Bill Waskelis’ will to win

St. Thomas the Apostle parishioner and lifetime Cubs fan almost gets to witness his lifelong dream                     

By Bill Brewer

Bill and MaryAnn Waskelis, with young son Kevin, give their opinion of the Cubs during a game years ago at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Bill Waskelis’ lifelong dream came true on Nov. 2. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series after a 108-year drought.

His son, Kevin, wishes his dad had been here to see it. They were oh-so-close to witnessing baseball history together.

After cheering on the Cubs in bad years and good for most of his 79 years, Mr. Waskelis died on Oct. 31, as the Cubs were two games shy of winning their first world championship since 1908. A funeral Mass for Mr. Waskelis was celebrated on Nov. 4 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City.

He and his wife, MaryAnn, have been members of St. Thomas the Apostle since they retired to Tellico Village in 2001. Mr. Waskelis also was active in the Knights of Columbus, which he belonged to longer than he and his wife’s 52 years of marriage, and he had been honored as Knight of the Year.

Mr. Waskelis had always talked of watching the Cubs return to the pinnacle of Major League Baseball. Finally, this was to be the year. And he fought to hold on until the Series was decided in Game 7 on Nov. 2. MaryAnn and Kevin Waskelis were by his side encouraging him until the end.

The family was featured in a Nov. 1 column by Detroit Free Press sports columnist Jeff Seidel, whose story detailed Mr. Waskelis’ efforts to see the Cubs win the World Series that fell short by two games. The story was circulated around the country.

After battling kidney cancer for two years, doctors told Mr. Waskelis Oct. 6 that he had 30 days to live. A bone scan revealed the cancer had spread.

As the family dealt with the devastating news, Kevin realized the Cubs offered a measure of hope and incentive during his dad’s final days.
Bill Waskelis grew up in Detroit, where he attended school and played sports. He even attended Detroit Tigers games as a kid, but he would develop a devotion to the Cubs, a connection he handed down to his son.

Mr. Waskelis was a sales executive in the chemical industry, and the family lived in Dallas and St. Louis in addition to Detroit. Despite residing where the major league Tigers, Rangers, and Cardinals call home, they remained diehard Cubs fans.

Kevin Waskelis and his father Bill

Now 36, Kevin remembers being introduced to the Cubs as a 7-year-old baseball upstart who would play catch with his dad. Bill Waskelis would go on to teach Kevin the finer points of the game, including pitching. Kevin played baseball through his freshman year in high school before setting his sights on basketball.

But his love for the Cubs never waned and rivaled his father’s. Kevin, who rushed to be by his father’s side from out of state, recalls that while attending middle school in St. Louis the school held a Cardinals Day and brought in a Cardinals player to meet the students. Kevin was wearing a Cubs shirt that day, and after the Cardinals player threw him a complimentary baseball he asked for the ball back after seeing Kevin’s shirt.

That just fueled his interest in the Cubs and strengthened his bond with his father. There were family trips to Wrigley Field to see the team play in person as well as visits to Cubs conventions in Chicago.

“We watched WGN and Harry Caray and Steve Stone on TV. Dad was a longtime Cubs fan and passed that on,” Kevin Waskelis said. “And then when they were going to the World Series, that’s something we never thought we would see.”

It has been a season of hope for the Waskelis family, with Mr. Waskelis certain that the Cubs’ time had finally arrived.

“He really believed they were going to win it. I was sure hoping that, but he said ‘yes, they’re going to do it,’” Kevin said. “I even got him the MLB (broadcast) package so he could watch every game on the computer. And he watched every game.”

Shortly after his final diagnosis, Mr. Waskelis followed the Cubs’ pennant race with San Francisco and Los Angeles. He watched with great interest as his beloved team finished the regular season with the best record in Major League Baseball, winning its division by 17 ½ games. The team also reached the 100-win mark for the first time since 1935 and won 103 total games, the most victories for the Chicago franchise since 1910. All that led to their first appearance in a World Series since 1945 and first win since 1908, capped by an 8-7 victory over the Cleveland Indians in extra innings in Game 7.

Kevin has said that when the Cubs won the National League pennant on Oct. 22, his father was celebrating with tears in his eyes.

Mr. Waskelis was still well enough to root for his team. But as the Cubs played their way into the World Series, his health began to fade.

Kevin and his mother talked about how unfortunate it was that as the Cubs advanced, Mr. Waskelis’ health declined.

“He was in so much pain. But when they were going to the World Series, that is something we thought we would never see. That helped ease the pain,” Kevin said.

In addition to Kevin and MaryAnn, Father Doug Owens, pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle, spent time with Mr. Waskelis in preparation for his death. Father Owens was the celebrant at Mr. Waskelis’ funeral, and Kevin noted that one of his father’s best friends from Michigan drove to Lenoir City to serve as a deacon for the funeral.

“His faith was very important to him, and he always tried to be the best person he could be,” MaryAnn Waskelis said.

Kevin and his mother praised St. Thomas and its parishioners, and the Knights of Columbus for their support during Mr. Waskelis’ illness and death.

“They have been so wonderful. They’ve made everything so much easier for us. They just have given us so much support, and the Knights of Columbus have done so much for us,” said MaryAnn Waskelis, who noted that those memories of the family going to Cubs games and conventions are so much more precious now.

At the funeral, Kevin and his mother displayed a picture of the family at Wrigley Field in Chicago and Mr. Waskelis’ hat from the 1991 Cubs convention. Also, a Knoxville man who had read Mr. Seidel’s column sent the Waskelises a program and towel from Game 4 of the World Series.

“It was such a kind gesture. We have never met him,” Kevin said.

As he reflected on all that has taken place since Oct. 6, Kevin was asked what his father’s reaction would have been to the Cubs winning Game 7 of the 2016 World Series in such a dramatic way.

“He would have been like me, breaking down and crying; tears of joy, not knowing exactly what to do because we’ve never been in this position before.” ■

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