Chance game of catch rekindles friendship and sober life goals
By MIKE MURPHEY
Roy Hobbs Baseball
George Christiansen was used to people turning and looking the other way.
That’s what people do when you’re a drunk, when you’ve spent time in jail, in recovery units, in missions and you’re finally left to live out of an old van parked on whatever curb they’ll let you stop on.
That’s why he was a little surprised when he ran across an old friend and teammate on the street one day. Hadn’t seen the guy in more than 20 years. But Tom Keith didn’t give him a quick nod of hello and hustle on down the street. Instead he did a quick assessment of his friend, and said, “Hey, I got a baseball and couple of gloves with me. Let’s go have a toss.”
“George was a helluva baseball player back when we were in school,” Tom recalled. “We met when we were 12 years old (in 1952), and we played basketball and baseball together all through high school. Back then he didn’t drink or smoke. He was this guy everybody thought would succeed.
“So one day all these years later I see him on the street. He’s gotten very large, he’s smoking, and he’s half crocked.”
Tom knows what it’s like to be the victim of alcohol. He’s been sober 25 years now. And like so many who have cleared that hurdle themselves, he couldn’t look at someone he knew who was suffering from the same demons, and just turn away.
That was 2005, George recalls. From that point on Tom took a careful interest in his friend’s life. He took him to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Got him all the inspiration books, anything he could think of that might help. And George made some progress. But nothing they tried gave either of them the confidence that George had his problem safely under control.
And then one day, baseball intervened.
Back in their youth, George and Tom could really play.
Little League, Pony League, American Legion, high school ball. Then Tom joined the Navy and at age 19 made the All-Navy baseball team where he drew the attention of professional scouts. George played semi-pro ball after high school, and was also scouted by Major League organizations. But then as young men both got married, the realities of life intruded.
Tom went on to play amateur ball for several years with a traveling team called the Boston Typos, a team representing the International Typographical Union. He was eventually elected to the Boston Typos Hall of Fame. George went into coaching. He took over the Weymouth, Massachusetts, American Legion Baseball program in 1967 where he won many championships and became the winningest coach in the district by the time he retired in 1967.
“When I was coaching, I was straight and narrow,” George says. “The kids were a lot of fun and I loved it.”
Fifteen of the kids he coached went on to play professional baseball. Two made it to the Major Leagues. One was a first-round draft pick. One was a College World Series Most Valuable Player.
But somewhere along the way, the kids he was coaching seemed to change.
“I had no problems with anyone until around ’89 or so,” George says, “but then the kids just got hard to handle. We had some bad actors. It was a sign of the times, I guess. But I just couldn’t handle it anymore.”
And when he stopped coaching, things really began to fall apart.
“I became manic-depressive, and I started drinking heavily. I had to go to prison at one point. My wife finally had enough and said I wasn’t welcome at home any more. So I started living out of my van.”
Tom came back to baseball as a player in 2007 when his oldest son asked him to come to Florida with him and play on a father-son team in the Roy Hobbs World Series. “I was 65 years old and I hadn’t played in 20 years,” Tom says. “I didn’t think I could do it, but my son wanted me to go.”
He found out he could still play, and was hooked again.
He started working out with a group of other older players in the Boston area, and asked George if he’d like to get involved.
“I showed him a magazine article they’d done about me playing ball on this father-son team with Bill Lee and his kids,” Tom says.
George asked Tom, “Geeze, do you think I could ever play ball again?”
George walked back on a baseball field again as Tom’s teammate at the 2008 Roy Hobbs World Series, and from that day on, he says, the booze has been a thing of the past.
“I’m so glad Tommy asked me to play again,” George says. “I got out there and I saw all these other guys my age who were still playing. I’ve always loved baseball with a passion, and I’ve been a different guy since that day.”
George is back with his wife and family now – married 51 years. He joined a gym back at home and works out every day playing basketball, lifting weights, swimming. He plays in a summer baseball league.
“But the Roy Hobbs World Series is what I like the best,” he says.
He thanks his friend for his sobriety.
“It’s all really because of Tommy,” George says. “He’s been my mentor. I see him almost every day. He really guided me along the way. Between baseball and Tommy, I just don’t have the urge to drink anymore.
“If it wasn’t for Tommy and Roy Hobbs, I don’t know where I’d be right now, to tell you the truth. I wouldn’t be home, I know that. This is my last chance.”