Time away from family tough on dads
Players, coaches use technology to keep in close touch
Somewhere in the midst of airport security, hotel check-ins, room-service food, batting practice, bullpen sessions, scouting reports, game tape, team meetings, press conferences and that grinding 162-game schedule, Major League players, coaches and front-office members need to execute the most crucial phase of all: fatherhood.
In their line of work, being a father can be more challenging than anything else.
"People don't realize it's a grind," said Royals catcher Jason Kendall, a father of two. "We're away from our kids, we're away from our family -- that's the difficult part. When you don't see your kids for a 10-day road trip, you're missing Little League and plays and graduations. It's a difficult part that people don't really see."
So, perhaps it's fitting that the third Sunday of each June -- Father's Day -- always lands smack-dab in the middle of a baseball season.
The game doesn't leave much family time from March to October. And even on this day -- the one day out of the year solely dedicated to dads -- having that simple game of catch with their sons or daughters is difficult for Major Leaguers all over the country.
"I love this game," D-backs shortstop Stephen Drew said. "I play it because I love it. But you're away from your family a lot during the season. I'm a small-town boy who travels on the road to big cities and has a wife and a son now, and that's tough. It changes things."
But while baseball can serve as a great divider between fathers and their children, it can also bring them together like nothing else.
Take March 16, for example. That afternoon during Spring Training, a father and a son who were driven apart for years because of the arduous professional baseball lifestyle were brought together because of the common bond they shared for that same game.
It happened at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., where Astros prospect Chris Johnson started at third base and his father, Red Sox first-base coach Ron Johnson, served as the third-base coach. Throughout Chris' childhood, hundreds of airline miles prevented a normal relationship with his father, a journeyman Minor League coach. But on this day -- for nine innings, at least -- all that separated them was a chalk-drawn third-base line and a couple of feet of green grass.
"I almost can't explain it," Ron said after that Grapefruit League contest. "It was a very strange feeling. And not in a bad way at all, but it was just a lot of things that kept sinking in throughout the course of the game. It's just different."
And there lies the give-and-take.
With several father-son connections sprinkled all over baseball, the game can at times unite families. But for the majority of children with fathers in the Major Leagues who aren't in the game themselves, it's a struggle -- especially during the season, when premium intensity is required on a daily basis.
Sometimes, flipping the switch on and off can be a struggle for ballplayers.
"Trying to perform at an extremely high level, and when that doesn't go well, to not get caught up and not ride the emotional wave of it -- I think that can be a tough challenge," Cardinals slugger Matt Holliday, a father of three, said earlier this season. "But sometimes we get so tied up in ourselves that we forget about our loved ones. Sometimes we get really selfish."
Thankfully, current Major Leaguers can at least reap the benefits of modern technology.
"The cell phone works wonders at times," Astros manager Brad Mills said.
"We do the iChat deal," Holliday added. "That's been really cool. I think that's been a neat deal for traveling parents, people that are on the road a lot."
So are supportive wives.
"I have a very supportive wife, who packs up the kids, brings the kids with us for the season," said Phillies outfielder Raul Ibanez, who's in his 15th season and has four kids. "We're pretty much always together."
In Major League clubhouses, the veteran players are usually granted two lockers side-by-side instead of just the one. But parked right next to where 12-year infielder Wes Helms is stationed, near the entrance of the Marlins' clubhouse, sits a locker with the name plate of a person who can't be found anywhere on the depth chart, Wes Jr.
His outfield teammate, Cody Ross, always has his toddler son, Hudson, with him after games and dressed in full Marlins uniform. The same goes for Holliday and son, Jackson; Albert Pujols and Albert Jr.; Miguel Tejada and his son, Miguel Jr. and so many others all over the big leagues who try to take advantage of any small window with their children.
"The nice things were Ronda, my wife, would bring the kid every summer to wherever I was," Mills recalled.
"Beau [Mills] would go on road trips with me, and they go to the ballpark and we'd be able to take BP. He was born the same year I tore my knee up, so he never saw me play. I've only been a coach and a manager since he's been around. But he was able to get a lot of extra work, you might say, because I was the manager and the coach."
All of that time around Major Leaguers must've rubbed off on Beau, who was a first-round Draft pick by the Indians in 2007 and is now with their Double-A affiliate. Like Brad and Beau, and Ron and Chris, there are several father-son combinations currently in professional baseball together, like Angels scout Tom Kotchman and his son, Mariners first baseman Casey Kotchman, Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly and Dodgers prospect Preston Mattingly, Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee and Pirates Minor League pitcher Michael Dubee, Yankees bench coach Tony Pena and Tony Pena Jr., now a converted pitcher in the Giants' farm system, Rockies manager Jim Tracy and Rangers prospect Chad Tracy and the Duncans -- Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan and his outfield sons, Shelley and Chris.
In these situations, fathers who were held back from family time because of baseball use the game to provide wisdom to their sons.
"I still ask him for advice," Pirates third baseman Andy LaRoche said about his dad, former Major League pitcher and current Minor League pitching coach Dave LaRoche. "I talk to him about it. It's not so much coaching techniques as much as it is just mental."
As baseball lifers, Major League fathers are more than happy to provide feedback. Because, despite all that's thrown at them because of their line of work, that's the role that always takes precedence.
"Baseball creates a lot of challenges for you," former Major League catcher and Jason's father, Fred Kendall, said. "I think baseball is probably one of the best sports there is. It's a game of failure, and you learn from failure. Nobody is perfect, and you're going to fail at times. But it disciplines you to know that when you get back down, you get back up. That was our theory in raising the kids."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Several MLB.com reporters contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.