From the Pages of Vine Line: Cubs players reflect on their fathers’ influence
You grew up watching baseball on TV with your father. Then you played Little League, and your dad was the coach. Later, he started taking you to games, making sure the two of you got there extra early so you could snatch a few stray home run balls during batting practice.
For generations, baseball has been bringing fathers and sons together. Chances are, when you became an adult and had a son of your own, you tried to get him into baseball, coached his Little League team and took him to games too.
To celebrate Father’s Day this month, Vine Line caught up with a few Cubs players to discuss the almost mystical connection the game engenders. Though each person may have attached to the sport in a different way, there’s no denying baseball served as a valuable link between fathers and sons—just like it has in the past and will in the future.
Ryan Sweeney and his dad, Gary
“I think baseball is definitely, of any of the sports, the bonding thing between father and son, especially now that I have a son,” said Cubs outfielder Ryan Sweeney. “Sharing that with him is something that brings [us] closer together.”
Ryan credits his dad, Gary, for the success he’s had in the game, especially early in his life. Gary always pushed his son to excel, even if that meant making him do some extra work when the younger Sweeney wasn’t fully invested.
“My dad pushed me pretty hard to get me where I’m at,” Ryan said. “I might not have liked it at the time, but looking back, I’m glad he pushed me the way he did. He was my coach growing up for a lot of the time too. He never played baseball, but he tried to read up and learn as much as he could so he could teach me to do the right things.”
When Ryan finally did break into the major leagues, Gary happened to be visiting his son in Charlotte (home of the White Sox’s Triple-A affiliate). Ryan was at the stadium when he got the news and promptly called his parents. Though they didn’t believe him at first, they ultimately made the trip to Kansas City to see Ryan put on a major league uniform for the first time.
Despite having spent the majority of the last seven years at the game’s highest level, Ryan said he still shares the occasional instruction-filled phone call with his father.
“He tries to tell me what to do now, still, and how to play,” Ryan joked. “He’s constantly watching games on TV, saving my games, watching my swings, everything.”
Justin Grimm and his dad, Mark
When Justin Grimm graduated from junior high, he was faced with a difficult athletic decision. Both soccer and baseball were played in the same high school season, so he was forced to choose between the two. Though Justin was ready to put away the glove and bat for good, his dad, Mark, wasn’t in favor of the idea.
“He definitely leaned me toward baseball,” Justin said. “I thought I was a better soccer player at the time than I was baseball. He didn’t say, ‘You’re not playing soccer,’ but he did [say it] at the same time.
“He was a football fan, he loved football. He played at East Tennessee State in college, and he had a love for football, especially when I was growing up. Even to when I was 9, I was playing football, and I think it kind of crushed him when I definitely decided I wasn’t going to play anymore.”
Despite straying from his dad’s favorite sport, Justin said his father always supported his decisions and was somebody he could confide in growing up—even on topics he wouldn’t discuss with his close friends.
“[He] helped keep me encouraged, always feeding me positive thoughts instead of the negative ones,” Justin said. “He was pretty good with that growing up. Him and my mom both. They kept me on the right path, kept me going in the right direction, helped me stay into the right things and out of the wrong things.”
These days, the reliever said he gets a kick out of how excited his dad gets when he visits the clubhouse or throws the ball around with Justin in a major league outfield.
“He enjoys it probably 200 times more than I do,” Justin said. “He loves just going places, especially to different [venues]. Every time he comes into town, he wants to go see the park and what I do every day. And he wants to go to the team shop and get a bunch of gear, so he can support me back home. He’s definitely one of my biggest fans.”
James Russell and his dad, Jeff
Though James Russell is the son of former big league closer Jeff Russell, there was never any pressure for him to follow in his father’s footsteps. Still, between playing baseball every day and spending countless afternoons and nights in major league locker rooms growing up, the left-hander quickly formed an affinity for the game.
