In most cases, they are relative unknowns, men whose identities are buried beneath those of their famous fathers.
They are also a privileged few, whose playgrounds were the fields of big league ballparks or the tunnels beneath them. Their playmates were the kids of other major leaguers like their dads or, in some cases, other major leaguers themselves.
They are the “Sons of Baseball,” whose stories author Mark Braff brings out in detail in a book under that title. It’s one Braff didn’t expect.
“I had a working title in my mind, ‘Limelight and Shadows,’ ” he tells USA TODAY Sports, “which sounds, maybe, overly dramatic but those were the kinds of stories I thought I was going to hear. I thought I was going to hear tales of woe about, ‘Oh I could never live up to my father.’
“But one takeaway that I got from it was that I found the fathers – the ballplayers themselves – not only did they not push their sons into baseball but, in many cases, they actually somewhat discouraged it.”
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This was a world of sports fathers and their kids we can only dream about. But it’s also one in which your dad is away from home for months. He isn’t around a lot of the time to play catch, something you and your son or daughter might do regularly.
“That’s what you have brothers for,” Yogi Berra would tell his son, Larry.
But when he was home in the offseason, Yogi went to every single one of his three sons’ games, whether it was to see them play football, soccer, basketball or hockey.
“My mother always told me I would have never had to work a day in my life if he wanted to travel in the winter and do things,” Larry Berra told USA TODAY Sports in a separate interview. “He wanted to be home with us because he was gone all the time.”
You know Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Prince Fielder, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cody Bellinger. What about Larry Berra, Kevin Maris, Larry Doby Jr., Andy Hargrove and John W. Powell Jr.?
This lesser-known group of sons of former Major League Baseball players – in many cases, star major leaguers – don’t often get a chance to share the stories of their childhoods.
Larry Berra, who sat on Marilyn Monroe’s lap as a toddler and threw batting practice to big leaguers when he was older, and a number of these 18 sons Braff interviewed wouldn’t trade their life experiences for anything, even though it all meant less time with dad. The time spent with him was just more precious and impactful.
Now grown men and many of them dads themselves, they have a unique view on sports that can benefit other parents and their kids. Here are 10 lessons about parenting our own athletes we can learn from them:
1. Famous dads yearn to be ‘regular’ dads like us
“We weren’t allowed to open the front door on Halloween,” Larry Berra says. “My father had to do it. He wanted to see the kids, and then parents who would walk with the kids, he goes, ‘I’m not here for you. I’m here for the kids.’ ”
Even celebrities embrace our everyday routines and the normalcy that they bring, nobody perhaps more than Yogi Berra. One of Yogi’s pastimes was having coffee first thing in the morning with a fireman or policeman or whomever came through the front door, an image that was comforting to his oldest son.
“They were always in the house, coming in, saying, ‘Hi, how you doing,’ ” Larry says. “He was just part of the community.”
“As long as you didn’t tell a lie, you were fine. One thing he hated – he didn’t like people that lied to him.”
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2. Kids yearn to spend time with their dads (or moms), no matter who you are
When Mariano Rivera’s family went out to dinner, fans swarmed him for autographs and photos, and the family hardly got a moment alone.
“It was just surreal,” Rivera’s son, Jafet, told Braff. “But then, it’s also difficult sometimes, where it was like, OK, I just want to hang out with Dad and I just want to chill, you know?”
Roger Maris’ son, Kevin, laughs about how his famous father once walked around New York in a sailor hat and glasses so he could spend time with his kids without distractions. When he was home, Maris was most content fooling around in his backyard with them.
“We always cherished every minute we had with him,” Kevin Maris told Braff.
Our children want to be around us. Just being near their dads at the ballpark was enough for some of these baseball children.
“I always joke with people – half joke, half true – they’d say, ‘Of course you were a good ballplayer, you had a major league dad to teach you,’ ” Robby Richardson, son of 1950s and 1960s Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson, told Braff. “And I’d say, ‘No, he was always gone. Mom taught us everything we know about baseball.’ “
3. Major leaguers don’t necessarily discuss the game on the drive to and from it. Maybe you shouldn’t, either.
When Yankees pitcher Ron Guidry drove to the ballpark with his son, Brandon, they didn’t really talk baseball.
“Are you behaving?” Ron might ask. “Your mom said you weren’t.”
It was a regular conversation, whatever it was, between a father and son. When you emphasize a sporting event right before it, you run the risk of making your child nervous, or causing them to overthink something they are playing for fun. Try a lighthearted chat to put them at ease.
After the game, maintain a steady, nurturing tone. Let a bad game or a loss settle in for a day or two, then offer friendly tips, not criticism.
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4. Most major league dads don’t push their sons into their sport. Maybe you shouldn’t, either.
John Wathan, a former catcher with the Royals, spent 860 games in the major leagues. He didn’t spend one day pressuring his son, Dusty, to play baseball.
“He always said, ‘you guys do what you want to do,’ ” Dusty, one of his three children, told Braff. “If you want to play piano, if you want to be a doctor, if you want to be a lawyer, just be happy and do what you enjoy.”
Dusty played in the minor leagues for 14 seasons and now coaches third base for the playoff-bound Phillies. He developed his love for baseball being around his dad and watching how much he enjoyed it, too.
