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As MLB returns, a baseball family devastated by coronavirus feels conflicted

Ben Luderer's family attends a ceremony honoring the 30-year-old before a game between the high school team he played for and the one he was coach of when he died. AMY NEWMAN via Imagn Content Services

Bill Luderer, a 71-year-old Yankees fan, will be in front of his TV Thursday night to watch his team open a major league season like none before it.

On one hand, Luderer will be overjoyed by the return of baseball at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., where the Yankees will face the defending champs. He can still hear the thunderous crack of Mickey Mantle's bat from those bygone days he spent inside the grand ol' ballyard in the Bronx.

On the other hand, Luderer says, "I'm conflicted."

At the intersection of the pastime and the pandemic, few baseball fans understand the conflict like the New Jersey father who lost his only child to the coronavirus. Ben Luderer was the starting catcher and a .500 hitter for high school power Don Bosco Prep, which finished the 2008 season with a 33-0 record and the No. 1 ranking in the nation in ESPN's poll. He was a Division I player at Marist, and then the varsity head coach at Cliffside Park (N.J.) High School and an independent instructor who ran a travel team and helped prospects land scholarships to college.

Nearly four months after Ben's death at age 30, as MLB launches what is scheduled to be a 60-game regular season, the virus that has claimed more than 140,000 American lives is still killing people, still spreading like wildfire. Bill Luderer is like many sports fans who wonder whether ballplayers should even be taking the field.

"Obviously I hope everything goes well, but it's hard to believe that there are not going to be problems," he says. "The ultimate problem is that somebody dies. But what if dozens of these athletes come down with it, and who knows in the future what effect this is going to have on people's bodies? ... So I'm really torn about it."

He's torn between love and loss, between sweet memories of the game's father-and-son rituals and the potential life-and-death stakes of playing ball in the age of the coronavirus. Luderer weighs the reward against the risk.

"And nobody," he says, "needs to tell me what that risk means."

BEN WAS 3 DAYS OLD when he met two New Jersey teachers, Bill and Elaine Luderer, in a Long Island hospital. Bill was 40, Elaine 41, and they had decided on adoption after years of trying to have a child.

"The first time I saw him," Bill says, "it was probably the most emotional moment of my life. He was perfect."

That week, Bill posed for a picture with his baby in one arm and a Babe Ruth-modeled Louisville Slugger in the other. The Luderers raised their son in River Vale, New Jersey, where young Ben won free candy for every kid in a local park by sending the last pitch in a home run contest sailing over the fence and into a police car parked on a hill. The kids went mad and stampeded toward the snack stand. "It was like 'The Natural,'" his father says. "Stuff like that I remember. It makes me smile."

Ben was a gifted athlete who chose baseball over hockey in high school. The 6-foot, squarely built catcher with Mantle-like forearms managed a pitching staff led by major league draft picks Eric Pfisterer and Mike Dennhardt.

Ben had a belief in himself that did not come across as arrogance, says his high school coach, Greg Butler, a trait that inspired teammates to gravitate to him. Ben would drive in the winning run in a state championship semifinal that he ended by tagging a Seton Hall Prep runner trying to tie the score. In the final, Ben hit a one-out single in the sixth to start a rally that beat Christian Brothers Academy and preserved the perfect season.

Luderer seemed to have a shot at matching his older cousin, Brian, a nine-year minor leaguer in the Oakland and Cleveland organizations who twice reached the Triple-A level. Ben talked to the Houston Astros about a free-agent tryout before taking the offer from Marist. "Ben had total command [of his staff] and the respect of everyone," says the coach who recruited him, Chris Tracz. "When I watched him, it was like, 'Who is this kid?'"

But Ben's college and pro ambitions were compromised by injury. He endured two shoulder surgeries, missed a season and finished his playing career as a part-time starter. Of greater consequence, Ben met his future wife, Brandy Gang, a 6-2 forward on the Marist women's basketball team who scored 18 points in the Red Foxes' first-round upset of Georgia in the 2012 NCAA tournament.

They married in 2014, and people thought they were a perfect opposites-attract fit. Brandy was reserved, while Ben filled every room with his outsize personality and smile and his talent for making people laugh. They adored kids and became middle school special education teachers and high school coaches in Cliffside Park, a blue-collar town where Ben's mother had taught for four decades. Cliffside was known for its success in soccer, not baseball, and the public school could not remotely approach the resources of a high-powered private school like Don Bosco.

Luderer's former coach, Butler, remembers asking him, "Are you going to be able to handle this? You're used to winning."

"Coach, I've got this," he answered.

Ben had to kick some players out of his dugout early on, his father says, setting a tone of accountability. But he embraced everything about the school, running the clock at Brandy's volleyball games, working the concession stand at football games and hustling to raise funds to pay for baseball equipment. He became fluent in Spanish to better communicate with his team and by his fourth year had pieced together the school's first nine-win season in a long while. His athletic director, David Porfido, loved the culture Ben was building, and the compassionate bonds he was establishing with his kids.

"His focus was not just baseball; it was making you better as a person," says Jesus Pena, who was going to be a senior pitcher on the 2020 Cliffside Park team.

"He knew me better than I knew myself," says outfielder Danny Roman, a rising senior who has committed to play at Saint Louis University. "I didn't have a relationship like that with any other coach. Without him, it will never be the same."

BRANDY TESTED POSITIVE for COVID-19 on March 19, two days after she started experiencing body aches, chills and a low-grade fever. She quarantined from her husband and her younger brother Sean, who was living with them while attending college. Brandy quickly improved, and Sean never fell ill. But Ben started showing symptoms days after his wife's positive test.

