Let’s Play Catch
My eyes flickered over the title as I skimmed Craigslist.
“Let’s play catch.”
“Looking for someone to toss a baseball around in my yard. Hour, tops. $250. Not a creep, I promise, just a guy that loves the game.”
This had to be a scam, I thought to myself. But what if it wasn’t? My financial situation was dire. Seems it doesn’t matter if you’re the star pitcher at a Division I school — cash is hard to come by. Nearly all my free time was spent at practice, or the weight room, or student-athlete study hall, or … the list goes on and on. With a side gig like this, I could maybe even pass it off to Coach as extra training.
I started typing.
“Hey man, my name’s Derek. I play D1 baseball over at the university. Wanted to take you up on your offer for a game of catch if it still stands.”
I hovered over the send button. Was this stupid? What was I getting myself into? Just as I was about to bail, my stomach grumbled. A timely reminder that I could only eat so much more instant ramen before I collapsed on the field from spiked sodium levels.
I hit send before I could change my mind.
My GPS led me to 5855 Hotchkiss Road, Lowell, Michigan. I swung my truck into the long driveway, the dry leaves crunching under my tires as I rolled up to the farmhouse. It was a flat, one-level home, with fading gray paint and a large brown porch. There was a shed tucked behind the main building, too. Homes were few and far between this deep into the country, and the only surroundings I saw for miles were some bare trees, branches shivering in the wind.
I hopped out of my truck, landing on gravel and breathing in sharp, frigid air. October was always unpredictable in Michigan, and this year brought in a cold front that seemed especially nippy. I didn’t mind though; fall is my favorite season, and I sure as hell preferred practicing in brisk weather over sweltering heat.
I made my way to the front door and hesitated as I stared at the doorbell. I’d done a fairly good job of convincing myself everything would be OK during the drive over, but I still couldn’t fight away an uneasy feeling in my gut. I figured I’d come too far at this point to turn back, and just as I reached for the doorbell, the screen swung open with a snap.
His voice was gruff, and so was his appearance. He wore a white T-shirt and his jeans were haphazardly tucked into his work boots, having seen better days. He stuck out his right hand, and it brought me back to reality — perhaps a beat too late to seem natural. I shook it and felt his calluses under my grip.
“The name’s Steven Ward. Thanks for answering my ad, man. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”
His words seemed genuinely kind, and they gave me an opportunity to survey his face. He had bright green eyes and a nice haircut. I would even go as far as to say he was good-looking; perhaps his unkept beard was there to offset that very fact. I immediately felt a bit of my previous tension melt away. This dude seemed normal, and I began to commend myself for not getting too cynical about the whole thing.
“Hey, no problem. I’m constantly tossing a ball around anyway, might as well put the pastime to good use, right?”
“Right, right,” he chuckled. “Wanna come in for a sec? I’d actually just cracked a beer, if you want one.”
“Sure,” I said, surprising myself with the answer. I hadn’t even given it a second thought, and I felt my guard instinctively come back up as I followed him inside.
The screen door slammed behind me, and I took a look around what seemed to be the living room. Floor to ceiling, the place was covered in old wood paneling. A musty beige carpet ran throughout the house and down the hallway as I followed Steven to the kitchen, breaking at the doorway for some unattractive vinyl paneling. All pretty standard for these old country farmhouses, but it was evident that this particular place hadn’t been taken care of in a while.
“I almost forgot that you’re a hot shot over at the university,” he said, popping the cap off a bottle from my favorite local brewery. “That’s great. My son actually plays college ball right now, too.”
“Shit, really?” I said, my eyebrows shooting up. If he played D1 there was a good chance I’d know him. “What’s his name? Where does he play?”
“Michael. Eh, a smaller D2 program out on the West Coast, not very fancy. But it was always his dream to play in school so he loves it all the same.”
I smiled. “That’s awesome.”
The ball whizzed into my mitt, and the force of it admittedly knocked me back a bit.
“Whoa, you’ve got … an arm,” I said, as I regained my footing.
