As you know, six degrees of separation applies only to the world outside of Western New York. In Buffalo, it’s more like two degrees. I’ve been saying it for years: A Buffalo native climbing Mount Everest should bank on someone from Cheektowaga being there to congratulate him.
Our community has a Forrest Gump-like gift in that way. In 1981, when Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square, a Buffalo woman, Ann Adre, was struck by a stray bullet. Ty Cobb married a woman from Buffalo. True story: My father was less than 100 feet from Ronald Reagan when he was shot.
You know about actors and musicians and artists and television news anchors and NFL commissioners and Supreme Court justices who are linked to Western New York one way or another. There are countless connections in all facets of life and history that have a Buffalo connection. So it wasn’t surprising to hear the first thing Albert Pujols’ 500th homer hit after leaving his bat last week was the stomach of a man from … Lancaster.
Why, of course.
Chris Gordon is a psychologist who graduated from St. Mary’s of Lancaster in 1986, earned his doctorate from Syracuse and has been working for the National Institute of Mental Health for the last 14 years. He was an Expos fan growing up and latched on to the Nationals when the team relocated to D.C.
He already shared two season tickets and picked up another Tuesday to take his boys, 12-year-old Jack and 17-year-old Tyler, to see Pujols play in Nationals Park in Washington. He was sure to wear a T-shirt adorned with a replica of a New York license place and BFLO BORN across the front in case he bumped into another Western New Yorker.
“It’s a great conversation starter,” Gordon said Saturday. “There’s an identity. I’m Buffalo-born. You can take the boy out of Buffalo, but you can’t take the Buffalo out of the boy. If what happened brings positive attention to Buffalo, great. But it doesn’t bring the spirit of Buffalo. Life doesn’t get you down.”
Gordon told his boys that he would catch Pujols’ 500th homer after he hit No. 499 earlier in the first inning. They were watching from the Red Porch restaurant inside the stadium — and eating chicken wings, of course — when Pujols stepped into the batters’ box in the fifth inning.
And what followed was so Buffalo on so many levels.
Pujols launched a screamer toward the stands in left-center field. Gordon, knowing he had a chance to catch the historic homer, raced down a set of stairs. He was in position before the ball drilled him in the midsection and bounced into the hands of Air Force Staff Sgt. Tom Sherrill, a longtime Angels fan from California.
Gordon was thisclose to catching the ball but ultimately failed, staying true to his hometown. He was sporting a baseball-sized welt on his stomach, a deep gash on his elbow and scraped knees after tumbling while trying to catch the ball. And he was a better man for the effort.
“It’s actually hard to catch a bullet from 430 feet,” Gordon said with a laugh. “I guess I’m 0 for 1 when catching 500th home runs from 430 feet. Next time, maybe I’ll do better.”
In true Buffalo fashion, he wasn’t bemoaning what was lost. He was celebrating what was gained. He spent the next few innings talking to Sherrill about life and what brought them together in that moment. Rather than begrudge a stranger for getting a ball, he rejoiced with him.
Gordon’s selflessness and kindness wasn’t lost on Sherrill, either. Security approached him to meet Pujols after the game, and Sherrill insisted that Gordon and the boys join him. He didn’t think twice about keeping the ball, either. Gordon said he would have given it back, too.
“It’s a good story because it’s just about the joy of baseball,” Gordon said. “It’s a game. … It was the joy of being part of an event, and that was pretty cool. I just talked to him about how awesome it was that this thing happened to me.”
Pujols met with the fan who caught the 499th homer before meeting with Sherrill, Gordon and the boys. They watched Pujols’ news conference and were invited to the Angels clubhouse. Pujols grabbed three more balls, signed them and posed for pictures with one lucky fan and one luckier one.
Sherrill took a fair amount of grief in the days that followed from critics who claimed he should have kept the ball. Some suggested that it would have been worth $100,000 or more. Gordon spent part of Saturday morning talking to Sherrill and reassuring him that he did the right thing.
“I don’t have that problem because I don’t have the ball,” Gordon said. “He’s getting the pressure that he didn’t get $100,000. All the people saying that don’t have the ball. There’s all this hype around the money and the ball. I would love if part of the story is that Tom Sherrill is a good guy. Nobody has ever dropped the ball and got to meet the player. Twenty-six times this has happened, and for the first time it wasn’t a fight. There is no lawsuit. It’s because he’s a good man. He’s getting all this crap about what he didn’t do. Not only did he give up the ball, but he shared it.”
Gordon and Sherrill vowed to stay in touch. Gordon invited Sherrill to his home for a cookout the next time the staff sergeant, who was in town for a week of training, returned to the area. Gordon said they would forever be linked, leaving him two degrees separated from baseball history.
He didn’t get the ball, but he added a friend, carried himself with class and became another ambassador for his hometown.
“Everyone in Buffalo was happy to know that something happened that touched this dude from Buffalo,” Gordon said. “But it was like, ‘awww.’ People from Buffalo, that’s what they expect — bad things. We can’t fix the waterfront. The weather is bad. And even when something good happens, it was like, ‘Oh, you dropped it.’
“Of course I dropped it, but I got myself there. I moved to D.C. I have a family. I went to the game. I dropped it, but the happy ending is that it went to a good man. The reason he took me and my kids” to see Pujols “was because my first instinct was to get up and give him a hug. He got that vibe in two minutes, and now we have this connection. That’s Buffalo.”
Chris, that’s Buffalo, indeed.