Playing Catch and the “Rhythm of the Universe”

A great question was posed to me at last year’s SABR convention. It came from renowned baseball historian John Thorn, and it was as profound as it was simple. It was a baseball question, yet it transcended the game itself.

Why is it so much fun to play catch?

I recently revisited John’s question — his philosophical musing on the simple act of tossing a baseball back and forth — and decided to ask some of baseball’s most-contemplative minds for their opinions. Here’s what they said:

——

Andrew Bailey [Oakland A’s]: “The love you have for the game really starts with playing catch. Being out there in the back yard playing catch with your father or friends is kind of the first step to falling in love with the game of baseball. It takes you back to those days every single time you get on a big-league field and do it.

“Growing up, it’s ‘Let’s go out and play catch,’ and now the game has obviously evolved to more than that. There are days when you stop and think about it — how far you’ve come from riding your bike to the park and playing catch with your buddies. Playing catch is a learning process. Growing up, you’re throwing stuff into the ground, or over someone’s head, or you’re missing the ball. Now it‘s just a routine.”

Josh Tomlin [Cleveland Indians]: “Playing catch is muscle memory. If you do something long enough, your body gets used to it and develops that memory. You hear people say that throwing a baseball is the most unnatural thing in sports, but for us, we’ve been doing it our whole lives, almost from the time we were babies. As a baseball player, it feels like the most natural thing you can do.”

Joe Maddon [Tampa Bay Rays]: “It takes you back to the time you were five or six years old, and it was probably your dad at the other end of the throw. It was probably a very comfortable setting, maybe a field. In your mind’s eye it was somewhere that… it’s just a very visceral, old, feeling. It brings you back.”

Sam Fuld [Tampa Bay Rays]: “There are definitely some nostalgic reasons behind it. I think that for most of us, our first experience of playing catch was with our dad. Memories from that age — maybe four years old — translate over to the current day. Maybe we picture ourselves being dads — some of us already are — doing the same thing with our own kids. It goes way beyond the actual game of catch. It’s an opportunity to bond.

“The fun of playing catch isn’t just throwing the ball, but also catching it. It’s fun to have the ball come in from your throwing partner, and if they throw a ball in the dirt, it’s fun to scoop it. [And you] protect whoever is behind you, from an errant throw.”

Jon Axford [Milwaukee Brewers]: “It brings you back to your childhood. You play with your friends and your dad — with everyone. When you’re young, that’s what you do. Someone throws you a ball and you throw it back. You do it with animals as well; you play catch with your dog. But mostly it brings me back to my parents, playing catch with my father.

“It’s fun, and you never lose that. My throwing partner on the team is Kameron Loe, and we always have fun with it. We even have a fun little handshake at the end. It brings back old memories, and every time you add someone new you’re creating a new memory.”

Justin Masterson [Cleveland Indians]: “It’s like a connection, a one-on-one connection, like a conversation you’re having with somebody. You’re not playing fetch, you’re playing catch. There is an intimacy there. That sounds weird, because you’re playing catch with your teammates, but each time, you’re trying to hit him in the chest.

“As a pitcher, the time you’re probably most relaxed is when you’re playing catch. You’re not really thinking about anything, you’re just playing catch, nice and easy, throwing the ball back and forth, seeing how far it goes and whatever happens, happens. You can also joke around. Sometimes I’ll bust out a sinker. My throwing partner is Josh Tomlin, and all of a sudden he’ll be like, ‘Aagghh!’

Manny Acta [Cleveland Indians]: “First of all, everybody should be happy that they’re able to crank their arm up and throw a baseball. So many people can’t do that. And being able to catch it, because so many people can’t do that either. Maybe it’s because of physical issues — I hurt my arm a few years ago and couldn‘t throw — or maybe they’re just not a fan of the game and have never done it; they didn’t play when they were little. It’s harder than it looks. But for people who have done it their whole life, or their whole career, it is fun to be able to throw a ball and catch a ball.”

Justine Siegel [Baseball For All]: “Playing catch is almost like a state of meditation. For me, there is an element of physical rhythm that is both satisfying and challenging all at the same time. And when my arm feels good, and the ball is zipping out of my hand, there is a feeling of energy that just flows through my body. And I’m not thinking about anything other than throwing and catching that baseball.”

Jeff Francoeur [Kansas City Royals]: “It’s fun to throw and something we’ve been doing since we were little boys. My favorite movie is Field of Dreams and at the end he plays catch with his dad. I think that every boy’s dream is to play catch with his dad. I’ll never forget the times that me and pop played catch together. It’s just a neat experience. Plus, as a position player, I get to throw a few sliders and curveballs, just messing around.”

Nyjer Morgan [Milwaukee Brewers]: “The reason why catch is one of the most valuable parts of the game of baseball is that you get to loosen up all of your limbs. And the people maybe get to see you play a little flip, which is a standard ritual in the game of baseball — you play a little flip with maybe two of your compatriots. Basically, it builds team camaraderie. It helps you get to know your fellow teammates. It’s bonding.”

