SARNIA — “I had a good feeling about that game, for sure.”
The day was October 2nd, 2021.
From the outside looking in, it may have seemed as though it was just another day on the calendar. After all, it was a Saturday afternoon in early October. The weather was starting to shift and temperatures continued to fluctuate, much like they do each year around the start of Fall in Southwestern Ontario.
On that day, there was afternoon baseball being played at Errol Russell Park in Sarnia. The Lambton Lions, still in search of the program’s first win at the time, played host to the visiting Centennial Colts in an afternoon double-header.
A quick look at the box scores would show that the Lions got the monkey off their backs by notching the program’s first-ever win in OCAA play in the second game of the day, earning a split in the doubleheader against the Colts. There were a couple of home runs hit over the two games plus a pair of complete games on the mound, but nothing out of the ordinary stood out in the stat lines.
That’s how things looked on the surface.
A deeper look into the game will show you that they meant so much more than just the program’s first win for one Lambton player.
For Lambton third baseman Riley Brown (Brigden, Ont.), who hit one of the home runs on the day, the way that October 2nd, 2021 played out was like something you would see in a Hollywood blockbuster. Looking back on the last 18 months for him and his family, October 2nd was also a day that they so desperately needed, and it injected some joy into their lives after months of loss, grief, and a slow healing process.
Brown’s home run marked his first collegiate home run. In the bottom of the first inning in Game One, Brown led off for the Lions and took the second pitch he saw from Centennial starter Jack Middleton over the left-center field fence.
As expected, there was a ton of emotion as a result of the home run. Lambton’s bench erupted with excitement and Brown’s teammates were waiting at home plate with arms extended for a mixture of congratulatory high fives and fist bumps. There was applause from the fans in attendance, a group that included Brown’s mother, Stacey Hillman-Brown.
There was also a range of emotions for Brown. As he rounded the bases, there was a sense of joy and excitement within, but there were also tears. The emotion of the last 18 months, and the moments that preceded Saturday’s games, all came to a head at that very moment.
While it was his first collegiate home run, which is cause for excitement and celebration, it was also the first home run without his father, Chris Brown, in the stands.
If the last 18-months weren’t hard enough, the Brown family was dealt another blow less than two months into the COVID-19 pandemic. In late-April, Brown and his family got news from doctors that no family wants to hear.
What was originally an appointment for scans on an existing injury led to the cancer diagnosis. They were told it was terminal, and that life expectancy was three months.
Chris passed away on May 26th, 2020, just eight days after turning 55.
Thanks to the Palliative Care Unit at St. Joseph’s Hospice, Chris was able to return to his home in Brigden for a few hours on his birthday to celebrate with his friends and family, most of whom weren’t able to visit in the hospital due to the pandemic, Riley included. Paramedics from Bluewater Health volunteered their time to help grant Chris’ wish of celebrating his birthday at home. A celebratory drive-by was arranged, and hoards of vehicles drove by to celebrate his 55th birthday.
The hashtag #BrownStrong was created during Chris’ battle with cancer, and the mantra has since continued on within the Brown family and in the Brigden community.
Fast forward to October 2nd, 2021, and Brown had a feeling from the start that his father was with him that day. It was an early start to the day for Brown and his Lambton Baseball teammates, as they were at the college to take part in a team bonding exercise. In a rush to get ready, Brown packed all of his baseball gear so he could head to the diamond right after.
In the midst of packing, Brown forgot something that he didn’t necessarily need for the game, but something that he wanted to have with him that day.
“With me rushing to get everything ready, obviously I forgot what I wanted to bring, which was a necklace with my dad’s ashes in it,” explained Brown. “He always loved coming to every one of my games, and I had never worn it to one.”
“I had a feeling that day that he wanted to be with me.”
With him heading to the diamond for a 12:00 p.m start in Game One, and his home in Brigden being a 20-minute drive away, he wasn’t able to drive home and get it himself.
So, he got on the phone and called the one person who could save the day and bring the necklace.
“I got on the phone with my mom as soon as I got out of the team bonding exercise and asked to go into my room to grab it and bring it with her to the game,” continued Brown. “She said ‘of course’, and probably like five minutes before game time she pulled up with it and I threw it on.”
The necklace, which was a gift from his brother, is in the shape of a bullet, representing the hunting that Riley and Chris used to do together. On the front, it says ‘Dad’, and the back has a cross.