“Before he left for school my son and I used to toss the ball around for hours, sometimes for entire weekends,” Steven said, wistfully.
“That sounds fun,” I offered up as I whirled the ball back his direction. “My dad and I used to do the same.”
Steven squinted at my stance this time. “Try putting a little more weight on your back leg and see what it does for the ball,” he said, suddenly serious as he snapped the ball back to me with force.
I snagged it in my mitt and jogged a few steps in the aftermath, buying myself some time. He seemed nice, but I wasn’t there for a lesson. I was the one doing someone a favor.
I turned back toward him and noticed he was watching my form carefully. I made it a point to lean onto my back leg and send the ball sailing back toward him forcefully. After all, he was paying me cash.
“Atta boy!” he said, obviously thrilled with the result of his guidance.
We tossed the ball back and forth a dozen or so more times as the day got darker around us. Steven kept inserting the odd coaching tip, and I began to wonder if perhaps he’d coached his son similarly back in the day. Finally he caught the ball, wiped his brow, and ran over toward me. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out five crisp one-hundred-dollar bills.
I almost laughed to myself. Did this guy really expect me to have change?
“Can you take all of this? $250 today, $250 for Thursday, if you don’t mind another round.”
I looked down at the cash and tried not to gape. $500? To do this?
“Hell yeah, man, let’s do it. Looking forward to it,” I said, pocketing the cash and shaking his hand. I walked back toward my truck, feeling the now bitterly cold wind whip against my face.
“Heads up!” yelled Steven, and I turned back around at my car door right in time to notice the baseball whizzing directly at me.
“Nice reaction,” he said with giant smile. “Keep the ball until next time.”
The screen door slammed behind him. I watched the lights in the house turn on one by one as I slowly backed out of the driveway, one hand on the wheel, the other instinctively gripping the baseball.
On Thursday, I was surprised to find myself looking forward to our next game of catch. When I pulled into Steven’s driveway late that afternoon, he was already outside, lobbing a ball high into the air.
“Hey, man! Thanks for coming back,” he said, as I hopped out of my truck.
“Thanks for having me,” I replied, grabbing my own mitt from the passenger’s side. We walked deeper into his yard this time, toward a clearing of trees out past the old shed. He hurtled the ball at me and I sprinted a couple steps to the right to make the snag.
“Try bending your knees a bit, in preparation for the throw,” Steven said, popping his knees in and out in an exaggerated example. “It’ll help you anticipate the direction of the catch.”
Here we go again, I thought to myself. But I nodded and sent the ball back his way, then bent my knees for the catch and made sure he saw. He suddenly whirled a curveball my way, and I was surprised to see how quickly I recognized it. I caught the ball and looked back toward Steven, expecting him to seem pleased. Instead, he had his hands on his hips and a flat expression.
“Not good enough. Your instincts won’t reach their best level if you don’t respond to coaching.”
I paused, trying to gather my thoughts.
“Alright, man, I’ll … I’ll keep trying,” I said, taking a few steps backward so I could hide my expression. Who the fuck did this guy think he was? My dad? My coach? I’d signed up for a game of catch, not a lesson.
I tossed the baseball back Steven’s way with perhaps a little bit too much force, unnerved by his advice. He must’ve sensed it, because his return throw came back even harder. I sent it back again, stronger this time, and once again he matched me. We continued tossing the ball in silence, the intensity of our throws escalating with each back-and-forth.
I mean, really, where did he get off getting angry with me? I was breathing hard at this point, and could feel the wind rattling around in my chest, but something about his stoic expression made me determined to keep throwing.
Whip. Catch. Whip. Catch. Whip.
“That’s right!” he shouted suddenly. He held onto the ball, bouncing it around in his mitt. I took a deep, freezing breath of air. His eyes were lit with a manic excitement. “You notice how you leaned on your back leg those last couple of throws? I thought you were gonna burn a hole in my mitt.”
I nodded, and added a smile that probably wasn’t convincing. I absolutely hated his coaching. But more than anything, I hated that it was helpful.
