“Field of Dreams” (1989) captures the essence of baseball. The immortal line, “If you build it, he will come,” will always reminds me of my late father. As kids, he played catch with me and my brothers in a field near our house, and I still see him waving at me when I drive by that location in Batesville.
As baseball tries to play a short season, I am reminded of my love of the game. It began in 1954, when I won a trip with the old man to a World Series game in Cleveland between the Indians and the Giants. I won a national contest where you submitted a letter in 50 words or less stating why you wanted to take your father to a series game. (OK, my mom helped!) I ended up on TV in Cincinnati, where I won a Schwinn bike. Not bad for a 7-year-old Batesville boy.
It followed with my dad, a mail carrier, taking me and my two brothers to Crosley Field in 1963 to watch Stan Musial play his last game in Cincinnati as the Cardinals played the Reds. As we watched the Cardinals batting practice leaning against a fence in right field, Mike Shannon, a rookie, clowned around as he jumped spikes-first into the fence. He sliced my brother Bill’s arm, resulting in Shannon throwing us a ball as he apologized.
As we stood by the Cardinals bus after the game hoping to get Musial’s autograph, Shannon approached us. As my dad had him sign the ball he threw at us earlier, he asked, “Who do I sue, you or the Cardinals’ Ballclub?” As he flipped the signed ball back, Shannon said with a smile, “Hell, sue Cincinnati, it’s their fence!” I still have that ball at home, as it reminds me of the two of them walking off laughing.
And then there was that moment in 1991 when my wife surprised me with a trip to the Cardinals Fantasy Camp in Tampa run by Randy Hundley. For one week I played ball and partied with guys from around the country, including players like Bob Gibson, Curt Flood, Al Hrabosky and others.
Gibson was my coach, and we developed a memorable, funny relationship. The last day we played the aging Redbirds at their spring training facility in front of over 1,000 people.
As I approached the plate with Gibson pitching, I was so nervous I could barely hold my bat. Gibson, mocking me from the mound, threw a fastball that I took for strike one. Hundley, catching, said, “Come on Hammer, you can’t hit it if you won’t swing.” I responded, “Lord man, you can’t hit it if you can’t see it!”
In any event, I was lucky enough to hit a slow roller down the third base line. A film of the event shows me limping safely to first with a sore leg as Gibson got down on his hands and knees trying to blow the ball into foul territory. He failed.
As he stood up and approached the mound, he yelled, “Hammerle, you can’t count that as a hit. It died before reaching third base.” Standing on first base, I yelled as I waved my arms wildly, “I don’t give a damn. God can strike me dead right now and I can happily die knowing that I got a hit off Bob Gibson!”
And then there was my encounter with Curt Flood. As we all assembled on the first night in the hotel lounge, I approached the bar where Flood was talking to Hundley. As I introduced myself, I made the mistake of noting my anguish as I watched with my college friends as a ball sailed over Flood’s head in the seventh game of the 1967 series, costing the Cardinals the championship.
As everyone looked on in horror, Flood yelled at me, “Are you trying to embarrass me, sir? Are you?” I slowly took my beer back to my table feeling that I should just rent a car and go home.
Suddenly, Flood put a hand on my shoulder from behind and said, “Please follow me.” We walked into a hallway as we both apologized. He said, “I know you weren’t blaming me, but even with my Golden Gloves I still feel I cost us a win.”
As we walked back with everyone watching, I asked him to please say a few nice things about me. Putting his arm around me, he loudly told my table, “Boys, this man has a keen sense of history. I respect him and you should too!”
As James Earl Jones told Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams,” “Baseball reminds us of all that is good.” That is why I still cry without shame as I watch Costner play catch with his late father.•
• Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or the office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. Opinions expressed are those of the author.