Sitting in the front window at one of Asheville’s oldest and most classic establishments—Barley’s—Big Brother Joe Sherman is sipping some ice tea with two of the most important people in his life: his Little Brothers. They talk about baseball and peruse the pizza menu as Joe intermittently gives them pointers on manners, speaking audibly to the server and other social skills and manners to keep in mind as they grow into young men.
“Check out this photo,” Joe says to me with a nostalgic smile as he scrolls through the albums on his iPhone.
“This is Damian just two years ago,” he says proudly, handing me his phone so I can see the image it’s displaying. Simultaneously, he gestures for Damian—who sits across from him—to stand up and lean in so I can appreciate the divergence from what I see in the photo.
Pictured on the phone are both Joe and Damian, standing side by side during some match activity up in New Jersey—Joe’s former home and the place where he was matched with Damian for nine years. Though I can clearly recognize Damian’s face in the photo, the kid pictured is a solid two inches shorter than Joe and only on the first cusp of adolescence. Looking up at the two of them now, however is something entirely different: the young man who now stands next to Joe now sports a peach fuzz mustache, an emerging football player’s frame and has at least three inches on Joe.
His smile is also decisively more cynical and embarrassed. :/
Still, even though he deliberately closes his eyes when I snap as photo and fronts coolness throughout the whole interaction, Damian chuckles proudly to himself about how he’s overtaken his Big Brother in height. Joe shakes his head in disbelief, sitting back down and carrying on scrolling through old memories.
Though their match officially ended a year ago—when Joe and his wife decided to move away from New Jersey and relocate in Hendersonville—Joe has done his best to stay in touch with his former Little: calling to check in on him by and by and working hard with his foster mother to plan this visit—for which Joe has flown Damian down to spend this long weekend together—and also give Damian a chance to connect with Joe’s new Little Brother, Christian.
As far as a ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ goes, Maslow’s version may not be a perfect fit for Joe. It seems for him, being of service and building youth’s potential is right on level with the shelter/safety category rather than secondary to it! As soon as he had decided on Henderson as his next stop, one of the first things he did was get his application started to become a Big Brother here. Being so proactive, the local Henderson County office was able to match Joe with Christian within a month of Joe actually moving to town.
Joe joined the BBBS of Henderson County Advisory Council shortly thereafter.
“Look here,” says Joe, still sifting through photos. This time, he’s got an image of Christian (who’s heading to third grade this fall) pulled up. In the photo, Christian beams with pride as he sports what are clearly a crispy, brand new pair of blue jeans replete with a shiny new belt buckle—shirt tail tucked in and a big smile across his face.
“This was his first pair of blue jeans—he liked jeans because I wore them,” explains Joe, “And my father used to manufacture belts so I had some of his old belts and then we visited a local leather-crafting shop and picked him up this new nickel silver belt buckle. He wore it to school the next day.”
Blue jeans are just one of many “firsts” that Joe’s Littles have been exposed to through him. Others include professional baseball games, cooking, old-school book series like Sherlock Holmes, The Hardy Boys and Tom Sawyer. As it turns out, the books were less of an interest for Damian than they are for Christian—and the sports are less an interest for Christian, so that between his two match experiences, Joe is getting the chance to share and engage in a full spectrum of his own interests: from the intellectual to the physical, the imaginative to the analytical. And reciprocally, both of these boys get to explore their own interests with Joe’s support and get a clearer understanding of their own strengths and capabilities and a clearer vision of the adults they want to grow up to be.
As we finish up the pizza, it’s time to start our way toward McCormick Field to catch a double-header between the Asheville Tourists and the Columbia Fireflies.
“The first time I took Christian to a Tourists game, they seated us right behind the dugout and brought him a new baseball. We also got a picture with the mascot,” says Joe.
Pro baseball games are also a long-standing tradition for Joe and Damian. Up in Jersey, Joe’s team of choice was the Mets (his family had season’s tickets for 39 years). Originally, Joe’s family had been Yankee fans, he revealed to me at one point, but it was when they mistreated Yogi Berra and he transferred to the Mets that Joe’s father switched his loyalty to follow Berra—and so did Joe. All the way up to the present day. Yankees shmankees, right?
Over the course of their relationship in Jersey, Joe and Damian attended well over a dozen games together. And, amazingly, Joe seems to have a special story from every single one.
