Shared Experiences Enhance Bonds

Roy Hobbs Baseball

Greg Wagner PhotoRon Kennedy (L) and RJ Bailey, best friends with a common past and common love of baseball.

Some things indelibly printed on your being, things that shaped who you are, simply can’t be explained to people who weren’t there.  R.J. Bailey and Ron Kennedy met in a baseball dugout some 16 years ago to find they were kindred souls, because as young men they spent 1967 and 1968 on the battlefields of Viet Nam.

“Other people just don’t know the closeness you develop with people who had that same experience,” R.J. said.  “You run into people who say they were there, and you know in a minute whether they really were.”

They never crossed paths while they were there.  R.J. was a combat infantryman in the north near the Demilitarized Zone.  Ron was in military intelligence in Saigon.  Both were caught in Tet Offensive.

Greg Wagner Photo Lehigh Legends RJ Bailey plays all over the field

“We’re both pretty proud of our service,” R.J. said.  “We’re patriotic guys.”

“It seems like once we met, we understood that we shared a lot of common experiences and feelings about the war, about how things were,” Ron said.

“We can be talking about combat experiences,” R.J. said, “and he can be relating some story, and I can visualize it because I was in the same situation myself.  He’s special to me because I don’t find a lot of people I can relate to that well, I guess.”

They met each other playing for the South Florida Suns. Seven years ago they organized their own team, Lehigh Baseball.  Ron managed the team until 2010 when he developed a lump on his neck.  R.J., who was a paramedic and a jet air ambulance flight nurse in his civilian career, urged him to see a doctor.

“The called it head and neck cancer,” Ron said. “I had forty radiation treatments and chemotherapy.”

“He weighed 200 pounds,” R.J. said, “and he dropped to about 125, and I didn’t think he’d survive.  He always said he would beat it, though.  That’s a testimony to his fortitude and courage.  But it was horrifying.”

“I never once thought that it was going to kill me,” Ron said, and the cancer eventually went into remission.

Greg Wagner Photo Ron Kennedy has fought through a serious bout of cancer to return to the field this year.

Ron was absent from the dugout during the years of his ordeal, “but I went to field every chance I got and watched the games.  The recovery has taken a long time, both physically and mentally.”

Ron rejoined the team in the dugout during last year’s World Series.  He played a few innings at first base, but chose not to try and take an at-bat.  This year, he will resume his duties as manager, and plans again to get in few innings at first base.  R.J. hopes his friend will get back in the batter’s box.  But he looks forward most to Ron managing again.

“Ron knows what it takes to win,” R.J. said.  “He knows baseball. He knows how to get the best out of the guys on the field. He’s the perfect guy for the manager’s job.”

While he never thought his cancer would kill him, the experience has made Ron painfully aware of the fragility of life.  “I lost someone close to me recently, and you always think there will be time to tell people the important things, and then you realize there’s not.  So I just came out and told (R.J.) one day how much respect I have for him, and for the things he’s done.

“He kind of has a bad-boy image, but he’s a soft-hearted guy.  He stood by me during my illness. And he won’t come out and tell you, but he’s a hero.  They had a special ceremony for him when he came home.  He won two Bronze Stars, and Silver Star and an air medal for heroism.”

Now, they are closer then ever.

“We get together almost every day on the phone,” Ron laughed, “and we solve all the world’s problems.  We’ve got all the answers.”

R.J. Bailey

Age: 69.
Hometown: Lehigh Acres, Florida.
Occupation: Retired jet air ambulance flight nurse.
2016 World Series Team: Lehigh Baseball.
Position: Catcher, Outfield.
Favorite Baseball Memory: Catching every inning during two or three World Series weeks.
Quote: “We’ve always been competitive in the World Series but last year we struggled in every way, for a lot of reasons. We’ll all be happy to see Ron back in the role of manager.”

Ron Kennedy

Age: 70.
Hometown: Lehigh Acres, Florida.
Occupation: Retired Dairy Queen franchise owner.
2016 World Series Team: Lehigh Baseball.
Position: Manager, First Base.
Favorite Baseball Memory: One year in the RHWS going 9-for-11 in the last 3 games. “I’m not a great hitter, but it was just one of those times.”
Quote: “When I was a kid, you would never even consider that someone 70-years-old might play baseball. There is a great sense of pride in still being able to do these things.”