Bob, 49, doesn’t play a formal role at Whitecaps games, but he and his mother Judy, 71, are solid fixtures at as many contests as they can attend each summer, and Bob’s presence hasn’t gone unnoticed by Whitecaps administration, employees, and vendors.
“It’s nice to see him here every day,” says Mickey Graham, director of marketing and media for the Detroit Tigers farm club located in Comstock Park. “Everyone around here knows Bob. He’s a true fan.”
So respected is Bob, in fact, that earlier this baseball season, he was tapped to deliver the first pitch, in conjunction with recognizing Autism Awareness Month.
Bob has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, coupled with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.
But that hasn’t stopped him from endearing himself to legions of fans, many of them at the Whitecaps games, as well as folks Bob encounters in everyday living situations.
In significant fashion, says mother Judy, Bob has Hope Network to thank for the many ways in which he’s adapted to – and been accepted by – a community at large.
Born in January 1963 to Bob Sr. and Judy, their son was delivered almost three months premature, and weighed just 2 pounds, 2 ounces at birth. His weight dropped to just 1 pound, 9 ounces before stabilizing.
The family grew up in Grand Rapids’ Eastown neighborhood, and has lived in the same home on Norwood Avenue SE for some 40 years.
Bob attended classes in special education during his formative years, and graduated from Ottawa Hills High School in 1982. Not bad for a kid whose pediatrician initially predicted he’d be severely mentally impaired, says Judy.
Bob earned his way into a job as dishwasher for an area catering firm, but “they had to let him go” when times got tough, says Judy, explaining that Bob now receives disability benefits.
Bob developed a love of numbers early on, says his mother. “He’d be content many nights to just listen to ballgames on the radio, and at the same time, he’d read the Yellow Pages, cover to cover.”
It became obvious that Bob had a “Rain Man”-like ability to recall figures he’d mentally ingested months and even years prior. And it’s not just related to baseball stats.
He’s just as able to recount lyrics of songs and their artists and year of publication. And it sometimes happens in spontaneous ways. Last week, for example, Bob was simultaneously taking in a Whitecaps ballgame and being interviewed for this story when he suddenly stopped and said, “One, two, three! Did you hear that – the first three notes of the song by The Rascals, “Good Lovin.”
Sure enough – while both watching the game and submitting to questions, he was able to discern from the loudspeaker just three notes, and instantly recognize their origin.
In the next moment, he’s regaling the food at Yesterdog, an ancient haunt in Eastown, and his favorite place to chow down.
“I get the Yesterdog with the chili and the ketchup,” he says. Then, with a wry smile, he adds, “Three of ’em.”
The family doesn’t live far from that popular eatery, but when Bob’s not feasting, he’s pitching in on chores at the house. He’ll carry wash up from the basement, bring recycling to the curb, rake leaves, shovel snow and change kitty litter in “Max’s” box.
While Eastown is where Bob lives, it’s at Fifth Third Ballpark where “Stats” thrives.
There – sitting alongside the concourse in Section 217, Row 24, Seat 1 – Bob is in his glory. Armed with paper, pencils, earphones to hear the game’s radio broadcast, and a powerful set of binoculars, he charts every inning, putting down his pad only long enough to clap for anything the home team does in a winning direction.
Bob uses his own system to track offensive and defensive minutiae, and it’s not always “by the book.” But he rarely misses anything, going so far as to differentiate a high-fly ball from a shallower pop-out.
“He has his own system, but he knows what’s going on,” affirms Jim Hollebeek, another regular at the ballpark who delights in taking stats for himself. “When I’m not watching, I go to ‘Stats’ and he’ll get me out of trouble."
“He’s also a really good fan,” Jim says of his friend. “He keeps up on everything, and he’s a lot of fun to be with at a game.”