The unmystical joy of playing catch

Monuments of purple prose have been built to fathers and sons tossing the ball. The truth: It's just plain fun

Topics: Parenting, Baseball, Fatherhood,

The unmystical joy of playing catch

I’ve been playing catch with my 7-year-old son a lot lately. He’s playing baseball for the first time, Pony League, machine-pitch, and while he’s done some hitting in the past, he never really learned to catch or throw until he started playing in the league.

He can do it now, in a beginner’s sort of way, and he likes practicing. He’s been bugging me a lot to play catch lately. He even wanted to stick around at the park after a practice the other night so he and I could throw the ball around a little. I asked him if that was because he wanted to practice and he said, “Yeah, and also because it’s fun.”

It is fun. I’d forgotten that. It’s been coming back to me as we toss the ball back and forth, usually from only 40 feet or so. I just love playing catch. I always have.

I haven’t done it much over the years. Warming up before softball games, mostly, which I also haven’t done much lately. But even that’s not quite what I mean by playing catch. Throwing the ball before a game serves a purpose. It’s a warmup exercise. It’s fun, but the best way to play catch is to play catch just to play catch.

Great stuffed pillows of prose have been written about games of catch, about fathers and sons and green pastures of spring and all that baloney. I don’t have much use for this kind of thing. Grass gets plenty green without baseball, you know, and fathers and sons who can only talk to each other by playing catch have problems that won’t be solved by playing catch.

As much as I love to play catch, I’ve never really felt that some great mystical communication was going on when I was playing with a friend, or with my dad. It’s fun to play catch with someone I hardly know, too. I love the rhythm of it. The simplicity. I love the sound, the pop of the glove when there’s a little mustard on the throw and it’s caught square in the pocket. Catch is a little hypnotizing. It ought to be the most boring thing in the world, but I’ve never ended a game out of boredom. I’ve worn out my arm a few times, though.

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I love playing catch with my son not because some magical, wordless discourse travels between us but because I love playing catch and I love that he enjoys playing it with me.

I have to be careful not to fall into the familiar patterns of a game of catch because he’s not ready for that yet. Wherever I’ve played catch and whoever I’ve played it with, at whatever age, catch has always been the same. It starts with simple tossing, a few backward steps every couple of throws to increase the distance. After a while, one or the other will spin a little curveball and invariably get one in return.

Then another curve, or maybe an amateurish split-finger or knuckleball. A screwball for those so inclined, with a question right behind it: “Did that do anything?” Those big-leaguers make a lot of money for a reason. The usual answer: “Not really.”

Soon, one will start winding up, maybe just a little at first, a leg kick. Then an imitation of some famous pitching motion. In my childhood it would have been Juan Marichal’s high leg kick or Luis Tiant’s full turn toward center field, though the windup that comes easiest to me is the rather nondescript one of the pitcher who was a hometown constant through my mid-teens, Don Sutton. It’s a rocking motion with a fluid kick, almost a swing toward home plate. Never mind. I’ll show you sometime.

I wonder if kids still do that as much. Pitchers’ windups seem more uniform now, not as idiosyncratic as they used to be. I think I’ll know the answer to this question within a year or two.

But no, not yet. I have to catch myself before letting loose my favorite pitch, my straight knuckler. No circle changes or palm balls. No dropping down sidearm. I’ve always wanted to invent a pitch, be the guy who figures out a way to configure those five fingers in some way that nobody’s thought of before. This will have to wait.

My son has become reasonably competent at catching balls thrown directly to him. He has trouble on his backhand side and tends not to reach quite high enough for balls higher than eye level. He’ll get there.

For now I concentrate on my mechanics, repeating my motion. I aim a straight, medium-speed ball at his left shoulder on every toss. It would be too easy for him if I could hit the target more consistently, but my shortcomings in this area give him plenty of practice reacting to different kinds of throws.

Each throw is just a throw. It doesn’t carry a message. I send those over with words. “Good!” Or “Whoops, sorry, bad throw!” I’ll tell him to turn the glove over when he forgets to backhand a ball to his right and he’ll tell me about something someone did at the last game. He’ll vow to catch the next 10. I’ll concentrate on laying that ball right on his shoulder so he can do it. He hardly ever does it. Not yet.

These games of catch might be formative moments that my son will take to his grave. I get that. They also might be forgotten and baseball abandoned by winter. I hope I’ll get to keep reprising them until long after my son — and, soon, I hope, my daughter — has had to start holding himself back to make allowances for my age.

But if not, then not. I’ll miss that familiar-again rhythm, that pop of the glove, that little flip to the bare hand, that back and forth. But I’ve missed it before. And whichever way it goes, if my kid and I need to talk to each other, we won’t go out and play catch. We’ll talk.

Then, maybe, if it’s light out and not raining, we’ll play catch. I hope so, because I love to play catch.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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