day he was grooming that field. He had it in pristine shape."
Richardson watched Liz Fort get a pin in Jerry's honor after the game and said, referring to Jerry, as many people did last night, in the present tense: "Jerry is a very patient, wonderful coach for the boys. He wants those kids to do so well. He is the kind of manager every parent wants for their kids."
Liz Fort received a steady stream of well-wishers during the game and at one point made her way around to greet people. She smiled often, watery eyes hidden by dark glasses.
The last two days had been a "nightmare," she said. She didn't know a person could cry so much.
But in the game there was therapy.
She clapped at every hit. She screamed when Billy Cafcules hit a home run, and she jumped up and down when Jonas Noack hit a ground-rule double that looked like it might also leave the park on the fly.
A mother of another player approached and hugged Liz, as countless others had throughout the afternoon and evening.
"You're so strong," the woman said. "I can't believe you're here. I know you're here for Jonathan."
Liz thanked her, shook her head and said, "I'm here for everyone. I'm here for myself."
Later, she said, "It's good to get back into normality, just doing fun things, being with other people."
It had been left up to Liz and Jonathan whether UC would play last night.
Word came late Wednesday night: Jonathan wanted to play, and he wanted to pitch.
Last night, Liz asked that Jonathan not be questioned, but she told the story of asking him whether he wanted to play.
"He didn't bat an eyelash," she said.
Jonathan couldn't bring himself to go to practice on the field where his father collapsed on Thursday, but he was at a team lunch yesterday.
At first, it was awkward, a bunch of 11-and 12-year-olds unsure what to say to their friend. But somewhere during lunch, everyone began to joke around. It felt normal. It was OK, and a bunch of of 11-and 12-year-olds were ready to play.
After the game, University City manager Tim Creagh said a few words about each of his players over the public-address system as he presented them their commemorative All-Star pins.
As the crowd grew quiet, Creagh told them of how Jonathan had blossomed as a player this year. He noted the win Jonathan had earned in the team's first game last week and the complete game he threw last night.
"I'm sure he thought about his dad the whole time," Creagh said.
At that, people rose and clapped and hollered and showered a son and a widow with love. Jerry Fort's memorial is tomorrow at 2 p.m., on the University City Little League major field at Spreckels Elementary School.
"That was Jerry's field," more than one person said yesterday.
Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.