When 8-year-old Kaden Cleark stepped into the batter’s box at his Clarksdale youth league baseball game earlier this summer, he wasn’t expecting much.
But when his bat met the ball and it took flight, soaring higher and higher, until it cleared the fence some 120 feet away, pandemonium struck.
Kaden, not quite sure what to do, spread his arms like an airplane and took flight down the first base line, running the bases as his Fiser Insurance teammates and supporters in the crowd cheered him on, yelling out “Go Kaden,” as he ended the victory lap with a leap and a high-five with his coach as he crossed home plate.
“I was surprised,” Kaden said.
His mother, Bridney Skipper, who was sitting in the stands, said she was shocked.
“I just stood there the whole time with my mouth wide open,” she recalled.
Kaden’s maternal grandmother, Roshelle Outlaw, who watches the games from the comfort of her car, started honking her horn as her grandson made his way around the bases.
But for one in the crowd, the blast wasn’t that big of a surprise.
From an early age, Reginald Jermaine Cleark had been a central part of his son’s life.
From a game of catch in the backyard to driving him to and from numerous practices, he had been there for his son, nurturing his love of baseball, which Kaden says is second to none.
After Kaden’s home run, Bridney said she looked over and there was a big smile on Jermaine’s face as he kept repeating, “My boy… my boy… my boy.”
Jermaine had made time in his busy schedule to make sure he was there for Kaden’s ballgame, but had to leave right after to attend a business conference in Starkville.
As manager of Meadowview Village, which is a complex for the elderly in Clarksdale, Jermaine had already picked up his rental car and stopped by the ballfield to catch the game before leaving for the conference.
“I remember he called on his way to the meeting and the whole purpose of the call was to call me and say, ‘He (Kaden) had really been working hard for that, Brid,’” she recalled.
It would be the final conversation she’d have with her son’s father and the final game Jermaine would get to see his son play.
That next day, Wednesday, May 16, Jermaine would be busy with a whole day of meetings, ending the night with a steak and potato for dinner.
That next morning, however, Jermaine’s district manager became worried when she didn’t see him at the conference. They’d alert the hotel staff, who would find Jermaine dead in his room. He had apparently died of a massive heart attack sometime during the night.
Jermaine was 34 years old. He’d never had any indication of heart problems, but his mother had died of a massive heart attack when she was just 43 years of age.
Bridney, who is an instructional coach at J.W. Stampley Freshman Academy in Clarksdale, and Jermaine had went to school together and began dating their senior year at Clarksdale High School. Even though they would eventually go to different colleges, they would continue to see each other. Kaden had been born in 2009 and Jermaine remained an integral part of both of their lives.
And, Bridney says, she and Jermaine “were working on some things” with their relationship and they had even planned to take a couple trips together as a family this summer.
“He was an amazing dad,” she said. “He spent a lot of time with Kaden. He was always the playful one. I was always the worrying one.”
Kaden says he misses his dad, but his face lights up when he recalls the night he and his dad spent most of the night watching their favorite movies and playing video games.
“They were just best buds,” Bridney says.
Kaden shook his head in agreement.
“He would pick me up and sometimes we’d go to my aunt’s house. She’d cook and we’d go outside and play football and baseball. We would stay in his backyard and hit balls. He’d play PS4 with me and, at Christmas, he helped put up my Playstation VR.”
Kaden’s favorite baseball team is the Toronto Blue Jays and his favorite player is Jose Bautista, who was one of the top sluggers for the Blue Jays for many years and was known for his demonstrative home run celebrations.
He also says Jason Dobson is his favorite coach as he’s helped Kaden with his throws from the catcher’s position on the Clarksdale 8-year-old all-star team.
Still, his father has, and will always have, a special place in Kaden’s heart and memory.
He still has the home run ball he hit that May night and is not quite sure what he’s going to do with it. He gets more excited when talking about the certificate for a free pizza from local restaurant Stone Pony that he received for hitting the home run.
They had made plans to go out that night after he hit the home run, but Kaden wanted his father to join in on the celebration, so they opted to wait until Jermaine returned from his work conference.
That certificate still sits unused.
“Can we go tonight,” Kaden asks his mom, suddenly realizing that the certificate may no longer be usable.
“Oh, Kaden, it will never expire,” Bridney says.
It will continue on and on.
Just like a son’s love for his father and a father’s love of his son.
Michael Banks is publisher of The Press Register. He can be reached by phone at 662-627-2201 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.