Steve Yeager

October 17, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

Y Is for Yeager

Baseball is often used to define fatherhood, and fatherhood is often used to define baseball. Somewhere it was said that baseball is fathers playing catch with sons, or something like that (I don’t know if he coined the phrase, but the great poet—and Dock Ellis collaborator—Donald Hall wrote a book of essays about sports using that title). Feeding into that notion is the familial bond strengthened and even defined through a shared love of the game, the game being passed down from generation to generation, and, last but not least, the literal act of fathers playing catch with sons, an act perhaps as sacramental as any other in secular America. What above that would a new father think of when imagining his relationship with his son? What else could more firmly lock father and son together and lock them both to the most tender and joyful element in the myth of the nation? This notion of fathers playing catch with sons has become an epicenter of sentimentality, too, a way toward weeping hot, nostalgic tears for, depending on the weeper, the distance in time from such a catch, the absence of such a catch, the absence, in part or in full, of the father. This is the myth of the land, too: the absent father, the catch that never was.

The elevated notion of fathers playing catch with sons crested in the popular imagination in Field of Dreams, a movie about a guy named Ray Kinsella hitting middle-age and still looking for that catch with his dad. In the end, the ghost of the long-gone father, John Kinsella, emerges from the corn, and he’s a catcher, that’s his position, his role during his time on earth playing baseball as well as in eternity: he is a father and he catches. The movie climaxes with this exchange between father and son:

John Kinsella: Well, good night Ray.
Ray Kinsella: Good night, John.
[They shake hands and John begins to walk away]
Ray Kinsella: Hey… Dad?
[John turns]
Ray Kinsella: [choked up] “You wanna have a catch?”
John Kinsella: I’d like that.

The second time I saw Field of Dreams I wasn’t having any of this, rejecting it as I would the idea of eating a bucket of sugar. By the time of the climactic catch between father and son, I had already come to this conclusion about and rejection of the movie, and Costner’s phrasing—“have a catch”—put me over the top. I’d never to that point heard of the act of throwing a ball back and forth as “having” a catch, and the term made the act sound all the more precious and sentimental, almost unbearably childish, even though the term my brother and I used when we wanted to do throw a ball around, if we had to use one at all beyond just eye contact and the waggle of a glove—“play catch”—was also childlike. I don’t know, “playing catch” just sounds, still sounds, less like a big production with swelling orchestral strings than “having a catch.” I understand now that it’s probably just a regional thing—in some places this is just what people say when they want to throw a ball back and forth. (But, still, I for one will never use the phrase “have a catch.”) Anyway, that second viewing of Field of Dreams formed my official stance on the movie, but I must admit that my first viewing of the movie went much differently.

I first saw it on an airplane over the Pacific Ocean. I was at one of the more vulnerable moments of my life, as I was on my way to spend a few months in China with the idea that I would study there, but I had no real plan beyond the notion that I was going to meet up with my college writing professor, who was teaching there for a year, and together we would “figure something out.” I had never left the continent before, and I didn’t know a single word of Chinese or anything about Chinese culture. It was a leap into the unknown. And here, during the longest flight of my life, into this unknown, came a soothing story about baseball and the American Dream and fathers playing catch with sons, and I fell into it completely, desperately, and at the end, during the “have a catch” scene, I started to lose it. I was sitting next to a young Japanese guy, and he was starting to lose it, too, and the two of us turned to one another and grinned sheepishly.

Japanese guy: It is nice.
Josh: [choked up] Yes.

So, let’s face it, I’m as deeply snared as anyone in the myth of baseball and America and fathers “having” catches with sons. Now that I’m a father I have already thought repeatedly about such a catch with my own son, even though his command of his hands and limbs is minimal, but it is not nonexistent, and he is able to grip onto my finger, which has more than once made me feel choked up. Anyway, it’s a long way off. In the meantime, however, everything but everything, or so I’ve been told, maybe not in so many words, is fathers playing catch with sons, and in this my role is to be a catcher. I have to catch what he throws. I have to be there. I have to be sturdy and balanced and relaxed but ready. Like Steve Yeager in this 1977 card, an impossible ideal of relaxed readiness, the supreme catcher. Whenever you’re ready, Yeager seems to be saying. I can crouch here all day. Whenever you’re ready, I’ll be here.


Previous installments in the Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting:

Z Is for Zisk


  1. You’re breaking *me* up, Wilker. Jesus.

  2. Nice.

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one who was/is bothered by the “have a catch” turn of phrase.

  4. Josh, I had the same sort of idea about my son. As it turned out, he’s sort of awkward and prefers Legos to baseball… but my (younger) daughter would play catch or have a catch all day if asked, and in fact asks me pretty much daily in the summer.

    It’s very different and also entirely the same.

  5. Regionalism check: I grew up in Los Angeles with a father from Chicago, and never heard “Have a catch” outside of that movie. I can’t recall if it is in the book (Shoeless Joe) by WP Kinsella, though. It bothered me when I saw the movie, too, (it’s “play catch”, dummy), but I also found the movie to tug at the heartstrings.

