Father and Son: Baseball & Battling Parkinson's - PMD Alliance

Growing up, Robert Cochrane never noticed that his dad didn’t really love baseball. Robert loved baseball: the history of the game, the announcers’ voices, the smells and tastes of being at a ballpark, the cast of characters he’d meet there. “It was the most romantic game of my youth,” he said. It was the 1970s and 80s and baseball was still America’s pastime. Robert remembers playing baseball as a kid and the “unbelievable feeling of hitting a ball…There was almost nothing better than hitting it over the fence.” 

Robert’s dad, Dan, came to all his games and would watch the Major Leagues on TV with him. It wasn’t until Robert was older that he realized his dad never felt the same passion for the game that he did; instead, his dad saw his son’s passion for the sport and decided to use baseball as a bridge—when shared, it could bring them closer.

Reimagining Their Field of Dreams 

Robert followed his passion to college, where he chose to study sports broadcasting. Once again, his dad wanted to share in his journey and his love for the game. Together, they decided to make an adventure of it: they set an intention to travel to all 30 ballparks across the country. Between 1990 and 1991, they made it to seven ballparks. But as life got busy, their commitment waned and they put their plans on the backburner.  

A decade passed.

In 2001, when Dan was just 56, he was diagnosed with young onset Parkinson disease (YOPD). At the time, Robert says his dad was the “picture of health, socially and physically engaged.” His diagnosis was unexpected and, at first, quiet. It remained relatively invisible and they moved on with their lives as best they could.

In the following years, Dan’s symptoms shifted, becoming more noticeable. Time felt more pressing.  That’s when Robert remembered: while rewatching the movie Field of Dreams, a film he calls the “ultimate father-son story and story of regret,” he flashed back to their dream from over a decade before. He was certain he didn’t want to live with regrets. In tears, he called up his dad and insisted: “We have to do the baseball thing…and we have to do it now.”  

And so it was: two months. Twenty-thousand miles. Every ballpark in the country. 

Father and Son: On the Road 

Every father-son journey is a personal journey. When I asked Robert how his relationship with his dad shifted over those two months on the open road, he laughed and said, “When I tell you we spent 20,000 miles in a car together, you can probably get a good idea.” He paused, more serious this time, and added, “It deepened my respect and my love for him. He opened up pieces of himself to me and I got to see parts of him firsthand, like when we stopped at the base where he spent basic training in the army” or the intimate moments where he got to witness his dad hang out with friends he hadn’t seen since college. They revealed previously unseen sides of themselves to each other, experiencing their bond in new ways. 

By this time, Robert had spent nearly a decade as a filmmaker. He knew the power of a story. He knew that even adventures that stem from meaningful, personal relationships have the power to invite the collective in. Before they embarked on their 20,000 miles together, they set a new intention: Robert and Dan wanted their journey to stretch beyond themselves and touch the Parkinson’s community. This was going to be about them and bigger than them.  

They decided to film the trip and, as they stopped at ballparks in cities across the country, to use each baseball parking lot as the launching grounds to bring the Parkinson’s community together and raise awareness. Their efforts would eventually turn into the first of four Boys of Summer documentaries. 

Embracing the Parkinson’s Community 

This trip was the beginning of their PD education, too. “Our father-son trip was a great way to learn about what Parkinson’s was,” Robert said. Once you’re impacted by PD, “you have to go on an individual journey to know what the diagnosis means to you. And that’s when you figure out what you’re going to do about it. We got to see people at every stage of the journey and meet families with different philosophies and practical takes on living with it. It built a foundation for us.”  

In each city they visited, the Parkinson’s community greeted them with wide-open arms. “They felt like we were giving them something,” Robert said. Robert and his dad, with the help of Robert’s wife, who was back at home making all the calls to arrange these gatherings, would host tailgate parties at each ballpark. “People would come meet us at the tailgate and they would come up to us, thanking us.” Robert can still remember the feeling of it: “Getting to experience community gathering in a positive way was empowering and let us know we were doing something that mattered. It made us realize we could provide something by telling the story and letting people know they’re not alone.” 

Until There’s a Cure, There’s Community 

When Robert and Dan embarked on this 20,000 mile trip in 2004, the rallying cry in the Parkinson’s community was, “A cure in 10 years.” “We knew it was a moonshot,” Robert said, but they felt bolstered by hope and leaned in with the best intentions.  

As ten years came and went without a cure, Robert knew he couldn’t continue on as they had been. “I knew there was real pain that people like my dad and other families were feeling. I saw my dad’s disease progressing. We kept wanting to champion the lion-hearted guy we knew him to be, but we needed to get real about his health not getting better. We needed to admit that it wouldn’t get better.” His dad and so many people like him were facing real challenges every day and, until a cure was discovered, they needed to find a fresh perspective on living well. It was time to consider the profound question of quality of life.

Improv: The Spark  

As his dad advanced in his Parkinson’s, Robert began noticing that he wasn’t as open to trying new things as he used to be. At the time, Robert was in Los Angeles studying performative improvisation, hoping, with his film background, to land a sitcom and make it on the big stage. But he began to see that improv was not just a performative art, it was about making your improv partner look good; it was winning by assisting. More than that, it required communication, deep trust, and listening.  

That’s when it clicked. Robert considered that maybe improv wasn’t just good for getting a laugh. Maybe it could be good for his dad and other people with Parkinson’. He introduced his dad to Rob Belushi, one of his Second City improv teachers. That’s when Dan, too, realized that improv may have something to offer him. Not a cure, of course, but a shift in quality of life. 

Laughter is the Best Medicine 

Today, Robert is the founder of Yes, And…eXercise, improvisational workshops for the PD community sparked by promising research done by Northwestern University. His classes, which are accessible and offered virtually for anyone in the world, are not performance-based; they’re what Robert calls “play-based.” “It’s a way of socializing,” he explained. “A way of exploring and playing in a safe, kind space. It’s not about jokes; there’s no pressure. It’s about taking care of each other. It’s about laughing with each other, but not at each other. About finding and celebrating each other’s brilliance.” 

Robert has seen the impact firsthand: “I can say pretty clearly that play-based improvisation for people with Parkinson’s builds creativity, confidence, and communication.” In fact, Robert insists that part of his mission is to help people impacted by a movement disorder feel seen. He wants to recognize them: “I know you have a lot to say that matters, and this is a place where you get to play and present all of you.” They may enter class feeling like they’re struggling in body or mind, but each class is meant to remind them of their worth.  

Because Robert believes in the power of improv, he offers classes on a Pay It Forward basis. “It’s a gratitude model. Those who can give, do. Those who can give in different ways, do. When we can all pay it forward, it leads us to be our best selves. That’s what my dad has done for me.”

Parkinson’s Won’t Stop Them 

Robert is still trying to follow his dad’s lead, paying it forward in honor of the ways his dad has shaped his life. A few weekends ago, with his dad in a donated running chair, Robert pushed him through the steep San Francisco hills in a 12k Bay to Breakers race. His dad had always been an avid runner and, after two decades living with Parkinson’s, he thought he’d never be able to feel the joy of racing again.  

Together, they rediscovered Dan’s joy, climbing the hills in body and spirit and returning Dan to his first love.  

“To this day, Dad’s my #1 guy,” Robert told me. “He’s shown a confidence in me that has been unshakable.” They have grown together, sharing a commitment not to baseball but to each other that has endured and deepened. Together, they have reminded us: in spite of a disease, we can find home and meaning in each other.

Robert and Dan are in the midst of creating the fourth Boys of Summer documentary. You can watch the first two films on Mediflix.


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