On March 27, Ben was suffering from extreme shortness of breath. Brandy drove him to the emergency room but was not allowed inside. She texted back and forth with her husband while he received oxygen, fluids and Tylenol. Ben was tested for the coronavirus, and it came back positive. Doctors reported that Ben responded well to the oxygen and that his lungs looked good. They offered to admit him, but there were concerns that his condition could actually worsen in a hospital. Ben took his prescriptions and headed home.

Two days later, Ben was out of bed, engaging in conversation and eagerly awaiting dinner. Brandy's symptoms were never severe enough to require hospitalization, and she was hoping her husband was starting down a similar path of recovery.

But that night, with Brandy staying on the couch to keep a safe distance, Ben texted from the bedroom that he wasn't feeling well. It was around 2 a.m. -- amid the small hours of night that always unleashed the fever, the sweats, the breathing problems. He was sweating through his clothes, and while Ben took a cold bath, his wife ran over to a friend's house to borrow a humidifier for the bedroom.

Ben went back to sleep, and Brandy returned to the couch. She read for a while, then closed her eyes after she was comforted by the sound of Ben breathing on the other side of the door.

Brandy woke up at 6 a.m. and went to check on her husband. He was unresponsive. "That visual still haunts me sometimes," Brandy says. She called 911 before reaching Ben's parents. Bill and Elaine were racing to their son's Washington Township home -- 4 miles from where they raised him -- when they got the second call from Brandy. Ben was gone.

Bill and Elaine could not hug their daughter-in-law or enter the home to see their son. They waited outside in their car. Brandy pulled up in hers, lowered her window and told them the medical examiner had advised her to take a drive around the block. Brandy thought Ben's parents might want to do the same.

Bill stayed. He felt he needed to be there.

"I saw Ben come out in a body bag and loaded into the back of a coroner's truck," Bill says through tears. "So maybe I should have driven around the block."

It was a scene from a plague defined by death and dying without the human contact and comfort so desperately needed by loved ones left behind.

"I'm still waiting for him to walk through the door after baseball practice," Brandy says. "It's four months now, and it's so hard to grasp that your best friend and your partner you chose to spend the rest of your life with isn't here."

LIKE SO MANY grieving Americans since the pandemic struck in March, the Luderers were denied a chance to honor a lost family member with a service. So last week, when Cliffside Park played Don Bosco to open a tournament known as the Last Dance World Series, the Luderers felt as if they finally got their chance to memorialize Ben.

Family and friends, former teammates and current colleagues gathered at Don Bosco for a pregame ceremony. Bill and Elaine, who will be married 48 years next month, stood near home plate with Brandy, all wearing masks and interlocking their arms as they listened to current Don Bosco coach Mike Rooney announcing the retirement of Ben's No. 16 jersey and the establishment of a scholarship in his name.

Like many in attendance, Brandy wore a dark T-shirt showing the letters "BL" inside the image of a home plate and a heart. Before a storm would hit the field and leave a rainbow beyond the outfield fence that touched them all, the Luderers heard tributes from Ben's 2008 teammates and received flowers from members of Ben's last team at Cliffside Park.

"I just got my driver's license the other day, and he was the first person I wanted to call," says Roman, the star outfielder. "He was going to be there when I signed my national letter of intent. It breaks my heart."

Bill and Elaine addressed the Cliffside Park players in front of their dugout. "Enjoy everything that life has to offer for you," Elaine told them. "Thank you for being here, for making this so special."

Bill told the players they all represented a piece of who Ben became as a person. He also told them they needed to wear masks.

BILL ISN'T SURE why COVID-19 took his athletic 30-year-old son with no health issues. To some degree, he doesn't care. "The result is the same no matter what," he says.

When Ben was young, Bill took him to Yankee Stadium whenever he could. They wore Yankees gear on one trip to Fenway Park, absorbing a lot of good-natured grief from Red Sox fans when the home team won.

Ben became a passionate Hideki Matsui fan, in large part because of the dignified way the outfielder carried himself. Brandy recalls Ben sobbing during Matsui's farewell day in the Bronx in 2013. This was vintage Ben. "I think baseball was his life," Brandy says, "and any way he could, he wanted to surround himself with it."

Ben would likely want major league baseball played this week and beyond, his father says. But at a time when Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier can get criticized on social media for wearing a mask to the plate and when Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman can get so sick from the virus that he prays for his life, the Luderers aren't sure what, exactly, they should feel about the sport's comeback.

"I want some sense of normalcy," Brandy says. "But I think right now, I don't see anything that has changed since March, when everything shut down. ... I've been affected greatly by this, and I don't want to have other families impacted the same way. I don't know if it's the right time."

Just as he is conflicted about major league baseball returning, Bill Luderer is conflicted about the high school tournament that honored his son. Is it right to be playing games on any level, for any reason, as a pandemic rages? Is it safe for big league teams to travel from city to city when some Americans don't or won't wear face coverings that help contain the spread of the virus?

"My only fear is, even if people do act the right way," Bill says, "in those circumstances with as much exposure as they're going to have, will it be enough?"

Meanwhile, Bill and Elaine have settled on an approach to deal with their pain. "We try to remember the 30 amazing years we had with Ben," Bill says, "as opposed to regretting what future we won't have with him."

So Thursday night, Bill Luderer will watch baseball because that's what baseball fans do. Even if Aaron Judge blasts a fastball or two out of Nationals Park -- with no fan noise to muffle the sound of contact -- Bill says he won't ever believe that the crack of Judge's bat can match the crack of Mickey Mantle's.

He just won't be able to text his dear Ben about it.