By the time June of 1993 came around, I thought I had experienced every kind of loss that a 21-year old kid can be hit with. For two long years the war in my home country of Croatia kept finding new ways to take away most everything that I held dear and I had reached the point where I couldn’t really feel the sadness anymore. I couldn’t cry anymore. Much like the taste buds going numb after too much spicy food, my ability to feel heartbroken again was gone.
Then came a cloudy Tuesday morning and my father’s hand on my shoulder, waking me up with the words I will never forget: “Dražen Petrović got killed in a car accident.”
In a world seemingly without anything left to collapse, everything did. To this day I remember the feeling of emptiness and hopelessness, I remember crying and I remember feeling my heart break over a loss of a basketball player I had never met. I mourned not the man, not even the athlete, but the hope that everything is possible. I was crushed over a loss of a pride I undeservedly felt every time he would score a three-pointer against the best the NBA had to offer, making me feel as if it was me, too, that could play overseas. He led the way, he showed Europeans they can compete if they work hard and believe in themselves, and Europe watched, admired and hoped.
And then everything was gone.
This morning, the life of Seattle Mariners outfielder Greg Halman of the Netherlands came to a sad end. And while the tragedy of it is felt the most within his family and close friends, once again this is more than a death of a promising athlete. While baseball’s popularity in Europe cannot match that of basketball, Greg Halman’s role was very much similar to the one his Croatian counterpart played some 20 years ago.
He gave European baseball both pride and a sense of legitimacy. His success made kids train harder and it gave the aspiring youngsters that same hope that perhaps one day they can follow his footsteps. Even to those who knew they would never make it to the majors, not even to the minors, it gave the satisfaction of knowing that they are a part of a big family that helped launch one of “theirs” to the show. A kid who grew up where they did and played on the same fields they did was now collecting his hits against the likes of Justin Verlander, C.J. Wilson and Ryan Madson.
Once again, everything seemed possible.
Baseball had a great 2011. It was the year of the game 162. It was the year of the incredible comeback in the sixth game of the World Series. But, somewhere in the background, quietly, it was also the year of European baseball. Greg Halman and Alex Liddi of Italy, two European-born and raised position players made it to the major leagues, something not too many would have bet on only a few years ago. The Dutch went on to win the 2011 Baseball World Cup for the first time, upsetting Cuba and positioning Rob Cordemans as perhaps the best pitcher never to get a shot in organized baseball. Six additional European teams were announced as participants in 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Things seemed to be as good as they can. Until this morning.
The loss of Greg Halman shook the closely knit European baseball community to the core and took away one of its guiding stars. When disbelief and shock give way to sadness and remembrance and when the time comes to move on, Halman’s legacy will clearly be the one of achievement, not of the promising career cut short. He will forever be someone who showed the way to what we hope will be many to come, and nobody can ever take that away from him.
When Dražen Petrović’s car got leveled by a stray truck, a 14-year old kid was relentlessly working on a jump-shot in a gym some 100 miles away from the place of the accident. It was only his second year playing basketball and while he still had numerous obstacles to fight, doubt was not one of them. He knew by then that Europeans can play in NBA and that his dream is not an impossible one. That kid’s name was Dirk Nowitzki, and that jump shot turned to be a pretty good one. When, in 2005, Dražen’s mother met Dirk, she told him that watching him was like seeing her son again.
Here’s to Greg Halman and to his dear ones finding the strength to deal with the tragedy. And here’s to that kid playing on a sandlot somewhere in Europe, the one who will use the inspiration he provided and make it big. And who will make us fondly remember how a young man named Greg Halman made us believe.