January 19, 2004 12:00 PM

Growing up in Start, La., Tim Smith dotted his bedroom wall with baseball cards of his favorite major league players—among them pitcher Tug McGraw. At age 11, Tim stumbled across his birth certificate and discovered to his amazement that the man he had idolized also happened to be his dad. Tug, who as a minor leaguer had fathered Tim out of wedlock with Betty Trimble, at first questioned the paternity. But one look at the boy, who would grow up to be country music star Tim McGraw, swept away any doubts. “Right then and there,” Tug recalled in a draft of his upcoming memoir, “I told the lawyers to cancel the DNA tests. There was no doubt that Tim was my son.”

It was the start of a beautiful relationship that was tragically cut short on Jan. 5, when Tug, 59, died of brain cancer. In the 10 months since his father had been diagnosed with the disease, Tim, along with his wife, country singer Faith Hill, had helped care for him. “Tim stepped in and found the best doctors,” says Tug’s first wife, Phyllis McGraw. “It extended Tug’s life for eight months.” At his death, Tug was staying at a cabin Tim and Faith own in Franklin, Tenn. “We take comfort in knowing that his spirit will never die,” said the McGraws in a statement.

Tug’s death also robbed baseball of one of its most colorful characters: Among many escapades, he once showed up for a game on St. Patrick’s Day with his uniform dyed green. He also coined the memorable phrase “Ya gotta believe!” while playing for the upstart 1973 New York Mets. Says former Mets teammate Ron Swoboda: “He glowed a little brighter than everyone else.”

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