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Father's Day highlights importance of family for players

Clubs devote Sunday to celebrating dads in special ways

For many Major Leaguers, their baseball careers first started in the backyard. And there's usually one constant: They were playing with their dads.

As Father's Day was celebrated across the Majors on Sunday, the Royals added a special twist, inviting players' dads and coaches' sons to hop on a plane and travel with the team to Tampa and Cleveland.

They were on the same charter flight, staying in the same hotel rooms and eating the same dinners.

Time is often the best gift, and the Royals were in chirpy moods on Sunday as they've been able to share some time with their fathers.

"When I was little, my dad taught me about baseball," said Royals pitcher Bruce Chen, whose dad, Jose, flew in from Panama. "He always practiced with me and he'd throw batting practice for me or catch for me. He took me to a lot of my games.

"Now, years later, I'm able to say, 'Dad, come on the trip. This is how we travel.' I feel good that the team has given [me an] opportunity to give my dad this experience of being here in the big leagues -- to visit and be on the field for the first time ever, being here at batting practice, [to] see how everything is run."

Robert Johnson, father of infielder Elliot Johnson, flew in from Indiana.

"Elliot told me about it, and I had to call him back three times to make sure I got this story right," Johnson's proud father said. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding me. All I have to do is get to Kansas City and they're going to put me on a plane and fly me along with you and not charge me anything? And I'm going to get in a hotel and eat with you guys and hang out with you?'"

Dodgers outfielder Jerry Hairston Jr. has long understood the complications of keeping the relationship between father and son strong. His dad, Jerry Hairston, enjoyed a 14-year Major League career, spent mostly with the White Sox, and was often on the road.

"It's tough to be away from them, in general," Hairston Jr. said. "One thing I try to do is, when I do have time with my children, I make that time count. I remember how my father would travel, and I understood. And my kids understand. They never wonder where there dad's at. They know he's in Pittsburgh, or New York.

"Baseball, more so than any other sport, you can have that bond with your father, playing catch, your father throwing to you. When I grew up, my dad pitched to me all the time -- and even to this day, I remember being in Little League and he'd say, 'Listen. If I can't get you out, no Little Leaguer can get you out.'"

Marlins manager Mike Redmond has been throwing batting practice with his sons, Michael and Ryan, shagging flies in the outfield behind him.

"As a father, that's pretty fun," Redmond said. "It's pretty fun to be able to take this journey with my own kids -- whether they play baseball or not, whatever. That doesn't even matter. It's fun for me to get to spend as much time as I can with them."

As the pressure of being a Major Leaguer can often build throughout the long season, the bond with children can play a major role in keeping things loose.

"When I was coming up as a player, it was always great to have little kids, because it just kind of puts things into perspective," Redmond said. "Little kids, man, they don't care if you went 0-for-4 last night or 4-for-4.

"They just want to hang out and talk and admire the players. My kids are like that. They sit there and they watch the guys, and they root for them and they cheer for them. They want them to do well, and they love just being around them."

Reds manager Dusty Baker is almost always surrounded by his son, Darren.

"I invite these guys to bring their kids down," Baker said. "We spend a lot of time away from our families. There are times I wish I could have gone to work with my dad. I wasn't allowed to go inside because he worked for the military, and I never did find out what he did.

"I've always had kids around. I'm Uncle Dusty."

Cardinals outfielder Jon Jay got to return home for the holiday, thanks to a favorable schedule that put the Cardinals in Miami, his hometown. Jay won a state championship at Christopher Columbus High School and was a standout at the University of Miami before being selected in the second round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.

"It's nice, especially because I am here for Father's Day," Jay said. "It's great to have my family and friends around. That's always special."

"Every father dreams of seeing [his] kids succeed," said Jay's father, Justo. "He's living his dream, but not just because he is playing baseball. He's being successful on the ball field, but he is successful as a human being and he was successful as a student. We definitely feel blessed because we know how difficult it is to make it to the big leagues. It's one in a million to get there, and we don't take it for granted that he has made it here."

Around the league, teams celebrated by honoring fathers with ceremonial first pitches and special giveaways.

The Indians offered fans a chance to play catch in the outfield after Sunday's game. The Reds gave duffle bags to the first 10,000 dads who entered Great American Ball Park. The Twins' Justin Morneau played catch with 25 veterans and their children.

Indians outfielder Michael Bourn put it all in perspective.

"As a baseball player or any athlete, you don't get to spend as much time as you would like with your kids," said Bourn, who is expecting a daughter in early July. "It's not easy being a father. You have to make a lot of sacrifices. [I] just want to make sure everybody knows to enjoy their day. It's a day that you should enjoy, I think."

Jason Mastrodonato is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @jmastrodonato.