By Paul Semendinger, Ed.D.
I love baseball.
My dad loves baseball even more than I do.
That’s where this story begins…and ends. It’s what this story is all about. Baseball.
The American Game.
The Great American Game…
Well, maybe it’s about more than that. It’s about fathers and sons.
I am a writer. I have written a novel, a few historical texts, and a host of picture books for kids. They call me “pre-published” which is just a nice way of saying “unpublished.” I have attended enough writers’ conferences and creative workshops to get my fill for a lifetime, or two. In these workshops, they always talk about having a great opening to set the proper mood.
I apologize if my opening lines weren’t creative enough.
If you knew me, and if you knew my dad, you’d know that those simple words tell the whole story. There isn’t much more to say to get this story started.
Sometimes, real life imitates art.
There was a movie that came out in the 1980s entitled Field of Dreams. Ostensibly it is about a man who builds a baseball diamond in a cornfield in Iowa. He builds the field and numerous baseball greats arrive, out of the corn, to play ball on his magical sandlot. At one point, one of the players looks at the character who built the field and asks, “Is this Heaven?”
In the movie, many of the greats from baseball’s past come to play on this field. This includes the legendary and tarnished Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Shoeless Joe was one of the greatest players to ever play professional baseball. In a 13-year career, he had a lifetime batting average of .356. His lifetime batting average is higher than that of almost every other player in baseball history including almost all of the greats.
That includes Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth – yes, Babe Ruth. None have a higher lifetime batting average than Shoeless Joe.
Joe Jackson’s average is third all-time behind only Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby.
But, Joe Jackson was caught up in the famous Black Sox scandal that involved fixing the 1919 World Series. He and seven of his teammates were found guilty and thrown out of baseball for life. And death. “Permanently Ineligible” is what they called it.
Joe Jackson is not in the Hall of Fame. He’s not eligible to get there. Even in death.
For the record, Joe Jackson died in 1951.
But Field of Dreams isn’t really about Joe Jackson and his teammates getting a chance to play baseball again; it’s about a man having a catch with his father. More, Field of Dreams is about the magic that exists when a father and his son make the time to play ball together.
My mom and dad love to travel. Beginning in the late 1970’s, when they purchased their first conversion van, a yellow 1978 Ford Econoline with a Turtle Top (you can’t make this stuff up), they started driving to remote places across the United States.
Living in New Jersey is a great vantage point for traversing the country. Go west and the nation beckons!
In 1982, my parents put my sister and me in the van and we headed off for the trip of a lifetime – driving across the United States to California and back.
In six weeks we covered over 10,000 miles, camping in the van most of the time, with an occasional stop at a motel to “refresh.”
The top of the van was called a Turtle Top because it popped up at night to provide an upper bunk for sleeping. In our sleeping bags, my sister and I shared the space. Mom and Dad slept downstairs on the double-bed that during the day were two rows of bench seats. It was called a conversion van for a reason –- everything had a dual purpose.
We saw everything on that trip. Literally everything.
I remember a lot of canyons: The Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, and, of course, the Grand Canyon. There may have been others. We also saw a host of great land and other formations –- the Garden of the Gods, Mesa Verde, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Bad Lands, the Great Salt Lake.
America is a great and amazing country.
And lest the reader think that it was all nature and no fun, yes, we also hit the tourist sites like the Corn Palace, Wall Drug, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Mount Rushmore, and, of course, Disneyland.
I could write pages about Disneyland. I love the Disney parks.
But, of all the places we visited along that great trip to California and back, my favorite stops were the baseball stadiums.
I think these were my dad’s favorites as well.
Our first stop at a ballpark was in Kansas City. It was there that we had an opportunity to take a tour of the stadium and go, for the first time in my life, into the dugouts, on the field, and into the clubhouse.
It was while we were in the locker room that my mom noticed three discarded baseball bats, each with a crack. Surveying the tour group, including my sister and me, there were three children. My mom asked if each child could take a broken bat.
Those days were before “game-used equipment” was even a “thing” to collect. In an instant, the bats, otherwise heading to the garbage, were distributed to each child. I took Lloyd Moseby’s bat. My sister was given a bat that had belonged to Wayne Nordhagen. The other kid — I am 100 per cent certain of this — took Jesse Barfield’s bat.
That was the one I wanted my sister to get. (I had been playing with Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield in my Strat-o-Matic baseball league. They were both rookies who were doing very well.)
The previous night, we had attended the game between the Kansas City Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays. The Royals won that game, 5-4. George Brett had two hits and a run batted in. I still have the scorecard.
