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The Lost Art of Shagging Fly Balls

In the summer of 1975, I began a love affair with baseball that continues to this day. 

My brother and I pooled our money one hot afternoon, bypassed the ice cream man, and bought our very first pack of Topps baseball cards.  Twenty-five cents a pack, if I recall, plus a free stick of really hard bubble gum.  It continued into summer, when my Grandpa introduced me to Bob Uecker and Blatz beer.  Uecker on the radio, listening to Brewers games on the porch at night.  The Blatz introduction was unintentional—what curious eight-year old kid isn’t going to take a sip when Grandpa sends him to the kitchen for another beer? 

My t-ball team’s city championship furthered my love of baseball, and it reached a fever pitch that fall as I watched Carlton Fisk’s 6th game heroics in one of the greatest World Series of all time. 

It was a magical summer, but one that probably thousands of other eight-year old kids experience every summer.  The difference between me and those thousands of other kids, is that my enthusiasm for the game has never waned.  While other kids probably moved on to other diversions, and quickly forgot the excitement of landing an All-Star card, or a 9th inning come-from-behind victory, I’m now 43 years old and still get excited about a bobble-head giveaway at the ballpark, or finding an old Sports Illustrated with Robin Yount on the cover. 

I’ve been to 15 major league stadiums, played catch at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, and made the requisite pilgrimage to Cooperstown.  I own a baseball card collection that would be the envy of most real fans, including like-new Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente cards.  I even stormed the field at the 5th game of the 1982 ALCS between the Brewers and Angels, undoubtedly the most amazing game in Brewers history. 

Those are all great memories, vivid to this day, many years later.  But they pale in comparison to the memories I have of a lesser-known ballpark.  It’s a small field, rarely used anymore, about twenty miles west of Miller Park.  It’s at the corner of Irving Place and Moreland Boulevard in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and I still get goose bumps every time I go past it.  Hawthorne field is what we called it, after the elementary school on the same grounds.  Funny how I spent seven years in school there, but what I remember most happened outside on the ball diamond.  

You see, Hawthorne field is where my Dad would spend hours hitting fly balls to me.  I’m sure there were many times that the lawn needed mowing, or the bushes needed trimming, but in our house, after dinner meant walking a block over to the ball field and shagging fly balls until dark.  Never mind that the skills I developed there weren’t even good enough to land me a spot on my high school team years later.  For a couple hours a night, I felt like a pro, roaming centerfield gracefully as my Dad would hit to my left, to my right, and over my head.  I think I actually developed pretty good instincts, but more importantly, I got to hang out with my Dad, doing something I absolutely loved. 

You rarely see fathers and sons doing this anymore.  Everything’s organized, and even in the organized sports leagues, more often than not, you see moms taking their sons to practice and games.  No offense to mothers everywhere, but women just aren’t as good as men at hitting fly balls to the outfield, and it’s a rare woman who knows what a cutoff man is.  

The bottom line is, there’s a bond between fathers and sons that can only develop by spending quality and quantity time together, doing something that’s truly enjoyed by both.  I’m not sure if my Dad enjoyed hitting fly balls as much as I enjoyed catching them, but I am sure of this.  The time we spent on Hawthorne field, night after summer night, made an indelible mark on my head and my heart. 

Cooperstown will always have its charm.  Fenway, Wrigley, and Yankee Stadium will always have their legends.  But I know where the real Field of Dreams is. 

Thanks for the memories, Dad.

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