A couple years ago, my wife and I spent a day at the Iowa State Fair. We spent most of the day people watching, which is a secret joy of mine, but I was also able to squeeze in a turkey leg and a large lemonade. While wandering the grounds, we happened upon a dunk tank. Now anyone of Midwest origin knows what a dunk tank is. The dunk tank is a staple of midwestern county fairs. But hold on Jack, something was seriously wrong with this setup. Every dunk tank I’ve seen in my life involved throwing baseballs at the bullseye target. Real baseballs. Not this abomination. The participants were throwing a foam ball at the bullseye. They were paying to throw foam balls. And a few of them even seemed to be enjoying it, though none of the balls had near enough flight time to make it to the target. What a scam!! If you’ve thrown a foam ball, you know that Nolan Ryan couldn’t knock over a baby with one. I damn near had a conniption watching this outrage. I decided that next year, I’m sneaking my own baseballs into the fair and do this thing the right way, rules and lawyers be damned. If there’s a dunk tank close by, somebody is getting wet.
You see, I’ve been a connoisseur of dunk tanks since my father first had me toe the line. That would have been the summer of 1968. I was seven years old when my parents hauled us out to the Ness County fair. While my mom and sister were off on the Ferris Wheel or some such thing, dad led me to the dunk tank. Up on the seat was a middle-aged man, most likely from the local Lions Club or Chamber of Commerce. Dad got six balls for .50 cents and led me to the throwing line. I was a small child and upon seeing me, the local celebrity broke out into a stream of trash talk. The smack kind of unnerved me. I was definitely what you would call naïve country at that age and was not used to someone talking smack about me.
I can still hear the guy today, “Hey little fella, you’ll never be able to hit the target. Come on dad, move him up closer. He’ll never hit it!”
Pop must have known something I didn’t. He calmly replied, “no, he’s fine. He’ll throw from the adult line.”
The local barker was still running his yapper when I cut loose with the first throw. CLANK! It was pleasing to see the loudmouth drop into the stock tank. He came up spitting and coughing, in a state of disbelief that the little guy was the first person to get him wet. That didn’t stop his trash talking. No sirree, he doubled down on that stuff.
“That was just a lucky throw, no way you’ll hit it again little man, why I bet…CLANK!!”
Two in a row. I was starting to like this game.
The barker came up spitting and coughing again. Now he was a little miffed as well. He started to climb back on his perch, still muttering under his breath. I looked at my pop and he nodded his head, so I cut loose again, before the barker could get settled on his seat. CLANK!
This time the loudmouth came up spitting mad. “Damn it kid! Let me get settled before you throw that damn ball. Christ almighty. Give me a break.”
A crowd was starting to gather. I could hear them talking and laughing about the little guy who was giving the local loudmouth a bath. I fired the fourth ball and just barely missed the target. This set off the mouth again. “You just got lucky kid, you’ll never hit another one. Get someone else up here to throw, why you’ll …..CLANK!!”
The crowd exploded with laughter. The loudmouth, finally defeated, clambered back onto his seat. He looked resigned to the fact that he was going down one more time. I wound up and released. CLANK!!
I looked at my dad. He was laughing and I could see the pride in his eyes. We left the barker in the tank and moved on to another part of the fair. I’ve loved throwing dunk tanks ever since.
I tell you this because that was my first memory of playing any type of baseball with my dad. I was born when my father was just 19, so when I reached my peak ball-playing years, he was still a young man. Nearly every night in the spring and summer, I’d wait patiently for him to return from his job. He’d grab his glove, usually before eating supper, and still in his work clothes, we’d play catch for an hour or more. Many evenings, my mom would join in. I was a high-energy child, and sports were a great outlet for that energy. Mostly, I’d work on my pitching, but we still found plenty of time for grounders and pop flies. I’ve grown to appreciate this more as I’ve gotten older. My dad, tired after a long day at work, hot and sweaty. Hungry. Still, he made it a priority to play catch with me.
Fathers and sons have been playing ball ever since the first ball was invented. There must be something in the DNA of the American male that leads us to the ballfields and backyards with our sons, and increasingly so, with our daughters. I spent the better part of twenty years playing catch with my boys and with my daughter. With the rising popularity of girls’ softball, you’ll be just as likely to see a father-daughter combo playing catch. Even at my advancing age, we still find time to go out for a throw. And I cherish every moment they give me.
Baseball movies are another great way to bond with your kids and share your love of the game. Dad and I went to the movie Field of Dreams the week it was released and enjoyed it immensely. I’ve visited the movie site in Iowa on several occasions, both with my parents and my children. We always pull out the gloves and bat, and like a bunch of giddy children, partake in the beauty of baseball. The field has that effect on people. Even today, 32 years after the movie premiered, I’m always astounded at the number of people who make the pilgrimage to Dyersville, Iowa.
Iowa native Bob Feller often spoke glowingly about how he and his father Bill, bonded over baseball. Feller’s father even built young Robert his own ballfield, complete with a grandstand, his very own Field of Dreams. The senior Feller then formed a ball team featuring his strong-armed son. Often, more than a thousand people would crowd into the Feller farm to watch those games which featured a teenage Robert throwing against 30-year-old men. Later in life Feller said that he never got over his father’s death in 1942. “I’ve traveled all over the world and I never met a man as fine as my father.” said Feller. Feller also shared this pearl in a 2019 interview with Terry Pluto, “We started out as Catholics, but the priest told my father not to play baseball with me on Sundays. So, we became Methodists.” Maybe God is a baseball fan too?
Fathers and sons have been populating major league baseball rosters for decades. Ken Griffey Sr. and Junior were the first father-son duo to homer in the same game, as teammates no less, when they accomplished the feat on September 14, 1990. Former Royal prospect Cecil Fielder and son Prince are the only father-son duo to have each hit 50 home runs in a season.
Several father-son duos have had ties to Kansas City. The Bells (Gus, Buddy, David and Mike), the Boone’s (Ray, Bob, Bret and Aaron) and the Coleman’s (Joe, Joe Jr., and Casey) are three of the only five third-generation families to play pro ball. All have some history with the Royals.
Some of the other father-son duo’s, in which one or both played for the Royals, include Floyd and Brian Bannister, Sal and Drew Butera, Al and Jim Campanis, John and Luke Farrell, Tom (Flash) and Dee Gordon, Bruce and David Howard, Barney and Jerry Martin, Hal and Brian McRae, Raul and Adalberto Mondesi, Rene and Aurelio Monteagudo, Ron and Scott Northey, Bob and Darren Oliver, Tony and Tony Pena Jr., Ron and Kurt Stilwell, Jose and Danny Tartabull and John and Dusty Wathan. There are some good players in that group.
The latest addition to this group, and potentially the brightest future star is Bobby Witt Jr. His father, Bobby Witt Sr., enjoyed a solid 16-year professional career.
One funny thing I’ve read about most of the father-son duos is that most of the sons said that dad never played much ball with them when they were young, which makes sense, since pop was off playing major league ball nearly every summer. Others, like Griffey, practically grew up in a big-league clubhouse. I guess genetics counts for something when it comes to top-level athletics.
A couple of years ago, in doing a draft analysis of Royal picks, I suggested that Dayton Moore and staff, instead of blowing picks on various high school and college players, should concentrate on picking the offspring of former major league players. The current list of second-generation stars is bright: Fernando Tatis Jr., Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Cody Bellinger, Michael Brantley, and Ke’Bryan Hayes would be a good start to many an All-Star team.
So, here’s a big thank you to all those fathers (and mothers) who pull on the glove and have a catch.
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game; it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh…people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.
Terrance Mann – Field of Dreams