Bill Lea dropped a bat in his son Matt’s hands as soon as the Mississippi boy could swing it.
And when Matt, maybe 4 or 5, got a good hit off his dad — well, that just wasn’t right. So Bill decided, right then and there, to show Matt how a pitcher would react from the mound.
The next toss came high and inside, clipping Matt, who ran inside to Mom.
Bill, his own memory clouded by Alzheimer’s disease, laughed at his son’s retelling: “I taught him early.”
Bill saw Matt through T-ball, Little League and competitive ball. He taught his son about pitch counts and player positioning, and he took Matt to his first ballgame at a minor league stadium. They saw the Jackson Generals.
“That’s the story growing up: playing baseball with your dad, playing catch,” Matt said. “Those memories are the ones you cherish forever.”
This weekend, they’re crossing the ultimate item off their baseball bucket list: a trip to the College World Series.
Matt, 36, surprised his dad with tickets to see the Mississippi State Bulldogs play in Omaha; video of the surprise went viral on Twitter. It’s one lasting memory Matt hopes to share with his dad, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s seven years ago.
“He’s created memories for me, and now it’s my turn to create some for him,” Matt said.
Baseball is part of the Lea family’s fabric.
Bill played catcher during his freshman year at Mississippi State before transferring to the University of Mississippi, where he finished school.
Dad jokes about his “blazing speed” as a base runner, Matt said.
“He always said he could stretch a lot of doubles into singles,” Matt joked.
Bill sometimes pulled out his old yearbook to show Matt photos of himself in uniform. One shows Bill sandwiched between two other players, with “State” emblazoned across his jersey; “fall, 1961” is scrawled in pencil above the newspaper clipping.
Seeing his dad in the college uniform gave Matt something to aspire to.
“Baseball was our connection in life,” Matt said. “It was the first thing that we did together.”
Matt played baseball at a junior college in Mississippi and later at a Division II school in Alabama. He finished school at Mississippi State after a knee injury sidelined him. Bill told his son that it was a life lesson and that he would have to play the hand he was dealt.
The Lea family started seeing glimpses of Alzheimer’s in Bill several years ago, said Bill’s wife, Betty Lea. When telling stories, he would become forgetful, often mixing up names. Sometimes, he would blend two stories together. Betty recognized the signs after seeing Bill’s older brother battle the disease.
Seven years ago, she got Bill to a doctor, who gave him an official diagnosis and medication.
“It’s just critical that our family pulls together and makes memories now before we lose it completely,” Betty said. “I appreciate Matt taking the time to give this to him and Bill.”
Bill’s short-term memory is fading. He sometimes has trouble recognizing people he knows. At times, he struggles to find the right words to express himself.
“Some days are good. Some days are bad. You just kind of ride it out,” Matt said. “You enjoy the good times. You laugh at the funny times.”
Catching a College World Series game has been on the duo’s to-do list, but each time they tried making that road to Omaha, other conflicts came up.
As the Bulldogs fought back from a rocky start to the season, Matt hoped this was the year.
Once they clinched a berth in the CWS, Matt got to work organizing a trip to Omaha. (Matt, a father of two, cleared it with his wife first.) He booked a hotel, bought tickets, mapped his route and arranged everything with his mom.
Matt, who lives in Florida, made a trip to Flowood, Mississippi, on Wednesday to pick up his dad.
When Matt showed up, Bill, 75, got off the chair where he was eating corn on the cob to give his son a hug. For Father’s Day, Matt said to his dad, they would watch the Bulldogs’ game. His dad, of course, assumed that meant on television.
As Matt handed his dad a new Mississippi State T-shirt — and peeled off dad’s Ole Miss hat — Matt said they could do better. They would go see the Bulldogs in person.
“Really?” Bill asked. “Golly.” He paused and looked down. “Break my heart here.”
They loaded up Matt’s Honda on Thursday morning. Bill was sporting a Bulldogs shirt and cap; Matt made sure no Ole Miss gear made the trip. They had their beverages of choice — water for Matt and Coke for Bill — along with peanut butter crackers and Nutty Buddy bars. They replenished their drinks and snack supply — more peanut buttery goodies for Bill — along the way.
“He’s probably got peanut butter in his veins instead of blood,” Matt said.
Matt bought the VIP fan experience for opening weekend. They will watch Mississippi State take on Washington at 7 p.m. Saturday from their seats at TD Ameritrade Park.
Friday after they arrived in Omaha, father and son — both decked out in Bulldogs gear, khakis and tennis shoes — headed down 10th Street from their Old Market hotel toward the stadium. They stopped to check out Gene Leahy Mall, posing for a picture in front of the Omaha skyline, and another of dad near the promenade leading to Heartland of America Park.
As they approached a crowded patch of sidewalk, the two walked single file. Bill gently brought his right hand up to Matt’s back until they navigated the congested stretch.
It was a quiet walk as they strolled through Baseball Village and around the ballpark. Closer to the stadium, they were stopped by fans who recognized them from Twitter and local news. They shook hands, chatted and took a few group photos.
“We’re having a lot of fun,” Bill said.
Being at college baseball’s marquee event in person is no comparison to watching it on TV. It means even more experiencing it together, Matt said.
“Just talking about it makes your hair stand up a little bit.”