Fernando Perez [Buffalo Bisons]: “Pro ballplayers always play catch in empty stadiums. Whether it’s the big leagues or it’s rookie ball, it’s an empty stadium. If someone’s up in the booth, we’ll have music too — it’s nice to hear the local radio station until they begin playing music, it’s nice to hear them mention that our game will be taking place later if anyone might be interested. I’m pretty sure it’s then, as we’re loosening our noodles in abbreviated uniforms, that I’m struck by the randomness and narrowness of the profession.

“It’s also the most informal part of the day — lots of shooting the breeze sometimes rehashing what we’ve missed in each others’ personal lives, often reiterating how funny, how brilliant or how unjust some part of yesterday’s game was. Occasionally there’s talk of a Matt Moore or a Julio Teheran tabbed to throw against us tonight.

“Playing catch is often the first professional act of the day, it’s a transition from personal life to team business. Lastly, as all position players think they can pitch, at least half of us are working on our off-speed stuff likely at the detriment of our elbows and shoulders, but we can’t help it. It’s too much fun. My changeup has come a long way since high school.”

Ryan Braun [Milwaukee Brewers]: “It’s one of the first things, athletically, that we ever do. A lot of times it happens when you’re really young, and it’s usually with a father figure or a brother. There is something special about the memory that it invokes. It brings you back to the experience you had when you were a young kid.

“You can be on a big-league field and somewhere in the back of your head is a distant memory of that first time you ever played catch, and who the person was that you played catch with. Deep down, that experience never completely escapes you.”

Daniel Bard [Boston Red Sox]: “It’s something you do from when you’re five years old, and we’re some of the few people who still get to do it every day. It’s kind of cool in that respect. Every once in awhile you kind of think about how much fun it is to get to dress up in these costumes every day and go out and play a kid’s game, and get paid a lot of money to do it. It makes you pretty thankful.”

John Thorn [official historian for Major League Baseball]: “I think the deep, cosmic joy that comes with playing catch, especially with your kid, is this: Your hand and the ball it grips become one, and you send a piece of yourself into the ether, confident that it will find its mark and be returned.

“To and fro is the rhythm of the universe. Playing catch makes you part of that.”




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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA


22 Responses to “Playing Catch and the “Rhythm of the Universe””

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  1. Brian says:

    As someone who loves playing catch, but doesn’t understand why (I think that I may in fact be bad at catch!) this was a really refreshing read. Thanks for posting!

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  2. Very Sublime says:

    I liked this post a lot. Nice change of pace from the usual around here.

    I actually laughed at the Justin Masterson quote: “Sometimes I’ll bust out a sinker. My throwing partner is Josh Tomlin, and all of a sudden he’ll be like, ‘Aagghh!’”

    I recommend making all the player’s names bold or colored or something to help compartmentalize it, especially since some quotes are more than one paragraph.

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  3. Owen says:

    Thanks for this. I’m going to go home after work today and have a catch with my son.

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  4. MikeS says:

    “Playing Catch” is just fine.

    “Having a Catch” is just wrong.

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    • davef says:

      Are you from the Northeast? I feel like “Playing catch” is a New England/Northeast thing versus “Have a catch” which is more commonly used. A bit like “pigpile” versus “dogpile”. in the northeast it’s a “pigpile “after a big win. most other palces it’s a “dogpile”.

      Great article.

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      • joser says:

        I’m from the west and I’d never heard the abominable term “have a catch” until it popped up in “Field of Dreams” I always assumed the sensible “playing catch” dominated and “have a catch” was just one of those nonsensical inbred regionalisms like “standing on line” (instead of in) and pronouncing the name of the 42nd state as “Warshington”

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  5. maqman says:

    Playing and having are only relevant to the time and the person.

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    • Steve Balboni says:

      For what its worth, that’s the 4th Trope of Aenesidemus’ 10 forms of argument by which one forces one’s mind to consider, and not merely accept, the appearances of things. Good job, young jedi.

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  6. AustinRHL says:

    This is really cool. I had no idea that position players messed around with offspeed pitches.

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    • satanorsanta says:

      Playing catch with my dad was always interesting because he had a wicked knuckleball that was almost impossible to catch. I was never able to figure out how to throw it.

      I do, however, throw a slider when I play catch warming up for beer league softball

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    • joser says:

      A fair number of them pitched in Little League and highschool, sometimes even later than that, and so had time to develop “real” pitches. Even if they didn’t, they spend so much time playing catch that some of them fool around with things like knucklers just to keep it interesting.

