The Adopter of the Bulls
Posted August 13, 2013
I’ve just picked up Ben Ward from his on-campus apartment at Duke University. He’s a philosophy professor and dean for student development at Duke, where he’s worked for two decades. He’s also co-founder and director of The Pitchforks, Duke’s premiere all-male a capella group. It’s not surprising that Professor Ward has amassed a huge network of student contacts over the years, but it’s remarkable just how well he nurtures these relationships. He sends out regular email updates, organizes meet-ups with alumni and invites current students to do homework and listen to music in his apartment, where more than thirty-five thousand CDs — most of them classical — line the walls. When we meet for the first time, Ward has just come back from an annual trip to the Hamptons, where he and Pitchfork alumni got together to perform and socialize.
Today, Ward and I are driving to the Bulls game together, where we’ll have a chance to meet up with a former Pitchfork who’s in town with his wife and new baby. As we approach the stadium, Ward, showing his various allegiances with an orange Bulls cap and a highlighter-yellow Duke shirt, tells me to keep an eye out for his favorite parking attendant, who Ward promises will help us find a good place to park. Sure enough, the attendant recognizes Ward in the passenger seat and waves us over to a curbside handicapped spot right in front of Durham Bulls Athletic Park, no charge.
“They all know me here,” Ward says while I remove his collapsible wheelchair from my trunk. He says this casually, but you can tell it’s a point of pride.
It’s not just that Ward is a season ticketholder and a gameday regular. He goes out of his way to get to know the players. Every year, Ward attends the Durham Bulls First Pitch Luncheon, an event at the beginning of the baseball season when the new team is introduced to fans, sponsors and the media. Ward picks one player every season — a la Annie Savoy in Bull Durham — and then walks up to his special pick to inform them they’ve just been “adopted.”
“They’ll say, ‘What’s this?’ So I tell them: that means I’ll sing your praises, that you can do no wrong. And sometimes I do banners, and sometimes I’ll bring you brownies and chocolate chip cookies,” Ward says. “And they say, ‘Yes! I love chocolate chip cookies!’”
This year, Ward’s adoptee was shortstop Tim Beckham.
“His birthday is the same day as Mozart’s. When I saw that I knew it was destiny.”
Ward burned a CD of Mozart for Beckham, and then asked Beckham to sing it back to him to make sure he’d listened. Beckham passed the test.
“He plays the CD sometimes in the clubhouse,” Ward says. “It drives his teammates crazy. He just tells them, ‘I’m sorry you’re not sophisticated enough to appreciate this music.’”
That’s one of the great things about minor league baseball, says Ward — the ability to really interact with players.
“Before the game, if I get there a little early, I get to talk to Tim. If I miss a game and I go to the next game, he says, ‘Where were you last night?’ I mean, that would never happen in Yankee Stadium or Fenway or whatever. And that just warms my heart. And I say, ‘Well, I was here,’ or whatever it was. And I always say, ‘Tonight I want at least two doubles from you.’”
In 2010, Ward was diagnosed with colon cancer. He made one decision right then — he was not going to let his illness define him. He wanted his life to go on as usual: his passion for music, his relationship with his students, his obsession with the Durham Bulls. He was determined to focus on the things he loved.
“The doctors were in the middle of explaining this long list of side effects of chemotherapy, and I said, ‘Time out, I can’t take any more of this. What I need to do is listen to Beethoven.’”
Ward told his doctors that he wanted the most aggressive treatment consistent with sound medical practice. Then he put on his headphones and closed his eyes.
“It was very clear to me that I wanted my biggest choice to be deciding what music to listen to during treatments,” he says.
This is typical Ward — a mix of assertiveness, humor and joie de vivre. And with the exception of his broad-sweeping claims about his Bulls fandom (which seem to be fully justified), he’s also extremely modest. He breezes over his accomplishments — that fact that he won a full scholarship to Yale at the age of 14, for instance, or the fact that he’s fluent in eight different languages — and it takes prompting for him to tell me about his close relationship with Coretta King and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ward grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, where he began playing piano by ear at the age of six. He soon was performing at the Montgomery Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was the minister and Coretta King sang in the church choir. Ward often accompanied Coretta on the piano, and the two struck up a friendship. When King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Ward, then ten at the time, was invited to come play at the ceremony in Atlanta. He still has a program from that night, signed by both Kings, that he keeps sealed in a ZipLoc bag.
After King was assassinated in 1968, Ward returned to Atlanta for the funeral. On the day of the church service, Coretta was informed that the organist was so distraught over King’s death that he was not going to be able to play.
“Coretta took me aside and said, ‘Ben, you have to play for Martin tomorrow.’ It was like doing my filial duty.”
Two women brought Ward to the church to meet the soloist, an hour before the service was scheduled to begin. Ward had no idea what was on the program so, adept at playing by ear, he asked the soloist to sing the first verse of the song she was supposed to perform. He was able to figure out the music just from that.
“In the first row of the church was Mrs. King and her four children and Harry Belafonte. In the second row were the Kennedys, Nixon and Humphrey,” Ward recalls. “I was only 13; I was too young to be intimidated.”
“If it happened now, I would have fallen apart.”
The first summer after his diagnosis, Ward was only able to attend five or six Bulls games. He’d stay two innings, then feel too weak and have to leave. But within a year, Ward had improved enough that he missed no more than ten games during the 2011 Bulls season. The same was true of 2012. The only reason he’s missed games this year, he says, is that he’s been traveling, visiting friends around the country.
“But the Bulls, when I got sick — the Bulls were absolutely great.”
In May of 2010, the Bulls hosted the Toledo Mud Hens in a special throwback game at the old Durham Athletic Park. Both teams wore jerseys from the 1980s, which were then auctioned off for charity. At the event, special folding chairs were presented to the commissioner and the owner of the Bulls. A chair was presented to Ward as well, signed by his then-favorite player and adoptee, Desmond Jennings.
“It was a total surprise,” Ward says. “I mean, they knew I was sick and I’d missed games and so on. But I didn’t know about it.” The chair is now a treasured possession.
“I don’t let anybody else sit on it or frankly even look at it too closely.”
Today, I wheel Ward up to the press box to watch the game. He’s never been up here, and he’s looking forward to air conditioning and free food. His hands are shaky and he needs help opening his soda can, but he’s in good spirits. A Bulls staffer comes in to grab a drink from the vending machine and notices Ward sitting by the water cooler.
“It’s about time you made your way up here,” he tells Ward, putting a hand on his shoulder. “You look good.”
I ask Ward what he likes so much about baseball, why it means so much to be able to go to games. Why, when Duke provides him with free men’s basketball tickets, does he willingly give them away to students and friends, while he hates missing a single Bulls game?
“I like that baseball is a balance between individual and collective action,” he says. “You’re alone at bat, no one can help you, but you’re trying to advance the runner. I like the fact that there’s no time limit in baseball. A game can go two and a half hours or five hours. I like that only in baseball does the manager wear the same uniform as the players. I like that there’s batting, running, and fielding, and everyone has to have some ability in all these areas. It’s the most versatile sport. I like that the atmosphere is less tense than other sports, yet you still never know what’s going to happen.”
“And,” he adds, “there’s nothing quite as exciting as a Bulls comeback.”