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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