Playing Catch at Night, Learning How to Throw

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.

Yo Knows Beisbol

“A Cespedes for the rest of us.” That was Jerry Seinfeld’s proclamation during the latter half of last season, when the Mets broke Major League Baseball by trading two minor league pitchers for Yoenis Cespedes, one of the best sluggers on the market, who then carried us to the postseason.

Cespedes has yet to prove his $27 million price tag, but he smacked his first home run of the season in a 5-2 loss against the Phillies yesterday afternoon. It reminded me of the most epic home run I had ever seen in my life, save perhaps for Piazza’s post-9/11 homer. It was Game 3 of the NLDS against the Dodgers, and my father and I went to Citi Field for the game.

It was a straight-up gladiator fight in there, especially after the Utley slide and Tejada’s broken leg, and Mets fans were out for blood. Cespedes gave it to them when he belted a three-run blast over the left field fence to put the game beyond reach for the Dodgers. In that moment, the stadium was so loud that you couldn’t hear the announcer or the jetliners overhead taking off from LaGuardia. Cespedes also gave the most epic bat flip to date.

But I could hear my father screaming for joy, his face a toothy grin that I’d only seen in childhood pictures of him. I don’t know if I’d ever seen him that happy.

That, my friends, is the mythic stuff of baseball legend that you might only see once in a lifetime.



Yo’s Homer


Apple, apple, we’re gonna see an apple!

the guy sitting behind me in the stands

said to his little boy, referring to the home run

apple that pops up out of the black top hat

beyond the Mets’ centerfield fence,

and Yo steps into the box, digs his left toe

down into the clay, stares down

at the mound and here comes the pitch

and crack! it’s a frozen rope over our heads

and in the ecstasy of fandom I thought

I could hear the wind rippling off the stitches

of the ball as it sliced through the cold

October night air and pegged into the stands

just above the rising apple, and I turned to the guy

and shouted you called it! you called it!

and my father screamed in joy, his fists

in the air, his smile wide and toothy as if he were five

and through the grey goatee and wrinkles

I could see the young redhead kid

who grew up a few blocks away,

who probably chased those home run balls

through the parking lot,

and the guy behind me raised his little boy

to his shoulders and he watched grown men

melt into their boyhood selves,

loosened into tears of joy by beer

and the age-old home run wish

they finally got.