When they went out to CitiField in Queens for Damian’s first game ever, Damian actually got to spend actual time on the field pregame and meet third baseman Justin Turner. Another time, they seated Joe and Damian behind the dugout during Jose Reyes’ first game with the team—and they watched him hit a triple his first time up to bat. Another time, Damian got video-taped reading the Mets’ starting lineup which was then broadcast on the big screen before the game.
“How’d that one make you feel?” I ask Damian.
“Nervous!” he says, laughing. “Another time, I got to do pitching lessons with the pitching coach for the Mets,” he says.
“Oh yeah! They did this lesson right behind the dugout where there were some batting cages. And so Damian was in one of those batting cages pitching to one of the bullpen catchers,” Joe adds.
As the evening carries on, and the Tourists/Fireflies game begins, I start to get a sense of just how many baseballs stories Joe has—it’s a lot! In fact, it may be unlimited. It’s like each interaction with one of his Littles conjures a story about a baseball game and each play that the Tourists make, inspires a memory of something similar from a game past.
While I could by no means retain the level of detailed memory that Joe has, as his stories unfold, I start to realize that most of them hold a deeper meaning and aren’t just about baseball. Some of them are like mini Hero’s Journey’s, some contain a life lesson about perseverance, loyalty or something of the like—so that the technicality of them isn’t their true essence, the place they hold or what inspires their recollection.
Over the course of Damian and Joe’s match, baseball played a hug role in solidifying their friendship—the dynamic stories make that clear. And as the Tourists game begins and the two of them start observing and making comments about the plays and players, I can see in real time how these two guys are getting way more out of the game than just passive fun—it’s almost like an ongoing allegory for them—and one that Joe has used to help Damian build his character and frame life lessons for him.
When the tourists take the field, one of the Fireflies nails a grounder left of the pitcher, the short stop fumbles it—and the batter makes it to first. The crowd sighs “Awwww!!” and all I can do is feel embarrassed for the fumbler. Wouldn’t want to be that guy.
While the extent of my perception of what just happened doesn’t go much deeper than that vicarious shame— Joe and Damian are both shaking their heads and trading knowing glances at each other. They’re experiencing it on a whole different level.
“You see that, Damian—he was getting impatient,” Joe says, “He should have just waited for the ball to come to him. He could have had a double play. He wasn’t actually thinking about catching the ball, he was thinking about throwing it. First thing’s first. He was putting the cart before the horse. He was hurrying.” He keeps shaking his head.
“That’s what I was thinking,” agrees Damian, “I didn’t know what he was doing. He should have put his body in front of the ball and waited for it to come right to him. Just be patient and take it one step at a time. He did it all wrong.”
Back home in Jersey, Damian maintains an super busy schedule throughout the four seasons, juggling track, football, basketball and baseball. With high school on his horizon this fall, Damian’s vision is to start focusing on just two of those sports and to really start excelling in them. The end goal is to hone his skills so he can get recruited on a scholarship to a university. From there, his goal is to pursue a four-year degree, and maybe continue on to the military thereafter.
“Which sports are you planning on dropping?” I ask him, “Which are your favorites of the four.
Damian hesitates for a minute, glancing at Joe before answering. “Basketball and football are my favorites,” he admits, “Those are the ones I’ll probably be focusing on through high school.
“—He’s an outstanding baseball player,” Joe chimes in, keeping his eye on the game, but not missing a beat. “He sells himself short. I’ve never seen a kid able to go back on a fly ball in the outfield with his natural skill. He knows exactly where it’s going to fall.”
Over the upcoming three days with Joe, Damian and he have a slew of plans: miniature golf and batting cages, spending time in downtown Hendersonville and collaborating on a very special brisket dinner (an old-school tradition Damian used to join on Hanukkah with Joe’s family).
Upon his return to Jersey, Damian’s going to hit the ground running. The day after he gets back he’ll participate in an important football scrimmage where everyone in the school district who wants to play in high school will be evaluated on whether they can play varsity or JV—or whether they make the team at all for that matter. Damian’s got his finger’s crossed to make the varsity team right off the bat in his freshman year.
“That’ll look good to recruiters,” he says.
And it’ll give him a strong start on the path toward realizing his dream of playing for Clemson—which would bring him right back down into Joe’s neighborhood.
Check out the photos below to see more about how these relationships have grown over the years.