Sunday, July 26 started for me with an early-morning text message to Roscoe Bierbrauer.
"What time do you think ya'll might wrap up today?" I asked the American Legion Post 39 senior baseball team's assistant manager.
He replied "11:30-12 around there" before I scanned through TV channels to pass the time, eventually settling on "Field of Dreams." It seemed a fitting way to start a baseball day.
I made a short drive over to Warhill Sports Complex, where Post 39 was practicing for the state tournament that was coming up in Fredericksburg. My mission was to ask Bierbrauer, who had recently started a stint as the team's temporary head coach, about his battle with kidney cancer for a story leading into the tourney.
A warm, sunny morning soon turned into a hot July afternoon. Noon was the goal, but the Williamsburg Wildflowers probably went close to an hour extra with each player getting on-field batting practice to close out a session that can best be described as relaxed. In the dugout, the players, all high-school age or rising sophomores in college, steadily hurled lighthearted insults at each other as they waited for their turns at bat or to take water breaks. Bierbrauer, a Point Pleasant, N.J., native, was squarely in the middle of the hijinks.
The tone grew decidedly more serious as Bierbrauer and the other assistant head coaches addressed the team after practice wrapped, the coaches standing outside of the fenced dugout and the players sitting down on the bench inside. Bierbrauer spoke of the importance of respecting the Legionnaires who would be in attendance at the state tourney. He told his players with conviction they were as good as anybody in the state. Whether it was true or not, I believed him.
After the inspirational message, Bierbrauer showed me a package of sunflower seeds that had a note attached to it. The gift came courtesy of Ryan Lindley, a member of the 10-year-old Williamsburg Youth Baseball League team that Bierbrauer had helped coach. Bierbrauer coached that Pirates team with his best friend, Tom Richardson, who is also the regular Post 39 manager who Bierbrauer was filling in for. Both coaches' sons were teammates with Lindley on the league-champion 10-year-old squad.
Bierbrauer was beaming over the seeds and the note that offered well-wishes for the state tourney.
The players eventually wandered off and only the coaching staff remained. I heard one of the coaches joke that I must have been writing a book. The truth is I only asked a handful of questions. Bierbrauer, 43, could have talked about baseball all day – and I would have listened. He seemed optimistic about his upcoming treatment and spoke excitedly about a family vacation on the Eastern Shore the first week of August that would follow the tourney.
That was the final Post 39 practice of Roscoe Bierbrauer's life, which ended peacefully earlier this month in hospice care.
In addition to his son, Max, Roscoe is survived by 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, and wife, Stacey, among other family members.
Sept. 26 would have been Roscoe and Stacey's 17th wedding anniversary.
In a testament to their love for their coach, Pirates and Post 39 players regularly visited Bierbrauer during his hospital and hospice stays. Four Post 39 players, Jamestown High students Kent Klyman, Chris Jones, Roger Romero and Brad Vandygriff were there nearly every day of the final week of Bierbrauer's life.
"He lived vicariously through them, I know he did," Stacey said. "He was a good role model for them. You could tell how much they loved and admired him by the fact that four of them never left the hospital and they didn't want to leave the funeral either.
"Roger Romero, his eyes were just bright red all the time and I just – I felt so bad for them, but I hope that my son will be able to have relationships with them, that they can help him to grow as a ballplayer and to grow as a man since he's lost his role model, right now."
The day before his death, Bierbrauer had a blunt message for Romero, the team's catcher.
"He came over and looked at me straight in the eyes and was like, 'What are you crying for, man? It's life,'" Romero recalled.
Bierbrauer played baseball at then-junior college Broward University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Previously, he turned to playing softball to fill a competitive void and when Richardson asked him to help coach Post 39 five years ago, it was a no-brainer.
More often than not, Bierbrauer played the role of the "good cop" coach.
"He was always the positive guy telling them everything was going to be all right," Richardson said. "That was his outlook with baseball. That was his outlook with life and even with the disease that he ultimately died from. That was still his outlook. Everything was going to be all right."
Bierbrauer's players were drawn to that positive energy.
"He was the heart and soul of our team," Klyman said. "We probably played every game this summer for 'Sco."
Post 39 player Sean Hughes is now a freshman at Boston College, where he'll pitch for the Eagles this season. He spent the day before he left Williamsburg for college with the Bierbrauers, watching the Little League World Series on TV.
To Bierbrauer, Post 39 was more than a team; It was a family. It wasn't just a summer gig; He went to the local high school games in the spring, often with Max, to scout and show support. He and Richardson wrote letters of recommendation for players to college coaches.
Jones, a senior, committed to play baseball for Liberty University in late August, right around the time Bierbrauer's health began to fade.
After a lackluster high school spring at the plate, Jones had an excellent summer with the Wildflowers as one of the team's top hitters, complementing his proven speed on the basepaths and in the outfield. He credits much of his emergence to Bierbrauer.
"''Sco believes in me. I can do it,'" Jones thought. "Now, I'm going to my dream school and I have so much to thank him for."
Post 39 finished the summer with a record of 15-5 and left Fredericksburg with their first state tournament win in four summers before being eliminated by Rocky Mount Post 6 in extra innings.
Bierbrauer had a blast in his temporary role as Post 39 manager. He was having the time of his life.
Richardson remembers calling his friend to ask how his treatment was going. But Bierbrauer, an ardent New York Yankees fan, would deflect the question, insisting they talk strategy or lineups instead. Baseball was his refuge and came second only to family.
To memorialize the late coach, Bierbrauer's No. 44 jersey was retired by Post 39 and presented in a case to his family. The Williamsburg Revolution baseball teams are also donning patches on their uniforms emblazoned with "SCO 44."
At Bierbrauer's memorial service, Post 39 representatives read aloud the American Legion code of sportsmanship, "I will keep the rules. I will keep faith with my teammates. I will keep my temper. I will keep myself fit. I will keep a stout heart in defeat. I will keep my pride under in victory. I will keep a sound soul, a clean mind, and a healthy body."
Those words are recited by players before every Legion game. It was one of Bierbrauer's final requests that they be read at his service.
I wasn't fortunate enough to know Roscoe as his players, family and friends did. But I do know the Williamsburg baseball community lost an influential figure who won't easily be replaced.
Following a convincing win over Hampton Post 31 to clinch the District 3 tourney title and a few days before that last Sunday practice, Bierbrauer explained the jolt being on the diamond with the players gave him. He didn't need to be convinced to participate in my story. He clearly expressed that he wanted the players and their families to know how much each meant to him.
"They lift me up," he said. "They're picking me up when I'm down. They don't know it. But they will after this."
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.