Sports: Family matters in baseball

Illustration by Dave Cutler

From the October 2015 issue of The Rotarian

In 30 years of covering baseball, I’ve seen my share of runs, hits, and errors. Back in 1985, players went on strike in hopes of boosting their pay past a minimum of $40,000. Fans watched highlights on a six-year-old cable network called ESPN. The Red Sox and Cubs always lost. Sportswriters roamed locker rooms at will, interviewing players and managers, sometimes making friends with them.

Then salaries boomed, on their way to today’s big-league average of $4 million a year. Iron-pumping, drug-abusing players ballooned until they looked like parade floats, then shrank back to human proportions after Major League Baseball cracked down on steroids. The Red Sox won the World Series. Three times! The Cubs didn’t. (Some things never change.) People began following the game online in real time, making SportsCenter look quaint. Players and teams made sportswriters feel quaint by managing their own messages. Why open up to a reporter when you can tweet to millions of fans with one click?

Today, locker-room access is strictly controlled. Players give postgame quotes to mobs of reporters, seldom saying much more than how it felt to win (awesome) or how their hamstring’s holding up (fine). You can wait around for a one-on-one, hoping the player won’t say, “Call my agent.” If you ever get a few minutes of his time, you’d better make them count.

You don’t ask a pitcher how he gets Mike Trout out, or a batting champ how he hits Clayton Kershaw. Those are trade secrets. But almost every ballplayer has fond memories of the man who first put a bat or ball in his hands. Almost every player likes to talk about his dad.

One spring, I spent a week chasing Barry Bonds around Phoenix. He kept brushing me off: “Sorry dude, gotta go.” Finally I spent an hour with his father, Bobby, an All-Star outfielder of the 1960s and ’70s. After Bobby Bonds and I worked on a crossword puzzle together, talking baseball, he told his son to give me some time. So Barry and I played golf. I met his family. He went on and on about Bobby, pointing out, “My father never taught me to swing a bat.” In those days, before a steroids scandal ruined his reputation, Bonds’ goal was to prove he was better than Bobby had been. In that way, he was like Ken Griffey Jr., another second-generation star determined to make his own name in the game.

Over the years, I tried the Dad question on dozens of ballplayers. Some were stars, some were second-stringers, but almost all of them had something to say about their dads. Bonds and Griffey Jr. wanted to outdo their fathers, while Cal Ripken Jr. and Buddy Bell wanted to emulate theirs. Marlins pitcher Dan Haren grew up resenting his dad for pushing him too hard but ended up admitting, “He’s a big reason I made it.” Today, Haren makes $10 million a year – while missing his own kids so much during the long season that he almost retired last winter.

Three generations of Boones – Ray, Bob, and Bob’s sons Bret and Aaron – played a total of 58 big-league seasons and made 10 All-Star teams. Along the way, the Boones spent decades needling and one-upping each other, and they’re still at it. Last year I asked Bob, a 1980 World Series hero who’s now vice president of player personnel for the Washington Nationals, how he felt about his son’s home run to beat the Red Sox in the 2003 playoffs. “Well, he hit a knuckleball,” Bob said of Aaron’s famous homer, “and it didn’t knuckle. I mean, c’mon. I could have hit that ball out.”

Aaron laughed when I told him what his father had said. Brother Bret, the best Boone hitter of them all, said, “No way. Dad didn’t have Aaron’s power. I’m saying warning track for Dad, maybe.”

Years of similar conversations led me to write a book about baseball families, and working on the book led me to think there’s something special in the way fathers and sons experience the game. Maybe that’s because it’s slower than other sports, leaving time to discuss, agree, and argue between plays. Maybe it’s because it’s one of the few sports many of us actually play with our fathers. Hardly anyone thinks back wistfully to tackling Dad or dunking on him.

I wound up spending time with big-league families as well as parents and kids who had nothing to do with the pro game. They all had their own ways of playing, watching, or talking about baseball, including some who barely talked about anything else. One son told me his father “never said much, but he’d tell me about Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle.” Another said, “My dad was a drunk. Our only good times were watching ballgames on TV.” Another wondered if he and his father would have spoken at all if not for baseball talk.

My dad and I were like that. Art Cook was a former minor-league star who hurt his arm and then came home to Indiana to be a teacher, coach, and dad. I never measured up to him as an athlete and wound up writing about sports instead. We didn’t talk much for years. What was there to talk about? Not politics or religion or our feelings. In time, though, we reestablished our connection with a nightly phone call about baseball. It turned out that saying, “Nolan Ryan, 15 strikeouts!” could be another way of saying, Hi, how are you? Or even, I miss you. We called our baseball talks the Dad Report. They lasted until the night he died in 1995, hit by a car on a rainy night. A shock. But it would have been worse if not for those phone calls. I never came right out and said I love you, but he knew.

Today, when I call my son, Cal, at college, we mostly talk baseball. “Kershaw, 15 strikeouts!” is our way of saying, Hi, I’m thinking of you.

It’s not just a father-and-son thing. I tracked down Babe Ruth’s stepdaughter, Julia, who throws ceremonial first pitches at major- and minor-league games “to keep Daddy’s memory alive.” Julia Ruth Stevens is 99 years old. “Do you know how I can still throw at my age? Every time, I stand a little closer to the catcher.” My friend and editor Jenny Llakmani was one of only two girls on a Little League team coached by her sports-crazy dad, Bob Becker, a member of the Rotary Club of Paw Paw Lake (Coloma Hartford Watervliet), Mich. “When I got a hit,” she recalls, “he’d yell his favorite phrase – ‘Atta boy, girl!’” My own daughter, Lily, knows far more about the local teams than most fans. We watch the Yankees and Mets on TV, talking strategy, and she falls asleep with a ballgame on the radio, like I did almost 50 years ago.

There’s something special about the way baseball stitches families together. I feel it when I talk to Cal, who co-runs our team in the original Rotisserie League, granddaddy of fantasy sports worldwide. Cal crunches numbers; I rely on hunches. We talk and text every day, much like Dad and I did, except that our calls end differently. After discussing runs, hits, hamstrings, and advanced metrics like FIP (fielding-independent pitching) and BABIP (batting average on balls in play), we come right out and say, “I love you.”

As much as we try to connect with our loved ones, it can be hard to find common ground. That’s one thing the national pastime is good for. I’ve come to believe that it’s not whether the home team wins or loses that counts, it’s how you share the game.

Kevin Cook’s latest book is The Dad Report: Fathers, Sons, and Baseball Families.

The Rotarian