Editor's Note: This story was updated with additional information 9-3-2020.
It was 1 degree Fahrenheit outside on a frigid day in January 2018, and Ethan Bryan and his daughter Sophie went outside to play a game of catch. This was Bryan cashing in on a Christmas voucher he received from Sophie: a baseball with the simple message “Want to play catch?” That gesture sent Bryan on a quest.
For the rest of that year, Bryan asked anyone if they would play catch: former professional baseball players, friends, even strangers who heard about his story on ABC News or baseball blog Cut4. Playing catch is a way to start a conversation, a back-and-forth within a back-and-forth. That’s the approach Bryan took, telling the stories of his daily catch partners on a blog he estimates reached 25,000 total views.
Bryan never missed a day playing catch, once braving the elements in minus 16–degree windchill. He’s taking things a bit easier this year, resolving to put on a glove at least once a week. We grabbed a glove for our conversation with Bryan to reflect on the past year and when we might expect a book detailing his experiences.
417 Magazine: I’ve heard you say that you’ve gotten pretty late in the day without playing catch. Was there ever a time where you feared you wouldn’t get a game in?
Ethan Bryan: The latest was 9 o’clock towards the end of January [or] February. We were heading up to Kansas City to stay with some friends. I told the guy we were staying with, “Just so you know, you’re my partner for tonight.” We didn’t get to town until 8:30 or so. By then, it was dark and cold, and the only place we could find enough light was a skate park that had a timed lighter. It was so cold that you could see your breath.
417: When you get to, say, Day 70 or Day 100, and your arm hurts and you don’t really feel like playing catch, what kept you going?
E.B.: There was never really that moment of saying, “No, I don’t want to do this.” And it’s funny, I would’ve thought that there would’ve been—“No, not today. I give up.” There was something very innocent and very simple about connecting with someone, sharing their story and playing catch, which is just something that I love. That was intrinsic motivation enough just to keep me going. There were so many times where if there was just the slightest bit of hesitation or nervousness in meeting somebody, that day I would hear their story and just be inspired all over again.
417: Did you reach out to most of your catch partners, or did you get to a point where people were reaching out to you?
E.B: I reached out the most. Although right after Cut4 ran the story, I had so many emails from coast to coast. The Daytona Tortugas minor league team to the Netherlands to the Dominican Republic. My wife laughed and asked why people care so much about me playing catch. I told her it was a great question.
417: What’s the answer?
E.B.: That’s the book that I’m writing! The short answer is that play is an act of hope. Play is essential to what it means to be human. We have forgotten—we tend to forget as we get older—the importance of play in not only keeping us young but keeping us healthy and establishing critical relationships and freeing up our brain to be able to brainstorm and make wonderful connections.
417: Do you think we take those stories for granted sometimes?
E.B.: Yes, absolutely.
417: Why do you think that is?
E.B.: Maybe it’s the same reason that as we get older, we stop playing. We think we’re supposed to be more serious. We think that maybe there’s just a simple beauty to life. We miss those incredible moments of miracles in the mundane. Whether it’s a kid playing with a puppy or making a new friend, just how amazing that is.