A last goodbye…

We all love the game of baseball, writes Rob Jones. But like most sports, perhaps its greatest value is to bring us to like-minded individuals who also love the game of baseball. And then, by sharing it with them, our experience is enriched ten-fold.

That is where we come to Kal Dimitrov. However much fun I have had playing baseball over the past 12 years, it was always made better by having Kal there.

Kal in action at the Hunlock Series, 2009

Until the moment when we suddenly lost him on Sunday July 5th, he had been his ebullient self, encouraging, joking, cajoling, and always giving his all for his team-mates. That is how we must remember him, although the shock of his passing will stay with us all for a very long time. For his family, it will never go away.

I joined Herts baseball club in 2003, after following the game for a couple of years and thinking that even a skinny dude like me could give this a go. Kal Dimitrov and his brother Aspi were already there. It seemed to me that they were veterans at the heart of the club, but in fact they had arrived only the year before. Perhaps that shows the impact his presence had.

Kal was welcoming and friendly. It was one of his gifts that he would treat you in exactly the same way if he had just met you, or if you were a life-long friend. There was no reserve; you never felt there was a hierarchy, an inner circle you had to break into.

His openness was a quality of great benefit for the youth players, who immediately took to him. And for new adult recruits. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who didn’t immediately take to Kal.

He encouraged me in my baseball endeavours, as he did so many others. He would always support you on a bad day, and reward you on a good one.

Kal himself tended not to play at the very highest level of the club. And he might give you the impression that, well, he was just a chancer, a journeyman. Yes, maybe he might admit that he had a few baseball chops, but he’d insist that really he was just out there busking it.

In fact, he played one of the toughest positions, as catcher, and did it consistently well. I have tried it myself a bit this season, and he was one of the players I had learned from.

And he could instantly and correctly tell when you were swinging too early, or failing to snap your wrist on the throw, or fielding too shallow to give yourself time. Or that you had overrun a fly ball, a slightly random memory I know I once related in this column.

Even amateur baseball players can be pretty precious about themselves. But when he gave you these tips, you never prickled at criticism. Instead, you knew you were being helped.  The notion of anybody being offended or irritated by Kal’s advice seems absurd to the point of being laughable.

I have played with the Raptors or Eagles at the Single-A level for some time now, happy to take part in the handful of games my life allows, and happy to coach new guys who have just started baseball. For most of those years, we have been trying to get Kal to come and manage the team as we knew he was perfect for the job.
In 2015 he proved that we were right, and I can be forever grateful that I had the chance to work so closely alongside him this year as his co-manager. To be honest, he did all the hard work, because he was the powerhouse and the life-force. I was just his glamorous assistant.

Although I knew almost immediately I would need to write my own tribute to Kal — it is, after all, what I do — I have been putting it off. Partly that is because of the same finality which hurts us when we lose someone too soon.

Until that moment, there is always more you can do for that person and with that person, and more chances to let them know you love them. Similarly, with this, you always hope that a better phrase will come to you, a better memory to encapsulate what someone did for you.

But it is now time to move on, while always treasuring those memories. We must get back to the game of baseball which we love, and which brought us together in the first place.

It is hard to imagine that I will never again get to be at the ballpark with Kal. But I can feel blessed that I ever got the chance at all. Kal Dimitrov was one of the finest people you could ever hope to meet. We will miss him dreadfully.