At the ballpark that night, my dad noticed Hank Bauer sitting in the stands. Hank Bauer had been a great Yankee outfielder in the 1950s. He was an important part of the Yankees teams that seemed to win the pennant every year. To that point, I had never heard of Hank Bauer, but my dad encouraged me to approach him and ask for his autograph –- which I did. Hank Bauer impressed me as a kind and decent man.
I still have the autograph.
We also attended a baseball game in San Diego. We thought it ironic that we saw the San Diego Padres playing the New York Mets. We traveled over 3,000 miles to see a team from New York.
I remember getting numerous Mets’ players autographs, something that probably wouldn’t have happened at home, but what I recall the most is being put off by Dave Kingman. The great Dave Kingman refused to give me his signature.
Maybe he refused because he was hitting only .221 at the time.
Back in those days, my father taught me to keep score of every baseball game I attended, a tradition I carried well into my 40s when, after attending a plethora of Yankees games with my partial season ticket package, I lost a little track of. I have a general list of every game I attended, but I’m not certain it is accurate any longer.
My father taught me a lot, but most of all, he taught me to love baseball.
In subsequent years, following our epic family trip to California, my sister and I, of course, grew up, went to college, fell in love, and began families of our own.
Mom and Dad continued to travel whenever they could. And, whenever they found themselves near Iowa, they’d visit the Field of Dreams.
For my father, it was a place of magic. He recounts how real life picks up right where the movie ends, with cars lined up to visit the field –- a place where friends and families gather to play ball, if only for a short while.
My dad has shared many stories of his visits to the Field of Dreams. He tells of the families he has met there, of the time he loaned his baseball bat to another person so they could “bat some out.”
My dad threw off the mound to his favorite catcher, my mom, still trying to perfect, even in his 70s, his signature knuckleball.
Amid corn stalks, clay, and grass, my father still lives his dream of reaching the major leagues.
“Now pitching for the Red Sox, the game’s oldest rookie, number 21…”
There was only one thing missing from all these memories.
His one, and only, son.
For many years, I entertained dreams of surprising my dad with a trip to Iowa to play on the Field of Dreams. I thought it would be a great thing to do.
I thought it was something I should do.
And yet, it never happened.
I have three wonderful boys. My focus on them, raising them, and being an active presence in their lives –- in every way –- left me with precious little time to run off to Iowa with my own father to play baseball.
Iowa isn’t exactly right around the corner.
It wasn’t for a lack of wanting, but life gets in the way. My quest to be a great dad to my children left me incapable of always being a great son for my own father. Sure, we have always made time for our parents, but I didn’t have days upon days to go to Iowa to play ball.
As nice of an idea as that was, it just didn’t happen.
Years ago, my dad and I started a tradition of always having a catch on Father’s Day. I love this. In a way, we have made, through this activity, my backyard our own field of dreams.
And that, I reasoned, was the closest we’d ever get to the real thing.
Or so I thought.
We all grow up. My oldest son was at Lafayette College. My middle son was at Williams College. My youngest was completing his sophomore year of high school.
No longer did my kids seem to need me on a daily basis.
For the first time, maybe in my “forever,” I seemed to be getting some free time.
On one occasion, as my father shared another story of his experiences at the Field of Dreams, I thought to myself, “I really must get there with him.”
I was starting to think that going to Iowa to have a catch wasn’t all that crazy.
Age brings us many things. It brings wisdom. It brings experience. It brings maturity. Age also brings perspective.
As a young dad, I couldn’t really see beyond my own kids and my own daily needs. For many years, I was way over-extended. I was working as a principal, teaching as an adjunct college professor, coaching numerous sports teams, helping with the Boy Scouts, volunteering at church, serving as a mentor to future school administrators, playing in an “old-man” softball league, and trying to make time for my own family’s experiences by traveling with my family to great places –- including, of course, ballparks.
I don’t regret any of that. I loved every minute. I didn’t afford myself much free time. The only time I gave to myself was spent running as I picked up this crazy habit of running marathons.
With my children growing, and a very understanding wife, I started to have, for the first time in decades, a little down time.
I also started to consider alternatives to driving to Iowa. I began to consider flying there and meeting my parents out there. I knew they’d want to drive…
The idea began to blossom.
Maybe I would get to the Field of Dreams with my father after all…
Now, I have a great relationship with my mom and dad. They’ve always been there for me. We live only two miles apart. We get together most weeks for what we call “Pizza Thursday.”
But, all that being said, I felt there was a chance that my dad might not like the idea of meeting in Iowa after all these years to go to the Field of Dreams. Maybe he had other plans. Maybe he moved on.