5. You can always make time to spend with your kids, and your family
Boog Powell, an Orioles star of the 1960s and 1970s, would wake up his son, John, when he was home in Florida, and take him fishing before school. Andy Hargrove, the son of former big league player and manager Mike Hargrove, remembers his mother, Sharon, setting aside Sunday as a sacred family day whenever his father was home.
“She did everything to make sure that our family was together, that we ate dinner together and that when Dad was home, we were a family,” he told Braff. “Never did it ever feel like it was crazy. It was normal.”
That text can wait. Put the phone away and set aside several nights per week to have dinner and connect as a family.
6. Embrace what your kid likes to do, even if it’s not sports
John W. Powell was admittedly a terrible Little League player when the family lived in Baltimore. Jafet Rivera didn’t stay with baseball, either, mainly because of the similarly enormous expectations he faced in his father’s footsteps. At games, Rivera would actually hear parents yell, “throw the cutter,” a reference to his dad’s money pitch.
The Powells bonded over their love for marine life in Florida and, when he grew up, they worked together on the wildly popular Boog’s Barbecue food franchises. Jafet never felt pressure from his father to play and is content forging his own identity, but he also works for his father’s foundation, which aids impoverished families.
7. If you haven’t connected with your kid yet, it’s not too late
David Rodriguez, 28, has still not found his true connection with his father, former All-Star outfielder Henry Rodriguez. David’s father insisted on bringing him baseball-related gifts because that was the only way he knew how to connect. Henry Rodriguez’s oldest son (David’s step-brother) played the game, and Rodriguez wanted David to be a baseball player, too.
David didn’t like baseball, so his father didn’t know how to approach him, or to truly understand him.
“I was was like, OK, the baseball is cute, but honesty, I’d rather play with Barbie,” he told Braff.
David is gay, something he feels his father chooses to ignore. His mother, Patricia, who is divorced from Henry, has embraced his sexuality. It remains an unspoken subject with his father.
There are many things about which we will disagree with our children, but we can always love who they are. There are many opportunities to have a fruitful relationship with them throughout life, wherever it takes them.
“I had this kind of wish in the back of my head that maybe his dad would read it and show up at his door one day with the Barbie,” Braff says. “Just to break down the barrier once and for all.”
8. It’s more important to set a good example for your kid than for them to make it in sports
Most children come to admire their parents not for what they achieved, but for the manner in which their parents conducted themselves. Kevin Maris speaks to Braff not about his father’s single-season home run record that stood for 37 years but about the example his father set for him.
To Kevin, it wasn’t so much what his father achieved, but the team-first manner in which he played – running hard and stretching singles into doubles, or sacrificing himself by moving a runner over to second or third base with a bunt or ground ball.
When Kevin played himself, his father helped design his high school field and, wielding a wheelbarrow, laid the sod himself. As his father always told him, “Preparation and attention to detail of the smallest things are what prepares you for success.”
9. Be most concerned with how your kids are as people
We can look at sports as a gateway to life, rather than just a gateway to a life as an athlete. Jerry Hairston Jr., who had a 16-year major league career, is the son who played the longest in the majors among Braff interviewees. He followed the words of his father, Jerry Sr., that pertained to life, not baseball: Don’t be me. Be better than me.
“The most important things is just being a good person, a good citizen,” his father told him. “The baseball stuff is just gravy. If you become a baseball player, great. If not, the most important thing is that you become a productive member of society.”
Jerry Jr.’s brother, Scott Hairston, played 11 seasons. None of the other sons of the major leaguers Braff interviewed played extensively in the major leagues, but many took positive personal traits from their dads with them.
Larry Doby Jr., whose father was the first Black player in the American League in 1947, learned to treat people by the way they treated him. Though his father faced racism, Doby Jr. proudly returns to Cleveland, his father’s first major league stop, because he felt those fans were always nice to his dad.
“They say integrity is what you do when nobody is looking,” Larry Jr. told Braff. “Cleveland was a little midwestern town and it wasn’t a media focus or center like Brooklyn was for Jackie Robinson where they reported his every move. And they still treated my father that well.”
The best quality your child can take from sports is how to be a professional in life. Emphasize the characteristics from sports that will most likely help them in the long term: Working together with teammates, accepting failure and being a gracious loser when things don’t go your way.
10. We get what we put – or don’t put – into sports. And we often get what we want.
“What’s being a parent or grandparent?” Andy Hargrove told Braff. “It’s coaching, coaching people throughout life.”
Hargrove was drafted twice by major league teams (once out of high school and once out of college) and played professionally for three seasons. He remembers lamenting to his big-league father about how he might have made it if he signed out of high school. His dad, Mike Hargrove, like many major leaguers, knows first-hand how hard it is to get to the majors and stay there. He has many friends who didn’t.
Mike Hargrove knows how nice it can be at home, too. He told Andy if he had chased his dream out of high school, he wouldn’t have met his wife or had his three kids.
Andy didn’t make it to the majors, but he is home every night and coaches his own son.
“And I couldn’t be happier,” he says.
Steve Borelli, aka Coach Steve, has been an editor and writer with USA TODAY since 1999. He spent 10 years coaching his two sons’ baseball and basketball teams. He and his wife, Colleen, are now sports parents for a high schooler and middle schooler. His column is posted weekly. For his past columns, click here.
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