Hey Dad! Wanna have a catch? When baseball is the family business - The Buffalo News
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Hey Dad! Wanna have a catch? When baseball is the family business

It's the seminal moment in the movie "Field of Dreams." After investing time, money and faith in creating something totally illogical – a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn field – Ray Kinsella finally recognizes his father amid the ghosts of dead ballplayers who have congregated to play at his farm.

In the final scene, reaching an unexpected point of reconciliation with his father, Ray chokes back tears and asks, "Hey Dad! Wanna have a catch?"

Fathers and sons and baseball. It's the heart of Americana. Baseball is the tradition that ties the generations together, a language that often bonds fathers and sons in mystical ways.

Unless of course, your dad was a big-league player. In those cases, baseball isn't so much a magical "Field of Dreams" experience as it is the family business. The ballpark is less an enchanted escape and more your backyard playground.

"Growing up as a little kid, obviously he was still playing so we would be at the ballpark a lot," said Dusty Wathan. The former Bisons player and current manager for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs is the son of John Wathan, who was a catcher for 10 seasons with the Kansas City Royals before managing the team for five seasons.

"Days were different back then," Wathan recalled. "There was a lot more availability in the clubhouse as far as kids running around and stuff like that. At that time the Royals had a lot of kids my age and we would play together just running around the ballpark. It was a good time. That's what I remember – running around Royals Stadium with my dad. Just messing around there. I think it was one of those things where it was just what I did. It was how I grew up. I didn't know any better."

Dusty and his dad are one of the more than 150 father-son combinations who have played in Major League Baseball according to Baseball Almanac. The list includes former Bison Mark Ryal, who will be inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame later this month, and his son Rusty, who played 134 games over two seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Then there's the current connection as Bisons outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. is the son of Dwight Smith, who won the World Series with the Atlanta Braves in 1995. Smith Jr. was just 3 years old when that happened, but there are still faint memories.

"Most of the moments I don't really remember because I was young when my dad was playing," Smith Jr. said "But I do remember when my dad was with the Braves and won the World Series. He was on the table popping champagne before they got me out of there. I remember that moment. That's the only moment I really remember."

While the memories of his dad as a player are faint, the baseball connections are strong. Both father and son were drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays – dad in the third round in 1984 and son in the first round in 2011. Dad won the World Series in Atlanta while son made his Major League debut with the Blue Jays in Atlanta, coming in as a substitute on May 18 against the Braves.

Through 55 games with the Bisons, Smith Jr. is among the International League hitting leaders, batting .303. When Ezequiel Carrera went down with a fracture in his right foot, Smith Jr. went back up to Toronto, putting up an impressive game on June 14 against Tampa Bay, going 3 for 4 with a stolen base.

And for Smith Jr., stepping into a pro baseball clubhouse had a tinge of comfort, a feeling that he had been here before.

"It was like déjà vu all over again once I came into a clubhouse again," Smith Jr. said. "I was always around the guys, around my dad, following him in the cage or on the field, throwing, working on defense, whatever."

Pressure to play

There can be a balancing act for baseball dads who want to encourage their kids to play but want them to find baseball on their own.

For Wathan, it wasn't a question of pressure. Baseball was part of his family's DNA. It was what they did. It was what he did. He couldn't help but find it in daily life.

"I played with a lot of other kids that their dads also played for the Royals," Wathan said. "We had a team at one point with five or six guys that our dads were playing. And we grew up in a small town outside of Kansas City. It might have been different if it was New York or something like that. We all lived in the same kind of area and that’s how we grew up so no, I never felt any pressure or anything like that."

The same can't be said of Colton Meacham's introduction to playing baseball. The son of Bisons' manager Bobby Meacham, Colton was a toddler when his family moved to Colorado and in 1993 the region was introduced to Major League Baseball with the birth of the Rockies. All of a sudden, Colton became very popular on the T-ball circuit.

"I know when we first moved to Colorado there weren't a lot of big baseball fans there yet," said Bobby Meacham, a former first-round draft pick and shortstop for the New York Yankees. "There wasn't a big following. Everyone there was new to baseball and just getting into it and he was just a kindergartener. When they found his dad played in the big leagues, it was like 'man we want you on our T-ball team. You must be good. Your dad played.'

"And definitely as the years went on, he was 8 or 9 years old and didn't want to play anymore. You could just tell. He was like, 'Everyone thinks I'm supposed to be really good and I just want to play.' And nobody knew who I was. They just knew I played. I knew he felt that. It was a kind of pressure. But as time went on he decided to play because his buddies were playing. I didn't make it a big deal. I didn't want him to feel he had to be good at baseball. Because I really didn't care. I really didn't."

Always on the road

The reality for baseball dads is one of constantly missing their kids' games. The baseball season is a grind, which can last eight or nine months. Days off are few and far between and there's little opportunity to be around to watch sons (or daughters) play baseball.

In the Meacham family, it was Bobby's wife, Gari, who did the lion's share of summer schlepping for their three kids, including taking Colton to his baseball games. Only on occasion, when Colton played fall ball in college with Division II Regis University in Colorado, did Bobby have an opportunity to watch his son play.

"I was there for his football and his basketball seasons," Meacham said. "I coached basketball every year until he got to high school. Football, I'd come to the last half of football season. We had more a basketball-football relationship. Baseball and my son, we didn't really connect with that. Now, we talk baseball all the time."

Wathan and his dad have always talked baseball. It goes back to Dusty's high school days when his dad was the manager of the Royals and Dusty wanted to know everything that went into every decision in every game.

"I remember him saying sometimes I was tougher on him than the media was about asking him why things happened the night before," Wathan said.

All those tough questions have paid off. Dusty is a rising managerial star in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, last year winning Manager of the Year in the Double-A Eastern League and this year guiding a team of young, star players to the top of the International League with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. And he's putting into practice things he learned watching his dad's career.

"I learned communication is a very important thing, letting the players know where they stand and what they need to do better," Wathan said. "Having communication with the coaching staff. I think that's a big thing. The strategy part of it, we still talk about it from time to time. He's a great person to be able to bounce an idea off of. You know he's been through a lot of things in the game, obviously. To be able to have somebody that you trust that much and know is going to give you an honest answer, it's special."

Father's Day and Baseball

So what about that father-son bond and baseball? What about that yearly opportunity for nostalgia that occurs on Father's Day at baseball fields across America?

Well in Bobby Meacham's life, baseball was more about his mom than his dad.

"Actually my mom was a way bigger baseball fan than my dad," Meacham said. "My dad umpired just to have an extra job. My mom took me to all my games. Took me to all the Dodger games. I grew up in L.A. and we went to a zillion of those every year and it was her and her sisters that used to go. My dad stayed home working."

Father's Day for Wathan is closely linked to baseball. Only because he's always working.

"Father's Day for me is probably different than most people in the fact that I probably wasn't around my dad a lot on Father's Day and I haven't been around my kids a lot on Father's Day," Wathan said. "We tend to celebrate things when we have the availability. The baseball season takes away a lot of things – July 4, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Father's Day. It's just kind of what I grew up with. Father's Day was probably a Sunday home game or a Sunday road game. Maybe we were able to get together for a barbecue afterwards. Maybe not."

But always, there was baseball.

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