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Original Issue

The Real MVP

ON MAY 14, 1939, Lena Feller traveled to Comiskey Park in Chicago to watch her famous son pitch for the Indians. In the third inning on that Sunday, Bob Feller threw a fastball that Marv Owen of the White Sox steered foul, toward the seats above the visitors' dugout, where it struck Lena squarely in the face, blackening both eyes. While she was carried from the grandstand, rushed to the ER and stitched up like the missile that hit her, Bob Feller remained in the game. It was Mother's Day, after all, and that's what Mom would have wanted, were she in any condition to speak.

It should be said that Lena made a full recovery, but not before she was photographed in repose in Mercy Hospital, her head wreathed in bandages, her eyes like Kung Fu Panda and her 20-year-old son standing at her bedside, wearing an expression of mild embarrassment. It's an enduring image not just of Mother's Day, but of motherhood. A cartoon thought balloon above her would either say, "I do and I do and I do for you, Robert, and this is the thanks I get," or, "I'm sorry I couldn't stay, dear—I hope you got the win." (He did, going the distance.)

Pride and guilt, pain and sacrifice, embarrassment and love—these are the bonding agents of the mother-and-child union. Muhammad Ali described his mom, Odessa Grady Clay, to one of his biographers, Thomas Hauser, as a collection of postwar ideals. "She's a sweet, fat, wonderful woman who loves to cook, eat, make clothes and be with family," Ali said. "She doesn't drink, smoke, meddle in other people's business or bother anyone, and there's no one who's been better to me my whole life."

And while there is an infinite variety of mom-styles, every mother, living or dead, has in common the unerring ability to make her presence felt—out of leftfield, or above the visitor's dugout—at the least expected moments.

Asked a routine question about whom he leans on when the Clippers face difficult times, coach Doc Rivers choked up in a press conference in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. "Made me think about my mom," he said of the late Bettye Rivers, tears welling. "That would have been the person."

While accepting his NBA MVP award in 2014, Kevin Durant memorably spoke to his mom, Wanda Pratt. "The odds were stacked against us, a single parent with two boys by the time you were 21 years old...," he said. "You made us believe, you kept us off the street, put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn't eat, you made sure we ate, you went to sleep hungry, you sacrificed for us, you're the real MVP." If it sounds like a Lifetime movie—The Real MVP—it is about to become exactly that.

Just as you can hate the sin and love the sinner, moms can hate the ball and love the baller. When a child says, "Look, Ma, no hands," the loving ma is required to look, no matter how old that child is. This was certainly true of my own mother, who dutifully read my baseball stories in this magazine, hardly her first choice of reading material, and died while I was on assignment at Comiskey Park reporting a story on White Sox sluggers Bo Jackson and Frank Thomas, whose names still evoke for me what that Clippers question evoked for Doc Rivers.

When absolutely necessary Jane Rushin chased her four boys around the house with a giveaway yardstick from Lattof Chevrolet, until it snapped over one of our backsides and she began to employ a wooden spoon. Her swings seldom landed and never hurt, but to spare her feelings, we didn't have the heart to say so. Then one day, Mom was chasing my 6'6" brother John around the kitchen when he stopped, snatched the spoon from her hand and snapped it in two.

But the ritual had, unbeknownst to us, served its purpose. After years of skillfully fleeing a would-be assailant brandishing a wooden stick, John earned a hockey scholarship to Notre Dame and was drafted by the Rangers. It's one more reason, in a sea of them, why no athlete ever looked in a camera and said, "Hi, Dad."

There is an infinite variety of mom styles, but every mother, living or dead, has in common the unerring ability to make her presence felt at the least expected moments.

What are your favorite memories of your mother?

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