Everyone Wins in the Game of Catch

COMMENTARY: The game of catch, when it catches on, symbolizes charity.

A simple game of catch teaches morality without moralizing.
A simple game of catch teaches morality without moralizing. (photo: Andrey Yurlov / Shutterstock)

Several years ago, a parody of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It showed God the Father passing a baseball to Adam. Did God invent baseball? Did Genesis refer to the national pastime in stating, “In the big-inning, God created heaven on earth?”

Baseball may not be exactly religious. But it shares with religion a number of common elements: humility, courage, loyalty, perseverance, gratitude and faith. Its struggle is not between good and evil, but between victory and defeat. It does not canonize the worthiest of its members, but enshrines them into a Hall of Fame. It lacks a catechism, but has an inflexible book of rules. It prepares one not for heaven, but for life. 

Baseball, in its embryonic form, is a game of catch between father and son. Baseball great Harmon Killebrew relates his own prelude to the game: “My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard. Mother would come out and say, ‘You’re tearing up the grass.’ ‘We’re not raising grass,’ Dad would reply. ‘We’re raising boys.’” Harmon was raised well. He had a 22-year career in the major leagues (1954-1975), hit 573 home runs, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame (1974).

Perhaps the two most highly acclaimed movies about baseball are Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and Ray Kinsella’s Field of Dreams. Both stories end with a father playing catch with his son. This is where baseball begins and ends. Television ratings, gate receipts, standings and batting averages do not get to the heart of baseball. Its heart grows from the simple toss and catch between father and son in the backyard of their home.

My own children, including three boys, were initially reluctant to play catch. The problem was that they were reluctant to throw the ball back. Instinctively, they felt that to throw is to lose. They wanted to possess the ball and not surrender it. “Throw the ball and I will throw it back to you,” I would say. They soon began to realize that it was great fun to throw something away (in my general direction) and get it back. And the fun repeated itself with every subsequent throw and catch. And all the time the ball was tossed — back and forth, hither and yon — invisible lines of community and trust were being formed.

The game of catch, when it catches on, symbolizes charity. Its moral lesson is that in giving we do not lose. In fact, giving enriches us with repeated dividends. When a father throws a baseball to his children, he hopes they will catch it. When he speaks to them, he hopes they will catch his message. The game of catch forms communication as well as trust. It is teaching morality without moralizing.

Roger Rosenblatt remarks in a July 13, 1998, essay for Time, “A game of catch is an essential gesture of parenthood too, I believe, when families are working well. Everyone tosses to be understood. The best part of the game is the silence.” This simple exchange reaps untold benefits.

The game of “catch” is rightly named. It is not called the game of “throw.” Its name puts the burden on the receiver. Throwing does not require skill. Anybody can throw, wildly, erratically or pointlessly. But catching is an art. It requires concentration, timing and the ability to hold on to the ball. Anybody can shout. But to convey a message demands skill.

Fathers walk a tightrope in their fatherly ministries. If they speak too forcefully, they are bullies; if they speak too softly, they are wimps; if they speak too rarely, they are neglectful; if they speak too often, they are overbearing. But under the sun, in the backyard of their home, they do not need words to demonstrate their fatherliness. In the unspoken rhythm of pitching and catching, they are unquestionably fathers.

Author Nancy Jane Smith relates the game of catch to ordinary human relationships. “Think of a relationship as a game of catch,” she writes. “In a healthy, dynamic relationship, the game of catch goes back and forth, becoming playful at times and dutiful at times, but each time Person A throws the ball and Person B catches it (or at least picks it up) and throws it back.”

By contrast, she comments on less-than-healthy relationships using the same model: “Are you the one always throwing the ball? Does your partner try to catch the ball and return it to you? Are you trying to catch the ball when your partner throws it?” A healthy relationship, according to Smith, should have the kind of equality that we find in the game of throw and catch. The game between father and son, therefore, is preparing the son for healthy relationships with others throughout the course of his life.

The game of catch between father and son lends to generous affirmations: “Great catch!” “Wow, what a throw!” Then, smiles light up the child’s face. The father is doing his fatherly job. The game will be repeated, and the moral lessons will be reinforced.

It might be said that, in the game of catch, there are no winners or losers. Such a statement is grossly misleading. True, there are no losers. But the number of winners is multifold.