Michael shook my hand at the Field of Dreams screening.
“I’d love to play catch! I used to play for the Reds organization.”
In fact, Michael won the 1985 AA Eastern League championship with his teammates: Rob Dibble, Chris Sabo, and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. He was an outfielder converted into catcher.
“You caught for the nasty boys?” I asked.
“One time, warming up Dibble, he threw a ball that exploded into my mitt. Felt it all the way up my arm and in my face.”
He knew Pete Rose and Johnny Bench as coaches. Playing for a AA team is a long way down the road from my days of junior varsity bench-warming.
I know this sounds absurd, but I get nervous when given the opportunity to play catch with those who played baseball professionally. When my daughters tell me that they’re nervous, whether it’s for a violin playing test or giving a presentation or whatever, I completely understand. I get nervous anytime I have to introduce myself to a crowd. I can feel my pulse in my toes and begin mentally rehearsing exactly what I want to say as everyone else introduces themselves. To my daughters, my usual words of comfort are some iteration about nerves showing that you care. To myself, my usual words of comfort involve Dr Pepper and a donut. Two donuts, some days.
Michael is third in a four-generation baseball family.
“My nephew’s 11, and I’m one of his biggest fans. He’s got great talent.”
Michael’s grandfather played for the St. Louis Cardinals.
His dad was an All-American pitcher at Clemson.
“At the end of his freshman year, he turned down a contract with the Mets to go back to Clemson. He tore his rotator cuff his sophomore year. Back then, that meant career over. But my dad’s kinda like Moonlight Graham.”
Michael had my full attention.
“He could’ve signed that contract and been a famous baseball player. Instead, he got his PhD and has been a missionary for 37 years in Burma and India. He’s literally given hope to thousands of people. Every time I watch Field of Dreams, I think of my dad, not the catch playing part. We played catch all the time. Everything I know about baseball, I’ve learned from him. The real tragedy would have been for him to be successful at baseball. His heart was for people. He may not be famous as a missionary, but he’s made an incredible impact in this world.”
Michael started playing baseball at 5 and never stopped.
“Going into my 51st consecutive year. Played in 36 states and 5 countries. Not bad for graduating from a high school that didn’t even have a baseball field.”
In the late 1990s, Michael was playing catch with Missouri State grad Scott Bailes and talked him back into a couple more years in the MLB, this time with the Texas Rangers. I learned how to throw a circle change from Bailes my sophomore year in high school. I could effectively throw slow and slower.
I asked Michael why he came to the Field of Dreams screening.
“First of all, it’s my favorite movie of all time. But I had to bring my nephew. He’d never seen the movie. There are so many incredible parallels and truths between that movie and a life of faith. I wanted him to think about those parts of the game as well. And when I played minor league ball in Cedar Rapids, I made a trip to the field. It was a great experience.”
Michael brought his Wilson catcher’s mitt and helped me stretch out my arm, as well as the knots in my shoulders and lower back from a speed-round of golf with Dad yesterday afternoon. I threw a few bad sliders and three really good knuckleballs.
“I once caught a left-handed knuckleballer,” he said with a grin.
I figure that’s gotta be pretty close to the rarest of baseball players.
I then asked about his big dreams and what five decades of baseball has taught him about life.
“Baseball teaches us how to handle the extremes, how to manage our emotions and conduct ourselves when we experience public failure and public success. This summer, my goal is to find a new job. For the first time in 26 years, my job’s ending. It’s a good thing, though, I’m ready for a change. I gotta love what I’m doing. Maybe it’s time for me to get back into coaching baseball. Every time I drive by a field, I can almost feel the pull of the game. It’s just deep in my soul.”
Amen, Michael. Or as Pedro Martinez said, “Baseball is a game of the soul.”
Especially so for us kids who’ve been playing the game for decades.