With his necklace around his neck and the feeling that his dad was there with him that day, Brown was ready to take to the field.
“I wear it everywhere that I know he’d want to be there with me,” added Brown. “I had a good feeling about that game, for sure.”
The Colts took a quick 2-0 lead on the Lions in the top of the first inning. The lead could have been more, but Lambton managed to get out of the inning and limit the damage to two runs. Brown was getting set to lead off for the home side in the bottom half, and as he was walking to the batter’s box, his dad made sure to remind him that he was indeed there.
The song ‘Country Again’ by Thomas Rhett was playing through the loudspeaker. The first lyric reads, ‘I quit huntin’ with my daddy’, and the stars were continuing to align that day for Brown.
Now in the batter’s box, Brown’s ready to get things started on offense for the Lions. The first pitch he saw was one that he thought he wanted, but a roque hornet flew in his face, forcing him to hold back and take the first strike.
After stepping out of the box to swat away the hornet, Brown stepped back into the box ready to swing. The pitch came, and it was better than the first one he saw, so he swung.
The ball soared over the left-center field fence for a home run.
“I knew it was deep, but I didn’t think it had enough to get out,” admitted Brown. “It wasn’t until I got to first base did I realize it was over the fence.”
Enter the emotions. The cheers from the bench carried across the diamond, but nobody could see the tears in Brown’s eyes as he was rounding the bases. A wave of emotions overcame Brown in that very moment, from the excitement of hitting a home run to the sadness in realizing that his father wasn’t in the stands to see it in person.
As he rounded third base and made his way towards home plate, his mother was in his direct line of sight. Sitting off to the side of the bleachers, much like she did for most of his at-bats, Stacey had the best view of them all when it came to the home run.
“It meant everything to me,” said Riley of his mom being in the stands for his home run. “I’m definitely glad that she was there, seeing her running home brought a few more emotions to my eyes knowing that while unfortunately he wasn’t there, I’m glad that she was.”
“Like I said, my mom and dad made sure they were at every game they could possibly be at, so having her there was incredible.”
Riley had both of his parents in attendance, just in different seats than what they were accustomed to. Stacey took her spot in the bleachers as she’s done for years and Chris had a bird’s eye view of the day from his spot in Heaven.
On that day, Riley knew both of them were there to see how things played out.
“I could feel his presence there, for sure,” said Brown. “I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not, but when I wear the necklace, good things happen.”
“I definitely knew he was there with me to watch me hit my first collegiate home run.”
When asked if his dad may have had a hand in helping the ball get over the fence, which now sits in his room alongside the necklace, Brown chuckled to himself first before admitting there may have been some assistance.
“I think 100% he helped that ball go over the fence,” said Brown, smiling. “Extra wind.”
With hindsight always being 20/20, everything worked out as it was supposed to on that Saturday afternoon. Brown would hit a second home run the next weekend, but his mother had left the stands not five minutes earlier and wasn’t there to see it happen.
She was there for the first one, the one that mattered most, and the stars aligned perfectly in that moment.
“After a very hard 18 months, with COVID, the passing, and everything else, there just wasn’t much joy to come out of anything,” added Brown. “That was almost the first little bit of us getting back into our flow, us getting back into life and unfortunately, trying to live without him.”
“It’s kind of our start back up.”
The stars aligned perfectly for Riley Brown on October 2nd, 2021, and the day also had a sense of drama to it.
There was a feeling that his father’s presence was there with him from the moment he woke up, and that his dad wanted to be with him at his game that day.
Then, you have the necklace, which Brown forgot at home while he was in a rush to leave. Enter his mother to save the day, as moms often do, bringing the necklace to the game with little time to spare.
Queue the walkup music, which all but confirmed that Chris was in attendance at Errol Russell Park to watch his son.
The sequence of events in the morning of October 2nd, 2021 all led to the exclamation point, and a family that was together again in the same spot at that very moment.
The home run.
While Chris wasn’t physically in a seat in the bleachers, he was still there to watch his son clear the fence for his first collegiate home run, and he may have provided an extra helping hand to give his family that sense of joy they had been missing for well over a year.
Brown had a good feeling about that day, and that game, from the moment he woke up.
Now, October 2nd, 2021 will be a day that he and his family won’t soon forget.
- T. Bennett