Playing Catch 365 Days a Year
It started with a dream. An audacious dream of wearing the white and scripted blue of the Kansas City Royals, running on to the field, hearing the cheers of the crowd, signing my name on my own Topps baseball card. I was 8, in the second grade, with a dream bigger than my brain could fully process. I didn’t know then how someone became a professional baseball player. I just knew I wanted to be one. Dad bought me a glove, taught me how to catch pop-ups, and played catch with me for years. He was my catcher when I got pitching lessons. He was my catch-partner on family vacations. He was my catch-partner almost every day when he pulled in the driveway after work. I never asked him if he thought I could play professional baseball. It was my dream. My last season in high school, I was a smallest-guy-on-the-team 16-year old sophomore benchwarming for the junior varsity. The next spring, I put up my glove and bat and grabbed my golf clubs. Over the years, I played on a couple of slow pitch softball teams, but slow pitch never held the appeal for me that baseball did. I went to college, got married, had kids, and got a job. Through more than a dozen moves, I always knew where my glove was. I played catch with my wife on the front lawns and backyards of our new homes. I played catch with my first-born daughter when I helped coach her t-ball team. I even played catch with Royals eight-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman, Frank White. The story I wrote about our day together became the very first piece I was paid to publish. Throughout my childhood, I played catch with one singular goal in mind — to become a professional baseball player. As an adult, I played catch to help me stay in touch with the kid inside who once believed I was good enough to be a professional baseball player. I averaged a couple of games of catch each year, just enough to make my arm sore for a few days following the effort. And then 2018 happened. Inspired and encouraged by my daughters, I played catch every single day. For a year. In 10 different states. With more than 530 different catch partners. The effort was unofficially sponsored by Icy Hot, Dr Pepper, and ibuprofen. Dad and I made it to the Field of Dreams movie site, meeting journalist Bob Dyer and octogenarian Stan Sipka for catch on the sacred field in Iowa. At the field I was reminded of the words of George Bernard Shaw, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. I played catch with several notable female ballplayers — Mary Moore of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League; Little Bear, the youngest pitcher for the Beijing-Shougang Eagles; and All-World Pitcher Simone Wearne, the only female inducted into Australia’s National Baseball Hall of Fame. In a world and culture that promotes a fear of strangers, playing catch helps make new friends. Playing catch encouraged my sense of curiosity. I felt like Calvin and Hobbes, going out on an adventure with a friend, making observations, and learning about all of life. Whether it was bad weather or a broken glove or a cancelled partner, playing catch every day taught me to be adaptable, flexible, and creative. Playing catch was the best experiment in learning about community. I got to know others and myself better through shared experiences and practiced my empathy, cooperation, and communication skills. From 21-month old Benton to Neighbor Bob the Nonagenarian and friends at all levels of baseball experience, playing catch really did bring people together. Every day, without fail — every single day — playing catch left me with a renewed sense of hope and deep feelings of optimism and wonder. Playing catch gave me the gift of living fully in the present. Playing catch, like life, is all about relationships. I now have friends that I text and email and connect with across all social media platforms because they were catch partners. We live in a play-deprived culture. We have asked teens (and younger!) to start specializing in sports, picking and choosing and investing thousands of hours and dollars driving to top-dollar tournaments in hopes of spurring a professional career. In focusing on and pushing toward an unknown future, we have ignored the gift of the present and one of the most important lessons. To be human is to play. Play is not motivated by the distant ends. Play is for the joy found in the moment, the wonder discovered in the whimsy, the profound beauty of stretching imaginations. I took a 29-year break from playing baseball competitively. In August of 2019, with my arm in fantastic shape, I tried out for the Grip’N’Rip Baseball League, a highly-competitive wood bat league. More than 130 players tried out for only 84 spots. Somehow, I made the cut. The fourth oldest player in the league. The league requires all players to sign a contract and pays all players — $1. At the age of 45, my dream finally came true. I was a professional baseball player. But my catch-playing dreams are far from over. With my daughter’s help, I’m now working on a knuckleball in anticipation of the day the Royals ask me to throw out a first pitch. (Her knuckleball is easily ten times better than mine.) I’m hoping to participate in 2 Guinness World Records: The Longest Game of Catch Between Two People and the World’s Largest Game of Catch. I’ve even written a book, A Year of Playing Catch which will publish September 2020, hoping to inspire others to take up their gloves and attempt the #Catch365 challenge. Why play catch? Because playing catch creates powerful memories with those who matter the most.