The father is the vice president of programming for WFAN Sports Radio in New York. The son is the new general manager of the Cleveland Indians.
Busy men, hectic schedules. Yet once a month, the two find a way to meet for something that has bonded fathers and sons ever since baseball was invented:
A game of catch.
Mark Chernoff, 63, and his younger son, Mike, 34, began their tradition when “Mikey” was 6. And they do not plan to end it anytime soon.
“We just make it a point to do it,” Mike says. “Sometimes it means we get together on the 31st and first of two months — they both count. But we sure make it happens.”
Says Mark, “It’s still that connection, that we can do this. I love doing it. And I know he loves doing it. Even if my wife, his mom, thinks we’re crazy, we still continue to do it.”
Actually, Sally Chernoff says, she doesn’t think her husband and son are crazy. But sometimes she will react when Mark says to her, “I’ve got to go to Cleveland, because it’s March and we have to have our March catch and it’s already the end of the month.”
“Look,” Sally says, “it’s a little crazy to pay $1,000 to go have a catch.”
But Mark, if he’s not traveling for work-related reasons, generally redeems frequent-flyer miles in such circumstances. The catches must go on, and the only rule is that Mark and Mike must make 25 throws each. They include grounders, high pops, whatever strikes their fancy on that particular day.
The once-a-month custom, which has taken place in alleyways in New York City, spring-training fields in Arizona and various points in between, began informally when Mike was a baseball-loving kid and Mark wanted to keep him active throughout the winter.
When Mike went to Princeton, a little more than an hour’s drive from the family’s home in Livingston, NJ, father and son came up with a formal plan.
“We just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘You know, we still really want to play baseball. How are we going to manage?’” Mark recalls.
“So we said, ‘OK, let’s do this. We know that we played baseball pretty much every day. That’s going to be impossible. So, we know that we’ve had a catch every single month of your life since you were 6 years old. Let’s just try to make sure we have a catch at least once a month somehow.’”
Mark is a man of intense routine — he awakens every day at 4 a.m. to run 3½ miles, seven days a week. He says he has done this for 25 years — his own father died at 59 after seven heart attacks — and Mark barely broke stride when he underwent left-knee surgery in 2008.
The Chernoff’s older son, Brian, liked baseball, but not the way Mike liked it. Mark nonetheless established a routine with Brian as well, calling him every morning before classes when the boy attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. (Brian is now an attorney in Washington, DC.)
“I missed him too much,” Mark said.
Princeton made for an easier transition. Mike played shortstop and was teammates with Rangers outfielder Will Venable and right-hander Ross Ohlendorf.
“By luck he went to college in the same state,” Sally says. “Otherwise, it would have been over.”
Yet, even though the proximity was manageable, Mark recalls one harrowing moment during Mike’s freshman year. It was on Halloween — or, more relevant for the Chernoffs, the final day of October.
Snow began falling as Mark and Mike played catch — falling hard. Mark’s drive home, in blizzard-like conditions, took four hours.
“I remember getting home at midnight, thinking, ‘I’m not going to wait until the end of the month again,’” Mark says.
But sometimes, there is no choice.
Mike, after graduating from Princeton in 2003, moved to Cleveland to join the Indians as an intern in the baseball operations department.
Suddenly, a simple game of catch required a complex coordination of schedules.
“Once I started working with the Indians, you’re all-in,” Mike says. “It’s non-stop, 24-7. It was hard to always get home or have him get out here.”
On more than one occasion, the only way for the Chernoffs to maintain their tradition was to play catch in bizarre settings:
● Outside Grand Central Station in New York.
“There is an alleyway off of 42nd Street,” Mike recalls. “It was the last day in January. I was there for meetings. It was the only time we could possibly have a catch for that calendar month.
“He met me in the city on his way to work. At like 5 in the morning, we went into this alleyway and had a catch, in the middle of winter, with snow on the ground.”
● The airport parking lot in Cleveland.
Mark recalls flying to Cleveland just before he underwent knee surgery, taking an aisle seat on the right side of the plane so he could stretch out his left leg. He got off the plane, played catch with Mike in the parking lot, then returned home on a round-trip ticket.
Another time, Mark flew from Chicago to Newark, NJ, and arranged for a flight with an hour layover in Cleveland. Same thing: Mark ran outside, played catch with Mike, then went back into the airport to board his plane to Newark.
● The Whole Foods parking lot in Vauxhall, NJ.
As the story goes, Mike’s flight from Cleveland was late. It was the last day of the month. Sally and Mark picked him up at Newark, and as they drove him to Livingston, it was already dark.
“My wife said, ‘I know where there are lights. There is a Whole Foods that we shop at. I know they keep the lights on there,’” Mark recalls. “So, there we were at 11 o’clock at night, on the last day of the month, having a catch. We could see.”
Crazy, right? Not really. Not when you hear Mike describe how much the catches mean to him.
“Here’s the beauty of it,” Mike says. “One, this is our way to make sure that we see each other once a month. Two, in your conversations with your parents, when do you have these times to talk about nothing and have those random conversations if you don’t live near each other?
“As soon as we start throwing a baseball, we just open up about everything and talk about life. It’s this really amazing connection that we have. When you’re playing catch, you just get into that mode of talking about nothing and everything at the same time.”
Mark agrees, saying, “I don’t want to say they’re necessarily life-changing talks, but we certainly open up about a lot of stuff. It’s just a good time and a relaxing time to talk while we’re throwing the ball around. Sometimes these 25 throws turn into 250 throws or more.”
The catches no longer involve just Mark and Mike. Brian also likes to pick up a ball and play with Mark when he returns home. Mike and his wife, Sarah, have two sons — Brody, 5, and Owen, 2½ — who are getting into the spirit, too.
Mike says that Sarah has expressed the same sentiments as his mother — that he and his father are nuts.
“But honestly, they love it,” Mike says. “I can tell they love it.”
How can they not?
“It is kind of a sweet father-son story,” Sally says.
Games of catch always are.
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