Thanks, Mom, for all you did for me

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny might feel his ears burning a little less this baseball season. Then again, maybe not. My mother's baseball viewing -- and critiquing -- habits actually might not change.

The upcoming season will be very different for me, though. As every hour of every day has been since Dec. 10, when my mom, Dorothy Voepel, died at age 92.

She was more independent and stubborn than any other person I've encountered. That's part of why it still remains so difficult for me to grasp she's gone. I always thought that even with Death, she'd win the argument.

But she truly needed those qualities. The daughter of a coal miner, she was 6 years old when the stock market crashed in October 1929. The Great Depression hit my mother's family -- as it did so many others -- very hard for a long time.

Beans and bread, if there was even that, became a staple meal. But she figured out that stores and restaurants sometimes would throw away food that was salvageable to a hungry child.

"They'd pitch old fruit into the trash cans," she'd say, "but it wasn't always all rotten. You could still eat the good part."

Mom would tell the stories of her life very matter-of-factly, without any trace of self-pity. She just wanted me to understand what poverty -- which I would never experience -- really felt like. And why it was so important that I never judge anyone for being poor.

"Because, believe me," my mother would say, "I've been there."

My father, Harry Voepel, had been there, too. Both my parents left school in their early teens to go to work. After having three children, they also adopted three, including me. So unlike many of my peers, whose parents were a decade or two younger, mine had their youth shaped by the Great Depression and World War II.

They both had that Greatest Generation tireless work ethic, along with myriad self-sufficiency skills. My mother could sew, knit, crochet, quilt, garden, can, cook from scratch, and perform any number of household repairs. My father could build a house from the ground up and fix pretty much anything that was worth fixing.

My dad was an electrical engineer. My mom -- after running a restaurant and a beauty parlor, then working in health care -- got her nursing degree at 50, about the same age I am now.

I was 8 when she graduated and became a registered nurse. I was enormously proud of her, but unsure how to express that sentiment out loud. So I wrote her a letter instead. I suppose my career path was starting even then.

Becoming a sports fan

But when it came to sports, which I loved from earliest memory, that was something I typically shared with my father. He bought me baseball cards and told of seeing Stan Musial play. He took me to Busch Stadium to watch our beloved Cardinals.

We rejoiced or commiserated with each other over the Cardinals' daily results right up until his death in April 1994. Two weeks before that, I had come home from the Women's Final Four in Richmond, Virginia, and the first thing my dad -- who was weakened by illness but still buoyant in personality -- had said to me was, "That was some shot!"

He'd watched on TV as North Carolina's Charlotte Smith hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Louisiana Tech in the NCAA championship game. He'd gotten into women's basketball because it was something I wrote and cared about.

Mom, to that point, had not followed sports very much, other than what her own kids had played, tuning into a few big events, or chatting about what I was covering. Mostly, she was too busy working. But after Dad died, my mother, retired by then, really embraced televised sports.

In fact, she became a kind of sports critic, with a commentary that was unique to her. She'd observe a basketball game for a few minutes, pick which team she thought was playing "the right way," then complain about the other team. The next week, though, she might decide she was pulling for the team she'd previously criticized. My mom reserved the right to determine these things on a case-by-case basis, using her standards alone.

She cheered vigorously for U.S. athletes to win every Olympic gold medal, Grand Slam tennis event or major golf tournament. Even when they didn't, she'd proclaim the Americans were "still the best."

In sports, as with everything else, Mom would randomly botch someone's name and then forever continue with that pronunciation, no matter how often someone (especially me) tried to correct her.

So, for example, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina was always "Yader" (rhymes with raider), Martina Navratilova was "Navaroney" (it's Czech, not Irish, I would say to no avail), and Tennessee's legendary women's basketball coach was "Pat Summers."

My mom liked Pat Summitt because she had the look of a strong but fair disciplinarian. Mom would say, "I'll bet those players do what they're told! Pat Summers isn't going to put up with anything else!"

In later years, my mom's eyesight unfortunately diminished quite a bit. Yet she was sure she still saw fouls in basketball and the strike zone in baseball more clearly than the referees and umpires did.

And if you didn't know she loved the Cardinals, you'd have thought she hated them. She foretold their doom before every game, and treated them much like Don Rickles did the guest of "honor" at a celebrity roast. She was the perfect comic foil to me, the eternally optimistic Cardinals fan.

Mom had the quickest hook in the history of baseball. As in, her typical reaction to a Cardinals pitcher giving up a hit or walk to start a game was, "Just pull him out now! I've told you, he's no good anymore. What's wrong with La Russa?" (Tony La Russa bore the brunt of her ire before Matheny.) But then, of course, she also had no confidence in the entire bullpen.

Her expectations for the Cardinals? Win every game by a wide margin. Of a 3-2 victory, she'd say, "They're damn lucky they won. They almost lost." A 10-0 triumph would prompt, "Why can't they do that every night?"

Other "mom-isms" during baseball games included:

• "He's just swinging at air!"

• "These umpires are corrupt!"

• "The Cardinals are giving the game away!"

• "Turn it off! I can't stand to watch them anymore."

• "Don't even talk to me about the losers."

This was her shtick, and she excelled at it. It might sound irritating, but mostly it was completely hilarious. It was just so Mom.

And for all her bashing of the Cardinals, through nearly two decades of baseball seasons, the most important time of the day was whatever time their game was on.

Thank you, Mom

Upon reflection, I realized that my mom's Cardinals "devotion" -- along with her other sports viewing -- grew in part from her trying to fill a void when Dad died, for me and for my older brother, who was also a big baseball fan. It was another way she took care of us.

My mom lived with me the last 25 years, and I can't even imagine having the career I've had without all she did for me in the long-hours, high-travel world of journalism. But one of her countless contributions really was becoming a funny, lovably curmudgeon-like sports fan.

The past month has been the saddest and most difficult of my life. Several years ago, I first heard William Makepeace Thackeray's quote: "Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children." And I thought, "For a lot of us, that doesn't change as we grow into big children."

My mother was the person I most admired. She worked much harder and endured far more hardships than I ever could. She kept an open mind and evolved with the changing times. She supported civil rights and marriage equality, and she believed all people deserved to be treated with fairness and dignity.

In her last few years, as age took away so much from her physically, she remained tack-sharp mentally. She didn't fully grasp the Internet, yet still correctly used "Twitter" as a noun and "tweet" as a noun and a verb. She knew everything that was going on in the news, worldwide, and would frequently ask me, "Have you heard the latest?" I never was as up-to-date as she was.

This week, I found myself revisiting my favorite sports memory: That absurdly wonderful and improbable Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. My mom proclaimed the Cardinals' cause lost about a hundred times that night. We were watching in adjacent rooms, as we sometimes did when I was too tense to sit down and would pace between the two televisions.

When David Freese's game-winning and series-saving home run landed beyond the center-field wall, I collapsed onto the couch in the den -- laughing, crying and yelling all at the same time. After a few moments, I looked up and there was Mom, wearing a little grin.

"They're damn lucky they won," she said, beaming. "But they still have to win Game 7, you know."

I was damn lucky to have my mother for as long as I did. But now I still have to keep on going, I know. I'll do the best I can, Mom. You deserve nothing less.