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By John W. Miller

It’s Kevin Costner who says it at the end of “Field of Dreams”: “Hey, dad. You wanna have a catch?”

The hit baseball film enshrined in shared American life the doctrine of fathers and sons playing catch. It’s familiar, comforting imagery that reassures us that boys might turn into loving, caring men. The title of poet Donald Hall’s essay collection, “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons,” has practically become a cliché.

For me, it took a two-day artists’ retreat organized by the Jesuit Conference of the United States and Canada, and maybe the spirit of St. Ignatius, to punch up that metaphor into something less sexist and more communal, and, well, Christian.

I’m a baseball player, coach and writer — my current professional occupation is writing a book about Hall of Famer Earl Weaver and the role of the manager — so when retreat organizers invited each participant to bring to the retreat an object that inspired their creativity, I picked a baseball.

At our first meeting, I talked about how I liked to hold the sphere, how it fit comfortably in my hand, and how it symbolized my childhood — and had its own complicated manufacturing history, hundreds of yards of thread and string pulled together in Haiti or Costa Rica or China. I was inspired by a passage I’d just read from Annie Dillard’s memoir, “An American Childhood”: “A baseball weighted your hand just so, and fit it. Its red stitches, its good leather and hardness like skin over bone, seemed to call forth a skill both easy and precise.”

But then, as St. Ignatius would wish, out came words that touched me and others, as I waxed poetic about the ball in baseball. I started talking about playing catch and about human relationships.

Over 30 years of coaching youth baseball at different levels, from T-ball to high school, I’ve developed a firm belief that any assembly of children can become a good baseball team. There’s only one trick. Each of them has to learn to play catch decently. And I believe that every child, barring a prohibitive disability, can learn this trick. You have to push them. And it’s not always easy. But it’s possible. And once every child learns this skill, through exercises and drills, magic happens. Players start to play, and learn, on their town. Adults can walk away. Baseball is happening.

I described this and then added that this was my prayer for any assembly of people, including ours. If our 19 make all of their 171 possible friendships work as well as two good ballplayers throwing and catching, the group will become life-giving and feel free and happy.

After that first meeting, a few of the group members who were not baseball fans approached to say how much they enjoyed my explanation. Ignatian philosophy preaches a discernment of the spirit, and clearly there was consolation in my contemplation of catch-playing.

And it needn’t be just American. In Italy, during the worst of the pandemic in 2020, two men in Rome played catch from balcony to balcony. “In April, everyone around me looked happy,” wrote Japanese writer Haruki Murakami in his novel “Norwegian Wood.” “People would throw their coats off and enjoy each other’s company in the sunshine — talking, playing catch, holding hands. But I was always by myself.” In other words, playing catch is the opposite of solitude.

It’s also the subject of serious study. When I wrote John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, about this essay, he replied that he has more than once been asked: What is the greatest unanswered baseball question? Once he answered: “Why does it feel so good to play catch? Get at the to and fro of play — and life itself — and there will be a discovery that dwarfs the others.” He concluded: “In my eighth decade, I am a bit closer to an answer, I suspect. The simple idea of ‘to and fro’ suffices to explain all that was once complex.”

The weather at the convent was stunning, and I kept baseball on people’s minds by rushing out on the second day to take a phone call from Cal Ripken Jr., the Baltimore Orioles legend I’d been chasing after for months for an interview. So naturally, people wanted to play catch. Jesuit Conference communications director Mike Jordan Laskey played lots of baseball as a youth, and we threw the ball back and forth for half an hour before dinner.

On the last morning of the retreat, Chris Pramuk, a prominent theologian who’s written several studies of Thomas Merton’s spirituality, approached me before lunch. “I was thinking maybe we could play catch,” he said. He played baseball in high school, and again, here were 30 satisfying minutes with another human I’d just met. To and fro.

Miller and Chris Pramuk play catch.

Bill Cain, SJ, a Jesuit priest also on the retreat, grabbed his camera, and snapped a few shots. “The ballplayers’ bodies contain their youth, every pitch ever thrown, every ball ever caught — with a skill that allows them a language of unembarrassed intimacy,” Bill wrote in an email exchange that followed the pictures.

I hadn’t heard the term unembarrassed intimacy, but that was it. It described the confidence of two ballplayers trusting each other to throw and catch accurately. And it described two friends, or two strangers, or two enemies, meeting in a place where, by grace and gift of their catch-playing, or shared knowledge of Sanskrit, Dostoevsky or Taylor Swift, or by whatever other miracle God gives human to only connect, they felt seen and maybe even loved.

John W. Miller is a writer and filmmaker from Brussels. He is currently working on his first book, “The Last Manager” (Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster), about Earl Weaver and the role of the baseball manager. He is the co-director of the 2020 PBS film “Moundsville,” and creator of the Moundsville online magazine.

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