As silly as it sounds…I didn’t want to get rejected from my father, so, while I had the idea, and was quite certain it was a good idea, I didn’t bring it up.
I get a lot of good ideas in my head that I just don’t bring up.
And then it happened, in late August 2015.
Life as we knew it changed.
In an instant, I saw that my parents were all too mortal, and every bit of their late 70s age.
The call came in the late evening. It was my mom. “Dad is having trouble breathing, don’t worry, but I want you to know we’re going to the hospital. I called the ambulance.”
I rushed to my parent’s house arriving just after the ambulance did. The paramedics were already inside the house.
My father has had health scares before. But this, somehow, seemed different.
Dad couldn’t breathe.
At the hospital, they tried everything. Dad gasped and struggled for breath. The Emergency Room was all a buzz. I saw concern on people’s faces.
Worse, I saw fear in my father’s eyes.
I had never before seen fear in my father’s eyes.
He couldn’t breathe, he struggled, constantly, for air. I’m certain he thought he was dying.
It was at this point that the doctor examining my father said the words that resonate with us still today. “I have to trach him.”
Discussions followed, but we were told that time was of the essence. While I remained calm, and level headed, there was a stronger person in the room – my mother. She took in all the information. She called friends and asked for prayers. She remained by my father’s side. When she heard the word “tracheotomy,” she already thought of my father’s friend who had a trach many years ago. “He and dad still communicate, we can get through this,” she said.
My sister, a nurse, arrived. She confirmed the decision, the tracheotomy was the only answer for this immediate crisis.
My father never smoked. My father exercises regularly. He doesn’t drink.
When I tell people that he had a tracheotomy, they assume he was a smoker. It just isn’t true.
The best that any doctor can explain was that this was a freak virus.
“Sometimes it happens.”
People still ask, “Why did your dad need a trach?”
The simple answer is because he couldn’t breathe.
There was an emptiness when I sat with my father in the hospital room the next day. I had taken my mom home to rest and I was now alone with my dad. All things considered, his spirits were good, but he was no longer the same man.
My dad couldn’t talk.
As we sat in the hospital room, in silence, I wished to hear my father’s voice just one more time.
He tried to mouth words to me, but I am not good at lip reading.
Instead, I had a pad of paper, and we started to write to each other.
We talked, a little, about the hospital, but mostly, we talked about baseball. Dad loves the Red Sox. We did a lot of writing down Red Sox line-ups on pieces of paper.
Jerry Remy, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Perez…
Rico Petrocelli, Jim Lonborg, Tony Conigliaro…
Vern Stephens, Bobby Doerr, Joe Cronin, Dominic DiMaggio, Mel Parnell… and Ted Williams.
My dad loved Ted Williams.
Ted Williams was born on August 30. I know that date very well. It’s also my mom’s birthday.
Teddy Ballgame was born in 1918. That was 21 years before my mom.
It’s a cliché, but baseball gave my dad and I something to talk about when there weren’t words for anything else.
The other thoughts were too scary.
Would he ever talk again? Would he be able to eat? What would his new life look like?
Baseball was safe. It was common ground. Constant. Unemotional. We could name players for hours. And we probably did.
Dad wrote the names down. I talked. It was silly for me to write.
Dad could still hear.
There was a miracle while my dad was in the hospital. He learned how to talk again. Like the virus, the medical experts couldn’t explain it.
My dad can now talk, not quite like before, but pretty darn close.
After a few weeks of being home, the doctors said that my dad could resume all life activities. “Including travel?” my dad asked.
“Yes, including travel,” came the reply.
This time I wasn’t going to put off this thought of mine. I didn’t quite say it in so many words, but the spirit of what I asked was the same…
“Hey Dad, wanna have a catch?”
One of my favorite activities in the world is just having a catch. I love to throw a ball to a partner.
My father taught me how to throw and catch. We played ball a lot when I was a kid.
I taught my sons to play ball. We still try to make the time to get our gloves out and chuck. There’s nothing like it.
I try to remember to savor every one of these experiences.
I have been waiting for many months now in eager anticipation of what will be the most memorable catch of my life. Mom and Dad are already on the road and heading for Iowa.
In a few short days, I’ll be flying there.
To have a catch.
With my dad.
This story can be found in my book, Impossible is an Illusion. My parents and I took this trip in 2016. It was a great success. I will follow this article next month with the one that tells the story of our trip to the Field of Dreams.
Paul Semendinger, Ed.D., runs the Start Spreading the News Yankees site. He is also an elementary school principal, award-winning author, a marathoner, and a baseball player (still).