This column was first printed in the pages of the now-defunct Hudson Dispatch on June 29, 1989. It ended up winning several different awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the North Jersey Press Club and the Garden State Society of Journalists. It was also reprinted in Reader’s Digest later that year (although I never got credit, the paper did).
For several years, the clipping sat in an old Avon box in my basement. We had a major flood two years ago that ruined a lot of my old clippings, including several of the old Dispatch articles. But somehow, this one survived. It’s very weather beaten and faded, but it survived.
I’m posting it today, because after all, it’s Fathers’ Day.
I ventured to the movie theater the other day. No, not to see “Batman” or even “Ghostbusters II.” I’m not a trendy type of guy. In fact, I’m a little behind the times. I saw “Field of Dreams.”
OK, so the rest of the western world has already plunked down the cash to see “Field of Dreams.” We’re in the midst of a blockbuster movie season. “Field of Dreams” is old news to movie freaks. After all, it was only released nine weeks ago.
But “Field of Dreams” is about baseball _ sort of. And besides, “Batman” is not about Don Mattingly. I am a sportswriter _ at last check. And I’m a movie fan. Just a tardy movie fan, that’s all. I had to go see it. Who cares if I’m late?
I heard so many things about the movie. It was supposed to be the best thing ever to happen to baseball movies _ which wouldn’t be a hard feat, considering that most baseball flicks flounder.
I went with an open mind, waiting to be disappointed. I left feeling wonderful, feeling alive, feeling good. “Field of Dreams” touched me more than any other movie. It was clearly the best picture I’ve ever witnessed.
And my strong feelings about “Field of Dreams” had nothing to do with baseball. It had to do with life. Or, for that matter, afterlife.
For those who have not had the chance to see “Field of Dreams” _ like all seven of you _ you can stop reading here. Take my word for it, the movie is excellent. It’s the best thing you’ll see all year.
Now, for you other fortunate folk.
Let’s face it. “Field of Dreams” has its flaws. I mean, Shoeless Joe Jackson batted left-handed in real life and threw right. In this movie, the exact opposite. He batted right and threw left.
Brings up a good question. Do your extremities become mirror images after death? Only Elvis can answer that one. Remind me to ask him the next time the King is spotted at a 7-11 in Michigan. Elvis probably shoots at TVs with his left these days.
Gil Hodges is mentioned to be on the “Field of Dreams.” But there were no Brooklyn Dodgers uniforms to be found.
Still, this movie was absolute perfection to me, because it was able to touch me in a way that some people can relate to _ but hopefully not many.
Because of one movie, I got in touch with the huge vacancy that has been dominating my life for the last 18 years _ namely the absence of my father.
I was 10 when cancer snuffed Jack Hague away from me. He was sick, dead and gone within one month’s time in 1971. He was my everything. He was my inspiration, my motivation, my life. He was my Little League manager, my friend. He taught me so much about life in 10 short years _ and then he was gone.
It left me with a brother who was 60 miles away with his own family, a sister who was maturing rapidly _ and a loving mother, who had to be both parents from that point on. It was not easy.
Especially because of my obsession with sports _ something I shared with my Dad. We would watch ball games together, talk baseball constantly, play catch in my backyard.
With no father, those times came to an abrupt halt. I longed for the days of playing catch in the yard. They were long gone.
“Stop throwing like a girl, James,” I could hear him saying. “Step and throw.”
There were so many times in 1972, the first year after my father’s death, that I would stand in the yard, hoping he would come back. I just kept standing there, smacking the ball into my empty glove.
Little League was no longer fun without my Dad. It was a struggle to play for some other manager.
That summer, my mother bought me a “Pitch-Back,” the net that snapped the ball back to you after you tossed it. However, the damn thing never offered advice. It never told me what I was doing wrong. It just stood there.
And the “Pitch-Back” could never tell me what I was doing wrong in life. Of course, my mother did _ and worked hard at it. But living with two women and no man’s view of life certainly was no breeze for a moody kid who found his only release through sports.
As time went on, I tended to forget about my Dad. Not entirely, but enough that he wasn’t a major part of my life anymore. I lost his set of values, his standards. I forgot what Jack Hague stood for. I wanted to be independent, my own person. I couldn’t fill the shoes of a memory.
Sure, sports remained my one constant _ and still is today. Without it, I would be lost. But most of all the other values I thought I had disappeared.
People think I’ve lived a good life, an exciting life. But it’s been fairly shallow. I never realized that until recently _ and never more so until I saw “Field of Dreams.”
It was a total awakening for me. I knew how important my father was _ and still is. Sure, my father was gone, but I should never let him stop being my parent. I should have left his values live on in my life instead of being pigheaded and stubborn and wanting to be something and someone else.
“Field of Dreams” touched me so much that I wanted to build a field in my backyard, albeit a small patch of brown grass nestled in Jersey City. And all the greats of yesteryear who are now departed could come back.
They wouldn’t even need an invitation.
Gil Hodges would wear a Met uniform and run the show. Thurman Munson would be behind the plate. Satchel Paige on the mound, Lou Gehrig at first _ and Jackie Robinson stealing bases all night.
And the players would leave a little spot where right field would be, just enough for a grey-haired man with a three-finger glove could throw some high hard ones to his son.
“Field of Dreams” did what it was supposed to do _ make us all dream. It made me dream _ of the days when my father taught me about baseball and life.
I almost took those days for granted. I look back now and cherish. I never realized how much I truly missed my father.
So this is somewhat of an open call to all our readers. Stop, take time out and realize how important your father is.
Sure, there may be some differences and there may be some strife, but the day may come when your father is suddenly not there _ and that vacant feeling of his loss almost gets a stranglehold of you.
I know what that feeling is like. I knew it 18 years ago _ and I rediscovered that huge gap 11 days ago. Yes, Fathers’ Day, the day I saw “Field of Dreams.” I had totally forgotten it was Fathers’ Day. It was so totally ironic I saw the movie on that day.
I’ll never forget Fathers’ Day again. That’s why I love the movies so much _ and why “Field of Dreams” is the best movie I’ve ever seen. I found my Dad. I’m grateful for Hollywood for that.
That’s why I’m asking all of you to find your fathers, too. While he’s still around.
That was 27 years ago. Since then, my father's all-time favorite, Ted Williams, would have joined the crew and we would have had to make room for him in right field. It's 45 years ago this year that I lost Dad. I'm now older than he was when he passed. But he's still there, prominent in my mind, my heart and my soul and I still strive every single day to be the man he was. Here's to all Dads today on Fathers' Day. Enjoy your day.