The offseason takes away baseball for the most part, with rumors and transactions replacing games. But, no matter the time of year, I see KC Royals outfielder Nate Eaton every day.
How a picture of KC Royals player Nate Eaton reminds me of what is important.
Every day on my drive home from work, I pass by War Memorial Stadium in Hampton, Virginia. The stadium comes out of the trees, standing out against a mix of residential and commercial properties surrounding it. Since opening in 1948, several teams have called the War Memorial home. The Peninsula Pilots, a member of the Coastal Plain League, currently play there. That uniform and that stadium were the first and only times I saw Eaton play in person.
It was a throwaway game as the Pilors marched to that year's division title. I am not going to act like I knew who Eaton was then. He was in his second Pilots season after playing at Virginia Military Institute and not reaching draft prospect status yet. I hardly had a scouting eye or much baseball knowledge when I watched him in 2017. But that was one time, and the next time I thought of Eaton, he was making his Royals debut.
But, whenever you drive past War Memorial Stadium on Kentucky Avenue, there is a sign proudly displaying the Pilots' MLB graduates. Not just the players drafted. No, that would be too easy. After all, any team could take a flier on a college standout with 40-round drafts. This sign shows which former Peninsula players made it to The Show. Every time I drive past that ballpark, this is the image of Eaton I see.
This was Eaton heading home following his first MLB hit and home run back in 2022. It was an interesting moment at the time after Eaton and seven other prospects joined the Royals for a series in Canada against the Toronto Blue Jays. Many eyes were more focused on who wasn't there, rather than who was seizing the opportunity. Eaton was such a player, putting a stamp on his MLB case with his ninth-inning shot in a 3-1 Royals win.
That picture, in that setting, has a ton of meaning. The joy on his face after rounding third base is a feeling very few will ever feel. It was a simple moment, one where Eaton realized years of dreams. That smile says it all. But, as I zip by the War Memorial nowadays, all I can think about is where he is pointing. At first, I thought he was pointing to his teammates at home plate. The group that played in the Toronto series was tight, all coming from Triple-A Omaha. But no, he was pointing to the other side of the fence, a face in the crowd, to a voice he heard rounding second base.
He was pointing to his mom.
Eaton's mom, brother, and sister-in-law were in attendance for the moment. And a mother's pride knows no limit, no matter the 24,425 other people in attendance.
That point is what makes Eaton's image outside War Memorial Stadium so important to me every time I drive by. There is nothing like your mother being proud of you and celebrating that moment. I have been lucky to have those moments with my mother. Winning a state sports photography competition. Graduating from boot camp. Telling her I had landed my first baseball writing gig. In all those moments and more, I had my mother cheering me on from afar and letting me know she was proud of me and supported my dreams.
My mom, Morgan Milham, passed away on Jan. 7, 2022, from a COVID-19-related stroke. On my 25th birthday, Her being gone is a wound I am still healing from, and whenever I hit a new milestone in life, I wish I had her there to point to.
Once I realized where Eaton was pointing, I was jealous at first. Jealous that my mother will not be there in the stands the next time I want her there. I still am, in a sense. But this image, after some time, made me appreciate two things. First, I am more appreciative of the people who can and are there for the moments that matter. No matter the distance or inconvenience, the people who want to be there will be there. Second, those people you point at can be anyone, not just your mom or dad. Now, I have a close group of friends and have married my best friend. Those are the people I want in the stands, cheering me on as I round second base.
But, most importantly, I still see the joy on Eaton's face. Those moments are so far and few between, I'll tell you what. But the hours of trials and tribulations are all worth it in that fleeting moment of unbridled happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of belonging. That image, being outside the place where Eaton honed his craft for two summers, means something to me. It can be any day on the baseball calendar. But it is funny how a stranger's gesture outside an empty ballpark can mean so much.