My Father, THE NATURAL

Happy Father's Day to the best there ever was.

My Father always wanted to be a baseball player. Based on stories told by my family over the years I've gathered that he had potential. Unfortunately, circumstances kept him from pursuing his dream. Eventually, he met my wonderful Mother, got married, and they raised three (also wonderful) children together. As a family we were always a team and Dad's love of the game was never far from our home. 

Whether teaching me how to bat in the backyard or helping me get over my fear of catching the ball, Dad tried his best to get me interested in baseball. When I was young I recall him playing games pretty regularly with a group of guys from church. Now and then they’d allow all the kids to join in too. One of those games left quite an impression on me—literally—I was pitching and got nailed in the leg with a line drive. I cried, of course, which I know Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) made perfectly clear in A League of Their Own is something you never do in baseball. This, along with the crude competitiveness of the grown men playing what should have been a friendly game with a bunch of kids, was the first experience to sour my interest in team sports.

In school I quickly tired of the machismo of jocks and the way the entire student body was expected to put them on a pedestal. Add to that all the "school spirit" nonsense that gave them free reign to exclude and bully their peers, and any desire I might have had to be a team player went out the window. Blindly cheer for the home team (rah-rah-rah) and wear our hideous school colors? No thank you. I'd rather read quietly in the library, wear all black, and scare the cheerleaders with my love of  “devil music” and horror movies. But I digress. Obviously a sulky teenager by then, my days of playing catch with Dad were already over. At the time I never considered my refusal to participate in sports as a form of rebellion or that I was missing out on anything significant. Now I realize that turning my nose up at something Dad truly loved was a missed opportunity to genuinely connect with him. Luckily, we were able to make up for this through other interests, like rock and roll and movies.

Given my general dismissal of all things athletic, it’s surprising, even to me, that I have an unequivocal love for movies about sports. After discovering that the reality of playing for a team wasn't what I wanted, I was content to sit and watch idealized versions of people playing for teams. I can only begin to explain my emotional response to and enjoyment of these films based on the fact that I always connect them back to my relationship with Dad. While there are a number of movies I can’t turn off when I happen across them (damn you, Jerry Maguire), my two MVPs remain The Natural and Field of Dreams. Likely, this comes as no surprise since they’re both about, as Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) so eloquently puts in Field of Dreams, “The one constant through all the years…baseball.” Having a Father who could recite baseball statistics like most people recite the alphabet meant that, in my mind, he and baseball were synonymous.

The Natural is one of Dad’s favorite movies. I’ve always thought the story of Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) must hit him pretty close to home. Hobbs starts out as a young ballplayer with phenomenal potential until his big chance is ruined by an injury before he ever makes it to tryouts. Sixteen years later he’s a “middle-aged rookie” attempting to prove to the world that he's still got what it takes. Finally part of a major league team, he maintains his dream that someday people will see him on the street and say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.” 

Whenever I see this movie or hear the crescendo of Randy Newman’s score, I think of Dad. I think about how he never got the opportunity to play for a league. I think about playing catch in the backyard and how terrible I was at it. I think of him reassuring me that the big leather glove in my hand would protect me. And how the smell of a baseball glove still has the power to transport me back there. I think about how, just like Roy, my Dad lost his father too soon and I wonder how many memories they shared that revolved around baseball. I think about missed opportunities. But then I remember, even Roy Hobbs with all his potential ends up back on the farm in Iowa with his family. Home, playing catch with his kid. 

Oddly enough the Field of Dreams where ballplayers go when they die is also located on a farm in Iowa. After being asked repeatedly if his cornfield turned baseball diamond is heaven, even Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) starts to believe that it’s possible. It is, after all, a place where dreams and missed opportunities are attainable. Where Ray reunites with his Father years after his death for a long overdue game of catch. Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster) tells Ray, "We just don't recognize life's most significant moments while they're happening." It’d be nice if we got everything right the first time, but we can’t all live on a farm in Iowa. Or can we?

I’d love the opportunity to be a kid again and to play catch with my Dad, or better yet to watch him play another game. I’d cheer for him as he stepped up to bat, just like Roy Hobbs stepping up to the plate for one last chance to show the world what he could do. Maybe my Dad could’ve been a great ballplayer. But then maybe I wouldn’t be here.  Maybe he would have never met my wonderful Mom, gotten married, and had three (at least one is wonderful) kids. I realize that a lot of people join a team to find their family, but my team was always there for me when I got home. It’s Father’s Day this weekend and I don’t want to miss this opportunity to tell my Dad how grateful I am to have him in my life, then and now. He may not walk down the street and be recognized as a great baseball player, but as a Father he’s the best there ever was.

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