My neighborhood in Independence, Missouri, is multigenerational. Young families live next door to someone’s grandparents, and the mix seems to please all. Diagonally to the northeast of my house lives a family from which all three of their daughters were my students. One of them lives at home and has a daughter of her own just beginning elementary school. The neighborhood is unique in one other way. The single road connecting us all is just an oddly-shaped square, a geometrical impossibility, I know, with just one outlet to the main road. That means few vehicles are on our quiet street unless they belong here. Few accidents of orientation, in this day of GPS, steer lost cars into our little oasis. So, children play safely in the street, just as I did on the streets of my childhood in New Jersey. There’s something comforting about that. In a time of rampant discontinuities among the generations, it’s nice to observe a peaceful continuity.
But there’s something missing today from the street play I participated in. And something dominant today that was nearly nonexistent back in the ’40s and ’50s. My father, besides being a wonderful minister, citizen, and father, was a damned good athlete. He saw participating in physical sports a way of making social and personal contact with people to whom he might, at some future time, be called upon to minister. He was a minister not in a denominational sense, but in a human sense. If someone was in need and you could help, you pitched in. You didn’t look at the color of their skin first, nor the inflection of speech. You didn’t ask about their faith, or lack of it, nor their political affiliation. To minister was to take everyone as equally in need and equally worthy of whatever you could do. But people have pride, and that’s not a sin, just a form of defense that makes you human. You don’t have to break down people’s defenses; you just have to engage them in such a way that they willingly move out from behind them to you. Participating in sports was one of several ways in which he could build up the trust that often led to his being able to minister effectively to them.
But sports don’t always have to be organized, with uniforms, rules, and scorecards. For many of us in those days, one of the core sports-based activities was playing catch. At a bare minimum, it required two people and one ball. It could be a baseball, or a ball that size. It could be a football. The ’60s activity of hacky-sack is just another form of playing catch. When the Frisbee became popular, it would substitute for a ball, or the dull soft thud of a sack. The most important fact to know about playing catch is that it is a cooperative activity. The somewhat diffuse goal of all participants is to keep the activity going, and to keep everyone in the game. Okay, that’s two goals, but they are interconnected. Perhaps symbiotic. It was also a game of adaptation. Each participant tuned his or her level of play so as to make everyone able to participate, despite varying skill levels. It’s contrary to the expectations of the game to throw the ball too hard for someone, or beyond his or her reach, or to humiliate those of lesser skills. You keep the ball moving, and the way you do that is you throw catchable balls. You can challenge those of greater skill. That’s what gives the game some savor.
I loved playing catch with my father, but by the time I became a good partner, the demands from the community and his church for his time made those moments rare, but oh so treasured. He had a little bit of a curveball he tried out on me upon occasion, and I experimented sometimes with a knuckleball for his amusement, but it was more knucklehead than Hoyt Wilhelm flutter. The beauty of playing catch is that the players stand close enough to talk and communicate while they throw and catch. It’s what you see in spring training in the Bigs, and along the sidelines and in the outfield before a game, and while B.P. is going on. Kids playing catch. It used to be the quintessential informal sports activity of childhood.
In my neighborhood, I don’t see it any more. There are still ball-related sport activities, but they’ve changed. I should have seen it coming when I was a father and tried to recruit my son into playing catch. He abhorred it, though he would throw the Frisbee upon occasion. His interest became skateboarding, an interest I never cultivated. Perhaps as a good father I should have. But skateboarding is an exhibitionist activity, and showing how bizarre an arc you can make a Frisbee achieve is one too. There’s no thought about cooperation or mutual participation; it’s just about showing off. And that seems to be the goal of the kids where I live. Dunk over someone, posture, preen, laugh, and maybe even taunt them for their incompetence. The transition is not just between sports as participation and sports as spectacle, it seems also to set up a model of interaction at this informally primal level that translates into far too many fields of human contact.
Feel free to fill in the blanks yourselves. I just miss playing catch with my dad, or my son, or grandchildren. I’ve got an old Mizuno first-baseman’s mitt and a Royals baseball, a Billy Butler homerun during B.P. when he just broke in with us and my pal Gloria and I were giving away copies of the late Dan Quisenberry’s book of sweet poems about the game to the first 500 patrons that Sunday. I can still throw a decent spiral, too. If you prefer football, I have three Michael Vick #7 balls from when he was with Atlanta and did federal time for dog-fighting. I figured he was done in football and the balls would be valuable some day. They are. That day is here. They are valuable for what they were always most valuable for: playing catch.