I swung around in my desk chair, tossing Steven’s baseball into the air to myself. It had been a couple days since our last game of catch, and I hadn’t been able to get it off my mind. Not during classes, not during practices, and certainly not as I sat there, ignoring my studies. It was just one game of catch, but we’d left things on such a tense note. I hadn’t been able to shake a dark feeling ever since.
I wheeled my chair back to my desk, and pulled up my email inbox in a new tab. At the top was a message I’d been mulling over for the past hour.
“Available for another game of catch? You’re good, and I can tell your form is improving. I can do $400 this time. LMK. — Steven.”
The new price tag made things that much more tempting, but my stomach turned over at the thought of listening to Steven bark orders at me. I tapped my fingers on my desk nervously as I read the message a few more times. Then I opened up a new tab.
Steven Ward, I typed into the search bar.
My screen populated with hundreds of options. Artists, doctors, and various social media profiles stared back at me. I clicked through dozens of results before giving up; none of these were my guy. So I tried something else.
Michael Ward +baseball.
The page refreshed, and I took a look at the first option up top.
Michael Ward, shortstop, California State University
There he is, I thought to myself. Then my eyes floated down to the second result.
California State University baseball star Michael Ward among fatalities in four-car pileup
I froze. My hand shaking, I clicked on the article link, and skimmed the page in horror. It was from a couple years ago, photographs of Michael’s smiling face and his team roster were followed by totaled vehicles strewn about in rubble.
“Ward was pronounced dead on the scene. His body will be flown home to Michigan later this week with memorial services to follow. He is survived by his father, Steven.”
I threw my face into my hands. No wonder something about Steven seemed off; he’d lost his son. I grabbed a beer out of the mini fridge under my desk, cracking the top as I let out a long, slow breath. Then I stared back at my laptop, lost in thought.
“Hey, man, sounds great,” I wrote. “I’ve really enjoyed all your coaching. How does tomorrow at 3 p.m. sound?”
I hit send.
When I pulled into Steven’s driveway for our latest round, I could tell something was different. He was waiting out front, and his usual nonchalant demeanor was replaced with something far more twitchy — I could practically feel his nerves vibrating off of him when I jumped out of my truck.
“Hey, man, wanna come in for a beer first?” he asked.
“No, thanks,” I replied, trying to keep my voice light. He looked displeased with the answer, but I could already see the sun setting through the trees, casting a glow over the entire yard. It’d be dark soon, and I’d rather get this over with.
We made small talk and walked toward a large clearing directly behind the shed. I put my mitt under my arm and rubbed my hands together briskly to warm up. He took off jogging to get about 20 feet out ahead of me, then tossed the ball in my direction.
I grabbed it, making sure my knees were bent to the extent he preferred, then sent the ball soaring back his way, leaning into my back leg on the windup. His eyes glimmered as he recognized his own coaching in my throw. I felt a pang of annoyance, but then I recalled the gruesome details I’d read in the news articles about his son. If coaching me brought this guy some joy during a difficult time then so be it, I decided.
Steven threw the ball to himself a couple of times, launching it toward the sky. He seemed deep in thought. Then he looked back toward me, wound up, and let it rip.
It was a fastball; I hadn’t been expecting it. Once my instincts kicked in, it was already too late. The ball hurtled through the space between us and hit me square in the shoulder, sending me backward as my opposite hand instinctively grabbed at the pain.
“What was THAT?!” I spat. I’d played enough games of catch with this guy by now to know what he was capable of. It was evident he’d planned to throw a heater with that wind up, and I felt stupid for letting my guard down.
“You have to be able to anticipate a switch up, Derek. What the hell are they teaching you at that school anyway? These are simple lessons, and I’m telling you I’m glad we’re out here throwing the ball becau— “
“I’M NOT YOUR SON, OK?”
The words flew out of my mouth, interrupting his tirade and lingering between us in the yard. They’d made their escape before I even realized I had been thinking them. Throughout our games of catch Steven had caught every brutal throw I’d tossed his way, but the impact of my words were what ultimately knocked him off his footing. All of the sudden, he broke down.
