To help kickoff National Play Catch Week, I played catch at CY Sports Center for 200 minutes.
And, for 200 minutes, while I played catch, Rance Burger told stories behind a mostly effective L-screen.
Thoroughly prepared with pocketknife and extension cords, Rance set up computers and cameras while I stretched. As soon as everything was set up, Mark and I started throwing, with the first throw taking place at 10:06 AM.
“I have all the trust in the world that Mark is a professional,” Rance said as he dared to encroach on throwing lanes for the sake of getting good footage.
“Ethan is now at the 11-minute mark,” Rance announced after acknowledging the sponsors of Ryan Wolfe at CY Sports and Rhett Grametbauer of the Play Catch Movement. “It is a marathon, not a sprint.”
I laughed. Only 11 minutes and I was already working up a good sweat.
After completing their turn tossing a ball, Rance interviewed all of the catch partners in the unofficially named “Icy Hot Hot Seat.” “I’ve met more cool people and made more friendships than I otherwise would not have through Grip-N-Rip Baseball and it’s been exceptionally rewarding to me,” he said.
Thirteen friends gave of their time to help me reach the 200-minute mark.
Mark Blehm helped me practice and prepare to play in the Grip-N-Rip Baseball League last year. We met weekly for months to try and get my skills up to speed. We’re back at it again this year, throwing, chasing flies, taking grounders and swings. His encouragement and advice is only surpassed by his generosity. I just wish I could throw as hard as he does. Also, I hope I don’t have to try and hit his slider.
Engineer Brandon Freeman and I were teammates on the CY Sports Cyclones last season in the GRBL. Sporting a new Field of Dreams hat and scorecard socks from Baseballism, the day after his first bullpen session of the year, we practiced some sidearm pitching. He told Rance that, as a kid, he almost went an entire season without swinging a bat. Baseball is a game of humility and courage.
Dayne Shoff, a firefighter in Lamar, is the oldest player to play in the league. He dressed to the nines in a vintage Lockwood uniform, complete with red stirrup socks and a 38-year old hat. “That’s older than I am,” Rance commented. The son of a minor league pitcher in the Dodgers’ system, Dayne helps coach high school players and has traveled extensively playing ball.
Brandon Chapman has played in the GRBL since its inception, one of the few remaining Original 60 players. His team, the A&L Shockers, made it to the championship game in 2019, but lost to Mark’s team. He’s considering taking the year off from playing. “Even if this is an off year, I can’t fathom it’ll be a long-term thing. It’s camaraderie, something you don’t get every day. We’re living our kid-dreams all over again and it’s fun.”
Daniel England and I played on the same soccer team at Jarrett Junior High, the first year Springfield Public Schools had a soccer program at the junior high level. He was the goalkeeper par excellence. Daniel has also been playing with the GRBL since the first year AND has been on the championship team every season. (Rance calls him “The One Way Ticket.” Here’s hoping he and I are teammates this year.) Daniel throws the heaviest ball I’ve ever caught. My whole left hand hurt after playing catch with him.
Dr. Ben Goss, a sports marketing professor at Missouri State University, shared stories of teaching online through the pandemic as well as missing all things related to baseball. He thoroughly entertained me with stories of his rodeo experiences. As a professor at Stetson University, on a Friday the 13th, Ben attended the opening day game of the baseball season, and had an electrical malfunction of his heart that killed him. He is a walking miracle.
The last time Guy Newcomb played catch was with me in 2018. Popularly known as Scoreboard Guy on Twitter, he had a tee time later in the day at a golf course in Bolivar. Passing by CY Sports on the way from an event in Branson, he decided to drop in and used Dad’s softball glove. I was delightfully surprised Guy showed up to join in the marathon catch effort and hear more of his stories.
Austin Kendrick wore the T-shirt Of The Day. In 2019, Dodgers’ infielder Max Muncy homered into McCovey Cove in the first inning against the San Francisco Giants. Giants’ southpaw and Royals nemesis Madison Bumgarner barked at Muncy as he rounded the bases. Muncy told the story in a postgame interview. “I hit the ball and he yelled at me, ‘Don’t watch the ball, you run.’ And I yelled back, ‘If you don’t want me to watch the ball, you can go get it out of the ocean.” “The best troll of the year,” Austin said.
I was playing catch with “The Glue,” Kevin Robertson, the man who keeps everything together in the GRBL, when the accident happened. Rance, interviewing Austin, was beaned. Kevin, a southpaw, threw a ball that just took off. It moved feet, like a wiffle ball pitch caught in the wind. “I just got smoked,” Rance said. “I’m okay. I’m good guys; Ethan don’t quit. I’m not gonna quit.” It sounded horrible and was scary for a few moments, but Rance worked through it, not missing a beat telling stories. Rumor has it Kevin’s going to name a GRBL award in Rance’s honor this season. (I might have started the rumor.)
Chris Meza, another one of the Original 60 GRBL members, came to play catch on the spur of the moment after his daughter’s coach-pitch practice. A fan of all Chicago sports teams, he told me about Bruce Bolt batting gloves, which I’m not certain I’m good enough to wear, but they are absolutely a work of art. If a White Sox fan and a Royals fan can become friends, have fun, and play catch, anyone can come together through this game. Chris hit the hardest ball I saw in the GRBL last season, just missing a home run by a couple of feet. Maybe those new batting gloves will help with the last two feet.
Kaylea Bryan gave a clinic on knuckleballs while Rance interviewed Chris. She then shared her stories of the “year of playing catch” and violin expertise while I played catch with Jamie.
The last time I played catch with Jamie, other than in 2018, we lived in Kansas City. “I don’t even remember that,” she said. She was not very interested in being interviewed by Rance, but did at least wave and smile to the camera.
Rance Burger’s voice lasted as long as my arm. He and I played catch up to the 200-minute mark while Kaylea operated the camera and concluded her interview.
The morning after the event felt like a true “morning after.” Every part of my body was sore — elbow, shoulders, biceps, triceps, whole back, feet, and calves. Even my fingers were swollen. In circumstances like these, sore muscles (and aching heads) are trophies of a good story.
Thirteen different people helped me reach the goal of 200 minutes. Without playing catch, I would only know two of these people, and they share my last name. I am grateful for the new friends who have not only come into my life as a direct result of playing catch, but have supported my crazy, whimsical dreams surrounding this game. May the joy and camaraderie we have discovered be passed on to the next generation.
Donations are still being counted, but at least $640 was raised to support the ballplayers at the Boys and Girls Club. (Donations can still be made here.)
And if you are desperate for baseball action, here’s 200 minutes of great interviews and playing catch.
Be sure to grab your glove and celebrate National Play Catch Week.