Luke DeCock

DeCock: Requiem for a Pirates fan

Kay Stallings with his granddaughter Kate
Kay Stallings with his granddaughter Kate

It could have happened to anyone, any fan, at any time. It just happened to be Kay Stallings sitting in that seat.

Stallings didn’t have to stick around after East Carolina was eliminated from the NCAA baseball tournament, but it was a lovely June afternoon at North Carolina’s Boshamer Stadium, and he wasn’t the only member of the purple-clad crowd to stay behind and watch the Tar Heels play St. John’s that Sunday.

And that’s where he was, along the first-base line, when a foul ball came screaming straight into the stands. It was one of those ugly moments every baseball fan dreads, the foul ball coming into the seats on a flat line, no time to react. It hit Stallings in the face.

Badly injured, Stallings spent five days recovering at UNC Hospitals, where East Carolina baseball coach Billy Godwin brought him a Pirates jersey and North Carolina coach Mike Fox came to visit. He was in and out of the hospital all summer. Stallings lost his right eye, but by August, he was well enough to drive himself to a few high-school football games near his home in Burlington, his fandom unfettered.

Stallings had a standing offer from Godwin for a private tour of Clark-LeClair Stadium and was looking forward to East Carolina’s football opener on Sept. 1. He never made it back to Greenville. His friend Jim Brooks was planning to give him a ride, but when he called that Friday to check in, he found out Stallings was headed back into the hospital.

Two weeks ago, on Sept. 13, three months after the foul ball came tearing into the stands, Lazarus King “Kay” Stallings III died of a brain aneurysm, a complication of the injury. He was 68.

“He was on the mend for sure,” said one of his two daughters, Brooke Barksdale. “He definitely was. He had gone through a lot, obviously, during the summer, but he was feeling better. He still had some obstacles to overcome, but he was looking forward to football season.”

It could have been anyone in that seat, but it was a man who spent more than 25 years as a middle-school teacher in Forsyth County before retiring three years ago. Stallings grew up in Goldsboro, where he teamed up with his twin brother Ray on the tennis court to win the state doubles title in 1962. They were Goldsboro High School classmates of former North Carolina athletic director Dick Baddour, who was at the baseball game that June day and would later help retrieve Stallings’ car.

Though Stallings went first to Appalachian State and then Barton College on tennis scholarships, he fell in love with East Carolina when his youngest daughter enrolled there in 1992. He joined the Pirate Club in 1998 and his knowledge of players and recruits approached encyclopedic. Brooks met him years ago leaning against a fence at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, watching warm-ups, before the end zone was enclosed.

“There was a big guy warming up, throwing passes and working with the quarterbacks,” Brooks said. “He looked like an offensive lineman. Kay was standing next to me, and I asked him, ‘Do you have any idea who that is?’ ‘Yeah, his name’s David Garrard.’ Kay proceeded to give me his life history. He’d seen him in high school and knew all about him. We all know about him today.”

Brooks and Stallings became friends, and they traveled all over the East Coast going to football games along with Keith Taylor, another East Carolina fan from the Triad. Taylor went with Stallings to all three days of the NCAA baseball regional in Chapel Hill, but left after ECU lost. Stallings stayed and moved into one of the St. John’s sections. It could have been anyone in that seat, but it was him.

“I really believe if I had stayed,” Taylor said, “we would have been in different seats.”

Stallings, who never lost consciousness, would later tell friends a man his age was sitting near him with a toddler on his knee, and he was glad the foul ball hit him instead of one of the kids.

“I’ve been playing this game since I was 6, coaching 27 years, and I have seen a lot of baseballs where you go, ‘Oh my gosh, thank goodness somebody didn’t get hurt or injured,’ ” Godwin said. “Sometimes even in the dugout, balls shoot in there, and the players scatter, and when the dust settles, 99.5 percent of the time, everybody’s OK. That’s even closer than where Kay was sitting.”

Stallings is the first baseball fan known to have been killed by a foul ball since 2010, said Robert Gorman, a Winthrop University librarian and author of “Death at the Ballpark,” and the 114th to die after being hit by a foul ball or ball thrown into the stands at a major-league, minor-league or amateur game since 1862.

Part of the appeal of sports is our identification with our favorite teams and players. When a player dies, we grieve for them; when a player loses a family member, we grieve along with them. Our loyalty to our teams creates that community, and while that passion can give rise to some odd behavior, mourning typically directs it toward its best intentions.

Stallings was the kind of guy anyone could end up sitting beside at a ballgame, and he often made it a point to ingratiate himself with opposing fans. (He loved trips to West Virginia for that reason.)

“People were very interesting to him,” his daughter said. “He got along with everyone, really. He was just a super dad and grandfather.”

Our love of sports may tear us apart at times, but at times of tragedy it can also create a platform to bring us together. Above partisan rivalries and sports sectarianism, we are all fans. That ball could have hit anyone, but it hit him, and we should not let him be forgotten.

Kay Stallings was one of us. And we are all poorer for his loss.

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