Fuck, I thought to myself. What had I done?
He’d turned around and knelt on the ground, his shoulders shaking up and down in quiet, frantic sobs. I ran toward him and placed one hand on his back.
“Steven, I am so, so sorry. I have no idea where that came from. I get stubborn when it comes to coaching and I wasn’t even thinking. I’m really, really sorry.”
His crying gradually slowed down, but he kept his face in his hands as darkness encased us. The bare trees rattled around us from the force of the evening wind, and I watched my deep breaths materialize in front of me. Every second that passed felt like an eternity as I waited for some kind of response. But one never came, and finally, I realized it never would.
“I’m sorry, again, man. I’ll leave you alone now.” I picked up my mitt and slowly began the walk back to my truck in the driveway.
Then, everything went black.
Fear is an interesting feeling. I felt fear in the form of hesitation when I first responded to Steven’s Craigslist post. I felt it again when I rolled my truck up his driveway for the first time. I’d never given it the attention it deserved, but I felt fear throughout my entire relationship with Steven. And now, I understood why.
I came to slowly, unsure of how long I’d been unconscious. The back of my head pulsated with pain, and my whole body shook viscerally from a combination of cold and panic. Once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness I began to survey myself, and as I tried to lift myself up, I heard a loud clanging. I looked down to realize that my right ankle was tethered and locked to a large metal hook in the ground.
I scrambled toward it, the terror sending a surge of adrenaline throughout my body.
“Don’t even bother,” a voice said hoarsely from the shadows.
I whipped my gaze up in the direction of the voice. In my disorientated state I hadn’t noticed that there was another person just five feet away from me. It was a man … or at least, what was left of him. Dressed in just a pair of athletic shorts, I could see how malnourished he was. His arms and chest were covered in red, swollen welts.
“Don’t fight the chain, it only makes it worse if he catches you doing that. And don’t bother screaming, either. I tried; there’s no one around for miles,” he croaked. “Just, more than anything — don’t fight dad’s coaching.”
His deep, sunken eyes stared directly at me with an eternally dark gaze.
“No, no, no. Listen to me,” I responded hurriedly. “My name is Derek. I’m a baseball player over at the university and I answered this guy’s Craigslist ad last week. Who are you? Do you know where we are?”
He continued to stare at me in silence, then slowly smiled. I could see defeat in his expression, and it made my blood cold. Then, seemingly using all his might, he tossed something my way.
It was a catchers’ mitt.
As if on cue, a door swung open. I caught a glimpse of my truck in the background, and realized that we were inside the shed behind the farmhouse. Steven entered the doorway, and once my eyes adjusted to the light, I felt sick to my stomach. He was holding a baseball and smiling at me, his face alive with frenzy. I got up to my hands and knees, skittering as far away from the door as I could as he beelined for the metal hook in the ground.
“Steven? Hey, hey, hey, Steven. I’m so, so sorry for what I said earlier. I’ve had such a great time with you. It’s been great. I think you should let me go and that way we can play way more catch, way more catch.”
My words evaporated into the shed’s thick air without any effect on him. He dropped to his knees and began fiddling with the lock, his breaths gargled and frantic. I looked back at the man that had thrown me the mitt, willing him to meet my eyes, but he wouldn’t. Instead he wrapped his arms around his knees and watched Steven stoically.
A definitive “click” rang out, and Steven pulled apart the lock and grabbed the chain. And then, he began to drag me.
“Steven, Steven, NO! Steven, listen to me. I know I hurt you. I know I was out of line. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
As he pulled me out of the shed, I tried to grab on to any last thing I could to resist him, then began clawing at the ground as he slid me out onto the driveway. I dug my nails into the gravel until my fingernails peeled backward, leaving bloody trails down my hands.
Steven finally stopped when we reached the clearing in the yard and bent down to lock me into a new hook. He put his hands on his hips and spit to the side proudly, surveying me as I groaned against the cold, hard ground. He smiled again.
“Let’s get in at least a couple sessions tonight. We obviously have a lot to work on, Michael.”