In August, Tom “Porky” McDonald will fly from New York to the Triangle with the remnants of his boyhood pal packed in a empty bottle of Advil – a friend carrying out the last leg of a watery pilgrimage.
For the past eight years, McDonald has borne the ashes of Roy Riegel – who tore up second-base on the schoolyards of Queens – to ballparks around the country. They watch a few innings together until McDonald, 56, carries his chum to the restroom and, without fanfare or eulogy, flushes him down the stadium toilet.
This tribute to Riegel, a long-suffering Mets fan who died in 2008, has played out in public restrooms from Minneapolis to Kansas City, from Baltimore to Atlanta – a journey to the infinite down a pipeline soaked with recycled Bud Lite. The final stop on this posthumous tour of baseball latrines: Durham Athletic Park, setting for the movie “Bull Durham,” where Crash Davis instructed rookie Nuke LaLoosh not to let the fungus grow on his shower shoes.
“It’s so ridiculous, so bizarre,” said McDonald, a retired New York transit worker, “that I know he’d be roaring.”
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If this send-off seems tasteless, understand that Riegel not only spent a life in ardent Mets fandom but also earned his living as a plumber, a crackerjack with crescent wrench. Having a handyman for a friend more or less requires toting his earthly remains to waterworks fit to handle bladders by the tens of thousands.
“I never paid for plumbing,” said McDonald, a nod to his friend’s generosity. “Six pack of Michelob and we’re good.”
Something of a wild man, Riegel expired at 48, leaving McDonald waiting in the stands of Shea Stadium on Opening Day, unaware that his partner in fan futility had quaffed his ultimate ballpark brew. Only after the game’s finish did he learn that Riegel had died, and he wrote a poem to mark his sad passing – one of thousands in his collection of baseball verse.
I came home, joyous and reflective;
As if to once more plant the seed;
Then I heard you kept on sleeping;
A final opener, indeed.
The New York Times last week chronicled McDonald’s quest for poignant scattering spots after he obtained some of Riegel’s ashes from his family:
“He rubbed the ashes tenderly into the asphalt of the schoolyard at Public School 70 in Astoria, where the two had played pickup baseball, football and roller hockey,” Times reporter Corey Kilgannon wrote. “He smudged them proudly onto a marker on Lower Broadway commemorating the city’s ticker-tape parade for the Mets after their 1969 World Series victory. He dusted them onto Shea’s original home plate location, which is designated by a marker in Citi Field’s parking lot.”
While on his stadium tour, McDonald devised the toilet strategy after finding outdoor parks too windy and indoor diamonds too sterile for a burial. In Toronto, he stayed in a hotel built inside the Blue Jays’ stadium, honoring his friend from the privy inside. Always, he is careful to keep a flush between burials at sea and calls from nature.
“There’s kind of a warped sense of humor where I grew up,” he said.
But Durham’s field, where the Bulls played through 1994, will mark Riegel’s only minor league resting place – a nod to the team’s century-long tenure and the suggestion of a grammar school friend Charlie Corr who relocated to the Triangle.
“The Bulls?” McDonald asked. “How many minor league teams can you name that’s been a team forever? We’ll shoot for 10 in the morning. I don’t think they’ll have a problem. We’ll do the bathroom part because that’s part of the deal. I’ll ask them if I can put some down by second base because he was a second baseman.”
Bulls General Manager Mike Birling said the team hopes to honor the New Yorker’s request for flushed interment. I consider this a mark of our hospitality, a recognition of how deeply fandom can run – indeed, into the ground we walk upon and the rivers we swim. Consider the Chicago Cubs, who forbid the spreading of ashes at Wrigley Field despite the countless spiritual deaths that have stricken spectators in its stands.
McDonald said he plans to keep his final flush simple, no readings or speeches. But if I am fortunate enough to attend this ceremony, I will close my eyes as the water circles and imagine a ballpark organ playing a jaunty version of “Taps,” a thousand hands clapping along.