There’s a satisfaction to playing catch. The steady rhythm of it, the slow windup and release, the sound of a glove snapping shut. The feel of the red laces on your fingers as you grip the ball, the sun setting, the can of beer getting warm as it sits in the grass, waiting for you to return.
The silence. Then the occasional banter, suggestions for improvement–how to throw faster, farther, more accurate. The wild throws and the jog to recover, and the great moment when you zing a fastball for a strike, or flick your wrist the right way and hang a curve.
Throughout the summer, my brother Jason and I played catch on the little league diamond in our neighborhood. The field was fenced in and locked, but we jumped the fence nearly every day. The cops saw us a couple times. They didn’t care. All they saw was a couple of thirty-somethings throwing a ball, poorly, wildly. They’d watch me shag pop flies that my brother would fungo at me from home plate. I’d stand in centerfield, on my toes, ready for the piercing clang of the aluminum bat—then I’d track the arc, sprinting, almost there, almost—and leap to catch it on the run.
The moment where I thought to myself, wow, that might’ve got applause in an actual game, with a team, and spectators. I’d smile, then throw the ball back in and wait quietly for the next hit.
I work a job where I spend at least 2 hours, every day, commuting to and from. Some days, I don’t get home until 7. When it was summer, that was fine. We’d have an hour to throw the ball, work up a good sweat, and then drink some beers. But soon summer slipped away into fall, and the sun would drift beyond the horizon before I’d get home.
Gone were the days of catch and fungo, we thought.
But then I bought a bright light-up ball—a dog toy, technically—about the size and weight of a baseball, made of hard translucent rubber. We couldn’t bat with it, unless we wanted to spill the light-up guts of it all over the diamond, but last night we decided to play catch at night while the Nationals and Dodgers duked it out in D.C. under bright stadium lights.
We were lost in the dark of the little league field. But the LED ball leaves a trail of light as it flies through the air. You can see it perfectly as it changes from blue to green to red. You can throw it hard, fast, just like a baseball. But what you can’t see is your target. All I’d see is the faint outline of a green t-shirt standing in the outfield. I’d set, windup, and throw—and the ball would bounce twenty feet short of Jason. He’d scramble to scoop it up, then fire it back, and it would sail ten feet over my head and bounce off the fence.
This happened with nearly every throw. So, I decided, the hell with it. I’m just gonna hurl this thing as hard as I can in his direction, and make him run for it.
For the first time in my life, out there in the darkness fringed with orange streetlight, I pushed off my back foot and spun my torso, the kinetic energy rising from the ground on up through muscle groups so my arm would whip around fast.
The ball flew far beyond my brother and landed near the fence, rolling bright through the dewy grass.
During the summer, I’d often ice my elbow after playing catch because I was muscling the ball too hard with my arm. The pain would linger for a day or two. But last night, I learned how to do something that all ballplayers have to learn, how to transfer energy from your feet through your body to your fingertips to whip the ball forward. I kept going, adjusting for distance, and the throws flew straighter, less arc, more speed. I could feel my muscles from toes to core to shoulder heating up, loosening, catching up with my already-warm arm.
That first true throw of my life streaked like a falling star.
I never figured out how to do that when I was a kid. But, age 30, I finally learned the trick. Practice, patience, kinetic energy, precision, focus, and having a good time playing catch at night, running around in the dark like fools with your older brother.
When we got back to my apartment, that warm beer never tasted so good. No ice needed.