My late mother's best friend, Baseball Betty Leone, was granted part of her dying wish. She got to see her beloved Rays make it into the World Series.
But she won't get to see how the story plays out.
She died Tuesday morning at 86, surrounded by her Rays caps and bobblehead dolls, T-shirts, and her latest acquisition: a ball autographed by her favorite, Rocco Baldelli, who reminded Betty of her late husband, Fred, once a minor league pitcher.
Betty was the most devoted Rays fan I knew. She was at their first game in 1998 and attended until arthritis made climbing steps impossible. After that, she camped herself in front of her television and refused to budge.
When her family insisted she join them in North Carolina two years ago, Betty resisted until she was promised a cable TV package with Rays games.
Betty traced her baseball love back to her childhood, when her dad, William Burns, taught her how to keep a scorecard in their Ohio hometown. Betty, in turn, taught her children, Joann Carroll and Rebecca Leone.
I don't think Betty ever taught baseball to my Irish mother, who was more interested in National Enquirer gossip, unfiltered Pall Malls and large tumblers of strong drink. The straitlaced Betty loved my misbehaving mom anyway.
Last July, Betty began feeling ill. In August, she was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. In September, a hospice nurse asked, "Betty, how long would you like to live?''
Betty said, "I want to live long enough to see the Rays get in the World Series.''
A lot of us wondered if we'd live that long. But as the Rays won, Betty became convinced that the Rays were going to do the impossible for her.
On the day they clinched a playoff spot, she e-mailed friends a shocking photograph: a glamorous Betty posed with a trendy good-luck-Rays Mohawk. The photo caused a sensation. Finally, Betty came clean: She'd doctored the photo.
Last Thursday, at Tropicana Field, Betty's granddaughter, Veronica Carroll, held up a homemade poster imploring the Rays to "Win for Baseball Betty.'' Suddenly, Betty's Mohawk image appeared on the stadium screen. The Baseball Betty mojo worked. The Rays beat the Phillies their one and only time so far.
A God-fearing woman, Betty couldn't bring herself to hate anyone; she was extremely happy when the Rays beat the Red Sox to qualify for the World Series.
"That's good enough,'' Betty told a hospice nurse. "I'm happy. I'm satisfied. They don't have to win another game. They're in the World Series now.''
Betty's daughter Joann thought, ''Uh-oh. Mom is fading. If she was well she would never say that.''
Betty liked to plan things, and she planned her own funeral. She asked to be cremated and wanted her ashes mixed with her late husband's. Sometime soon, the family will bury the mixture in the courtyard at Betty's old church in Florida.
The ashes will be placed in the little box that Betty picked out, a box with a Rays logo on top.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.