“He never really pressured me into it,” James said of his father, who spent 14 seasons in the majors, including 10 with the Rangers. “It was just something that I was good at, and I enjoyed playing. I loved all sports. I played everything growing up—football, basketball and baseball being the bigger three of the sports.
“Fortunately, I grew up in clubhouses that are a little bigger than ours at Wrigley, but it was fun getting into trouble. There were always a bunch of other kids that I [got] to hang out with. We’d find our ways and [make] little batting cages and stuff, so we could just mess around until security came and kicked us out.”
As James got older, he’d go to the ballpark virtually every day with his dad. While the Cubs reliever credits those trips for stoking his desire to play professional ball, he also knows how important those moments were for his father.
“That was some of the most memorable stuff out of his career,” James said.
With the roles now reversed, James has been informed his dad can be a tough guy to watch a game with.
“I’ve always heard he’s a real nervous guy whenever I’m throwing,” Russell said. “He can never sit down in a seat. He’s always walking around. He’s usually drinking a couple of beers to ease his nerves. If he’s not around a TV, he’s got it on his phone.”
John Baker and his dad, Dave
Entering Spring Training, journeyman catcher John Baker was on the outside looking in when it came to finding a spot on the Cubs’ 25-man roster. However, after a strong preseason showing in which he consistently provided outstanding effort, the North Siders found room for the 33-year-old backstop. Baker can thank his dad, Dave, for his solid work ethic.
“He was the biggest baseball influence I had [growing up],” John said. “There are still a lot of things I think in my head that my dad told me. His favorite line was ‘It takes no talent to hustle.’ That was his favorite thing to say. That … and ‘The most important position is the ready position.’
“He was always about being prepared, hustling and playing the game the right way—developing a strong work ethic. I got to see that as a kid, watching him go to work every single day. He’d get up with me at five in the morning and flip me baseballs in the side yard.”
Though many people were surprised to see John make the team over veteran free agent George Kottaras, one person never doubted it for a second.
“When I called [my dad] and told him I made the team here, he told me, ‘Son, I believed you were going to make the team, so two weeks ago, I went ahead and bought a ticket to Chicago,’ which was a really cool, validating feeling for me, knowing that he really believed in me without even telling me,” John said.
Dave played a lot of baseball growing up, so he had a good idea of how much effort it was going to take to make a career out of the game.
“There were days where I didn’t want to go [out to the field to practice], where he made me go,” John said. “And there were days where he came home from work, and I probably said, ‘Dad, can you throw me some balls?’ and he kind of went, ‘Yeah, let me take you to the batting cage. Let’s go do it.’ So it was give and take, but I was never turned down.”
Mike Olt and his dad, George
Early in Mike Olt’s career, his father, George, served as a sort of “baseball whisperer” for his son. As a former college player, the elder Olt had spent a fair amount of time around the diamond and knew a thing or two about the game. But if there was one thing he knew better than baseball, it was Mike.
“He knows I’m a head case, so he usually would tell me one little thing, which I probably wasn’t doing any differently [anyway],” Mike said. “Like, ‘Hey, raise your hands’ or something small that meant nothing.
“But he knew that was the only thing I’d think about and not what the pitcher was throwing. Next thing you know, I’m 4-for-4, 4-for-5, it was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mike grew up in Connecticut, listening to his dad tell stories about traveling to Yankee Stadium with his own father. Years later, Mike enjoyed taking those same trips to the Bronx with George.
“We always went to a ton of games at Yankee Stadium, me and him,” Mike said. “Those are the kind of memories you don’t forget.”
These days, the third baseman enjoys bringing his dad with him to Wrigley Field as often as possible. When Mike made his major league debut with the Rangers in 2012, George was in attendance, and his excitement was something Mike will never forget.
“Those are experiences that he’s going to be really proud of, and he’ll remember those forever,” Mike said. “I would do anything for him, anything for my family. To have him at the game and watching the highlights, seeing him and how happy he is, it does make me really happy. It’s kind of cool to see how excited he is for me and what’s to come.”