    Is there anyone here who ever called it “have a catch”?

  6. New York born and raised, always said, and still say “have a catch.” Never heard sentimental strings, nor were there any other dramatic production flourishes that I recall. I always thought it sounded appropriately casual, like “having a beer” or “having a chat”.

    On the other hand, when warming up before a softball game, if a teammate asks if I want to “play catch”, I cringe, and ask if we can play Legos instead.

  7. vertigone72: Thanks for offering another take on the “catch phrase” debate.

  8. I played catch with my dad, my brother, and my friends a zillion times, and always called it that. Your “rejecting it as I would the idea of eating a bucket of sugar” comment about Field of Dream hits it right on the mark for me. I read sentimental baseball blogs, follow my team like a religion, and fondly remember my playing days way more than the majority of baseball nuts, but I just didn’t buy, or even like, that movie.

    I even liked Major League and The Natural quite a bit more, which are rarely mentioned as even “good” films. With a fast forward button on the remote, Bull Durham is the best baseball movie of all time, so I can’t even say it was Kevin Costner that bugged me.

  9. Born/raised in southwest CT–my dad was born/raised in central CT, and it was never anything OTHER than “have a catch” to us. (Except when we’d call it “jumpers and divers,” since I always wanted him to throw it so I could run around as opposed to just standing there.)

    My girlfriend calls it “catching.” And I’m so grateful to have a girlfriend who likes to do this, I’ve never bothered to “correct” her.

  10. On the topic of “catching” and catchers, I am currently doing some work at Fran Healy’s house. Great guy with great baseball stories. Think about the teams he was part of. The Mays, McCovey Giants, The Brett, McRae Royals, The Bronx Zoo Yankees, and he was a broadcaster for the ’86 Mets. Interesting career.

  11. Here in the Hoosier State we just said, ‘let’s throw.’

  12. @shealives It always baffled me how Fran could have soaked in such great perspective as a player (read where he apparently was Reggie’s one and only friend on the Yankees) but at the same time be so empty of insights and stories as a broadcaster. Always seemed he was trying way too hard to be a cheery pbp man and purposefully holding back whatever actual knowledge or opinions he possessed, unless it was to say something cliche about the importance of having “CAHNfidence!”

    It was always “have a catch” where I grew up. “Play catch” was for wussies.

  13. outstanding piece. i love this blog.

  14. Playing catch maybe becomes throw or toss when a kid starts getting serious about baseball, usually too serious. Anyway, my first time at this site and loveI love it..continuation of book. I read this post and then looked at Yeager and was like, “yeh, that’s it exactly,” Thank you.

  15. Another great piece, Josh. You’ve articulated my sentiments on yet another seminal baseball experience. As I’m teaching in China this year, I’d love to hear about your take on Shanghai, 1989. Any connections to the cardboard gods?

  16. If you haven’t seen the baseball movie BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, you should. Also for readers out there, Mark Harris’s novels SOUTHPAW, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, TICKET FOR A SEAMSTIRCH and IT LOOKED LIKE FOREVER are all terrific (especially the 1st two). They chronicle the story of Henry “Author” Wiggen from his rookie year with the NY Mammoths through the end of his career. Like CARDBOARD GODS, these books are hilarious and touching.

  17. geosax : Shanghai comes up once in a while in these posts, most recently in the “Ekim Xuddam” post. I think a post on a Denny Doyle card hangs out in Shanghai and thereabouts for quite a while (see link in sidebar under the Red Sox heading).

    hen43: I love Mark Harris. I got pretty deep into some Mark Harris appreciation on the occasion of his passing, starting with this Champ Summers post:


    The 3-part “Cheers for Mark Harris” series started with Champ ended with a guest post by Henry Wiggen on a Frank Tanana card.

  18. Have you read any of his non-baseball related novels? SPEED is a heartbreaking coming of age story about brothers (sound familiar?). It should be in the mix with THE CATCHER IN THE RYE and A SEPARATE PEACE in high school english classrooms, but I’d wager it has never been taught. SOMETHING ABOUT A SOLDIER is a great anti-war novel. And, Harris wrote two hilarious epistolary novels with academic settings (LYING IN BED was one of the titles, the other escapes me).

    Anyone for a quick game of Tegwar?

  19. Have you had a chance to read THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach? I loved it. It’s beautifully written with a memorable small cast of off-beat characters (a little like a slightly tamer John Irving book). At 500+ pages, it just flies by. When I reached the period at the end of the final sentence, I wanted to start all over at the beginning so I wouldn’t have to say goodbye to Henry (hmmm… coincidence?), Schwartz, Owen (Owen Meany anyone?) and Pella.

  20. I used to ask my dad to “play catch.” Sometimes he would say yes, but most times he would say, “I’m too old” and go take a nap. So the “have a catch” phrase doesn’t mean anything to me. I just weep uncontrollably every time I watch the end of the movie when I realize if John Kinsella were my dad he would probably say, “Sorry, son, I’ve got to go back to the magic cornfield and take a nap.”

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