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  7. GTStD says:

    I love this post. It’s a part of what we all love about baseball… as almost every American male (and a lot of the females) grew up playing catch. :)

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  8. Chone says:

    “That sounds weird, because you’re playing catch with your teammates, but each time, you’re trying to hit him in the chest.” Hilariously accurate. Great article and collection of perspectives from around the bigs.

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  9. Jason says:

    This is my favorite bit:

    “Lastly, as all position players think they can pitch, at least half of us are working on our off-speed stuff likely at the detriment of our elbows and shoulders, but we can’t help it. It’s too much fun. My changeup has come a long way since high school.”

    This is so true. I spend half my time warming up for beer league softball throwing overhand knuckleballs. I swear I have the world’s best softball knuckler. My goal is to have the catcher completely miss the ball and take it in the chest or noggin. And it happens pretty routinely. ….not everyone likes playing catch with me….

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  10. Eric Farris says:

    I think Masterson came closest to answering the question the way I would… that is, taking it back to why it was ORIGINALLY so fun. Sure, most everyone has memories of playing catch with their dad, and that’s a nice memory, but there was something about the act that made it fun then. It is a rhythm, a connection, a repetitveness, that is calming. And I like Braun’s take, that it is one of the first true athletic moves we ever do.

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  11. “…that I’m struck by the randomness and narrowness of the profession.”

    Was anyone else surprised by how deep Fernando Perez was? Not many people take a wider view of how strange and “random” sports are. I’m impressed.

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  12. Steve Balboni says:

    I’m voting for David Laurila as Fangraphs 2011 MVP. Of all my favorite reads, he’s produced the most and this is another.

    And Fernando Perez is the MVP of this collection: I’m pretty sure it’s then, as we’re loosening our noodles in abbreviated uniforms, that I’m struck by the randomness and narrowness of the profession..

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  13. CircleChange11 says:

    My dad and I worked through a lot of arguements and disagreements through playing catch. Sometimes not saying anything at all during the process.

    Reminds me of City Slickers, “When my dad and I couldn;t talk about anything else, we could always talk about baseball.” Well, my dad and I could argue about anything, especially baseball … so silent catch was a godsend.

    My 10yo’s favorite part of our baseball activities is “silly catch” … the last 10 minutes of our activity where we get to throw however we want and imitate any throwing/pitching delivery. I am officially the left handed Quisenberry.

    ———————————-

    Fathers and Sons playing catch now appears on the Endangered List.

    It is soon to replaced by Client playing catch with a paid employee under the private coach’s supervision.

    As one that continues to coach in youth leagues, as well as, select teams … I find it very discouraging that more and more kids come into their 2nd and 3rd year of youth baseball and still struggle to protect themselves on the diamond (either from throw or hit balls). They simply do not play catch in between practices. I find myself recruiting a couple of dads each practice just to “play catch with the kid” while I get everyone going on individual skill stations.

    Even as a pitching coach for the HS, I always played catch with our starting pitcher. Why? Because I could. I always masked it under the “IU want to control his pre-game intensity” type of thing, but really I just like to play catch. Playing long toss and fielding ground balls are still two of my favorite things to do … even at age 38.

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  14. Mike B. says:

    The Fernando Perez remarks are the highlight of this. Also great insight from Justin Masterson and John Thorn.

    I’m thankful that my wife enjoys playing catch, a ritual for us going back several years. We haven’t yet played this summer, which is odd–this article reminds me that we need to dust off our mitts and head out to the park.

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  15. stratobill says:

    Nostalgia aside, I think the reason playing catch is fun is because it creates a positive feedback loop. What I mean is, each throw you make has the potential to be in the dirt or over your throwing partner’s head. So each throw you make that is on target is a small success for you. Likewise, each time your partner throws the ball to you there is the chance that you will miss it. So each successful catch is another small success for you.

    So over the course of a ten minute game of catch you can have over 100 small successes, making you feel competant and skillful. Why wouldn’t such an ego-boosting activity be fun?

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  16. Playing catch with one’s father is an adaptive trait. Being able to do things that are father can do not only raises the amount of certainty the father has that this is in fact his child, but it behooves the child to do whatever his father does in order to increase his reproductive fitness. The father has already had children and he can play catch, thus playing catch contributes to reproductive fitness. Its evolutionary baggage, realized at an unconscious level but an adaptive trait nonetheless.

    Besides appearing coordinated not only gives you confidence in your ability to fight off parasites, but appeals to possible mates and challenges your peers. This is why we get so angry when we can’t do things, especially things that are father can do quite well. Not only are we making fools are of ourselves, lest somebody of the opposite sex is watching, but a seeming increase in the probability that our father is in fact not our father is devastating to what we would consider behavior to increase fitness. In other words, this man who says he’s my father might not be my father so why do what he says.

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  17. mettle says:

    Fernando Perez is indeed that awesome:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernando_Perez_%28baseball%29

    I am certainly hoping he makes the Mets big league team, the all star game and anything else that gives him more air time.

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