Phillies third base coach Dusty Wathan returns to his field of dreams


KANSAS CITY — There were those amazing games between the dads and the kids that always ended with George Brett plunking someone and a big, mock brawl on the mound.

There was the 1985 World Series when they finally won it all.

There was the press conference where his dad was named manager of the club.

And, of course, there was that first big-league hit, a double down the right-field line. Dusty Wathan can still see the hit in his mind, still feel the ball coming off his bat. And if he wants to hear it, he can fish out the old tape of Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell making the call because it came against the Detroit Tigers.

The Phillies will spend this weekend at Kauffman Stadium — nee Royals Stadium — for an interleague series against the Kansas City Royals.

For Wathan, in his second year as Phillies third base coach, it is a trip back to his field of dreams.

“It’s where I grew up,” he said the other day.

Wathan has been a Phillie for 14 years. He finished his playing career with the Phils’ Triple A club in 2007 then managed in the system for 10 years before joining the big-league staff in 2018.

But his baseball roots go back to Kansas City. His dad, John, spent 10 years behind the plate for the Royals then managed the club for five seasons. John Wathan still works for the Royals in player development. He will be at this weekend’s series along with Dusty’s mom, Nancy, brother, Derek, and sister, Dina, who is the Royals’ director of alumni relations.

For baseball-loving kids, Dusty and Derek, who played seven seasons in Triple A with five organizations, had a storybook childhood. Their dad played on some great Royals teams that featured exciting talents and personalities such as Brett, Hal McRae and Willie Wilson. The Wathan boys often accompanied their dad to work in the afternoon and got lost in all corners of the stadium with the sons of other Royals players before games.

“We’d play cup-ball under the stands,” Dusty said. “Wad-up an old paper cup and hit it. Cup-ball.”

Once a year, the dads would play the kids before the regular game. The Royals would make sure to schedule it when Ron Luciano, the colorful and comedic former American League umpire, was in town. He’d officiate the game wearing a microphone that was hooked up to the stadium PA system.

“George Brett would always pitch and the game would always end in a brawl,” Dusty said with a laugh. “George would hit one of the older kids and we’d all charge the mound.”

Brett, the Hall of Fame third baseman, was everybody’s favorite — sort of that young uncle who makes everything fun when he comes over for Thanksgiving.

And, yes, George Brett spent a few Thanksgivings with the Wathans.

“George didn’t have kids at the time,” Dusty said. “He wasn’t married until the end of his career. The kid in him really came out when the kids were around. I think he really loved being around the kids. He was a youthful type of guy and liked to mess around with us.”

There was another young player who liked to have fun.

Bret Saberhagen arrived in the majors at age 20 and had a lot of kid in him. One day, when John Wathan was managing the club, the family hosted a postgame barbeque at the house. Saberhagen, the young star pitcher, found his way to the driveway and started dunking basketballs.

“Dad put a stop to that,” Dusty said.

During his middle-school years, Dusty made a trip with his dad’s team to Boston. He was shagging in the outfield at Fenway Park with Saberhagen during batting practice. Saberhagen made a sliding catch and pulled up a huge chunk of sod. As they admired the huge divot, Saberhagen came up with an idea.

“Go in my locker and get a $50 bill,” the pitcher told the kid.

Dusty returned with the money. They carefully placed it under the sod and repaired the divot. They made a pact to try to find it on the next trip in, but time passed and they never did.

“We play there in August,” Dusty said, laughing. “Maybe I’ll try to find it.”

As a player, John Wathan went to the postseason seven times with those Royals teams. Of course, one of those postseasons was played in Philadelphia, against the Phillies in the 1980 World Series. Dusty remembers watching on TV as the Phillies beat his dad’s team. It stung, but not as much as you might think. Those great Royals teams had lost in the ALCS to the Yankees three times in the previous four years.

“Just getting past the Yankees and getting to the World Series for the first time was such a huge thing for those guys,” Dusty said.

The feeling was different five years later when the Royals beat the Cardinals to win their first World Series.

“I remember being outside the clubhouse after that game and they invited the wives in for the celebration,” Dusty said. “My mom said, ‘No, my boys need to go in.’ We got to celebrate with the players. I’ll never forget that.”

He also won’t forget serving as a batboy for the Royals and a ball boy down the left field line. Playing catch with Bo Jackson and Rickey Henderson between innings — not so bad, huh?

Of course, Wathan’s greatest memory in his field of dreams came in 2002. After playing in the Mariners’, Marlins’ and Brewers’ systems, he finished that season in Triple A with the Royals. He had gone home for the offseason when he got a call in late September. Two Royals’ catchers were about to become fathers and were poised for quick exits. The Royals brought Wathan in as a backup plan. And in the final week of the season, sure enough, he was activated. He got his first big-league at-bat in Kansas City on Sept. 24 in the eighth inning. Double to right field. He got four more at-bats before the season ended and had two more hits before completing his career in the minors with the Indians and Phillies, the team he now represents.

“The last time I was in Kansas City for a game was when I was called up in 2002, so this is going to be special,” Wathan said.

“As soon as I saw it on our schedule, I started looking forward to the series.”

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