Rick’s Cafe: Requiem for a baseball superfan … the sad, cautionary story of Craig Appel, the ‘Rally Pumpkin’
Jul 12, 2012, 4:15 PM EDT
The San Francisco Giants community was saddened to learn earlier this month of the death of Craig Appel, the team’s unofficial mascot known as the Rally Pumpkin. Appel apparently committed suicide in Los Angeles, where he had worked as a bus driver. How did an LA resident become a fixture for a team in San Francisco? He commutes. Appel had regularly driven the 700 miles between the two cities to see his beloved Giants, but that was only one of the remarkable things about him.
I first met Craig Appel in November of 2010. He was seated on a bench overlooking McCovey Cove, just outside of AT&T Park. He was dressed completely in orange, and had a staff with a pumpkin doll on the top. Across his considerable torso were written the words ‘Rally Pumpkin.’
It seemed odd that a man dressed thusly would be outside of the stadium instead of inside, where Game 1 of the World Series was just about to get underway. So I asked Rally Pumpkin why he was sitting forlornly on a bench, so far removed from the Giants’ first World Series appearance in eight years.
“Because I can’t afford a thousand dollars for a ticket,” said Pumpkin, who jingled his toy pumpkin. Appel, you see, was always in character. “And as long as people keep paying a thousand to five thousand dollars for a World Series ticket, it will keep the common fan like me out of the game.”
I took an instant liking to Appel. I had seen him from time to time inside the stadium at regular-season games — he was one of the Giants’ most well-known unofficial mascots. But this was the first time I’d talked to him. I could tell he was angry — “the government should step in and stop this World Series price gouging,” he said — but even while delivering his diatribe he was all for the team. He kept jangling the bells affixed to his toy pumpkin atop his staff.
He was an angry pumpkin, but not a militant one. Despite it all, he loved his team.
Appel told me that he was a bus driver for a Los Angeles school district, and one of his tasks was to transport the baseball teams to road games, which he loved. He also got to drive the Giants team bus when the team visited Los Angeles and San Diego, and he loved that even more.
But Appel had health problems, and rather suddenly all of that was taken away.
Craig Appel passed away on July 3rd, the victim of suicide. Apparently he threw himself into the path of an Amtrak train in Los Angeles, where he had made his living as a school bus driver. He was 50 years old.
“He was basically homeless and had mounting debts,” Carolyn Sherry, a friend and classmate of Appel’s at John H Francis Polytechnic High School in the Sun Valley region of Los Angeles, told Off the Bench. “Because of his health condition and inability to see doctors, he had his bus driver’s license taken away, and thus, lost what he truly loved doing. It is a very sad story.”
Close friend Robert Fong attended many Giants games with Appel and has set up a website to solicit donations for funeral expenses.
“Unfortunately a bunch of things snowballed for Craig,” Fong told Off the Bench. “He absolutely loved driving the Giants team bus and was heartbroken when he wasn’t allowed to anymore. After that he was hospitalized. I think he stopped taking his medication. He was diabetic. Once he was released, he needed medical clearance to drive his school bus again but his doctor wouldn’t sign off because he wasn’t taking his medication. He then lost his bus driving license.
“He was in severe debt and close to being evicted. He tried to get his disability pension from the school system but they gave him the runaround. I think all the pressures just made him depressed and he gave up.”
A little more than $1,000 has been raised so far.
“His family is very poor and they need help for funeral costs,” Sherry said. “A few of us have been trying in vain to get in touch with the Giants organization to see if they would donate something to the family to defray costs.
“Craig was a wonderful, gentle and caring soul. We miss him a lot.”
UPDATE: The Giants have donated $1,000 to the fund for Appel, according to Sherry.
His service is set for Sunday in Mission Hills’ Eden Memorial.
I won’t get into the health care debate or the state of the economy here — there’s nothing I can say that you don’t already know. But Craig Appel’s tale is indeed a cautionary one. How far are most of us, really, from homelessness and despair? Closer than we probably think. If not, this is a good lesson in counting your blessings.
As Giants fans, Appel was always there to give us a boost, and it’s too bad that we couldn’t return the favor when he needed us the most. I’m not sure it’s really anyone’s fault. All I know is the world is short one passionate, good-hearted, gentle soul, and that is sad.
Rick’s Cafe Americain appears on Thursday. Contact Rickchand@gmail.com. Twitter @Rickchand.
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