Photography by Randy Bacon
Inspiration operates on her own timetable. She demands determined faithfulness to one’s craft, whatever that craft may be — writing, art, music, or any other worthwhile activity under the sun. Inspiration also has a mischievous sense of humor whispering late at night and early in the morning and almost always in the middle of my pastor’s sermon.
I am a writer. I write stories of hope, stories that make me laugh, and lots of stories about baseball. The overarching theme of my narratives is learning to live a good story.
I was mowing my lawn when I was inspired for my first book. I stopped mowing to run inside and write down the idea. Sweat dripped in circles on the piece of notebook paper. On a highway near the Mark Twain Forest, Inspiration whispered an idea for another project and I asked my wife to immediately jot down notes so it wouldn’t be forgotten. I have piles of random scraps of paper on my desk, dresser, and nightstand trying to record Inspiration’s prompts. There is almost always a piece of paper in my back pocket filled with phrases and ideas or edits for whatever story I’m working on that day.
Every morning, immediately after dropping off my daughters at school, I find a quiet place and write. Just like any other job, I show up ready to work, to wrestle and put my heart into my words. Some days, I can write thousands of words. Some days it’s a struggle to put two good sentences back to back. I have discovered, just like every other writer, Inspiration comes to those willing to do the hard work. “Sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” said Hemingway.
For Christmas of 2017, my youngest daughter, Sophie, gave me a baseball. Carefully handwritten on this baseball were the words, “Dad, Wanna play catch?” Sophie is not a big fan of sports. She was 8 the first time she stepped in the batting cages at Fun Acre. She successfully hit the ball on her first four swings. On the fifth pitch, however, the wind gusted. The ball hit her hand and the bat at the same time. It took her five years and the prompting of a cousin to finally step back in the cages. Sophie is an artist. She paints, draws, crafts, and creates beauty out of a variety of medium. Her gift became another instrument for Inspiration.
I love to play catch. Whenever I travel, I have a baseball glove in tow. I’ve played catch on the beaches of California, on the grounds of Walt Disney World, and without gloves in preparation for a game of town ball at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. I’ve played catch with professional baseball players and friends of all ages. I love everything playing catch teaches about living a good story. Make new friends. Have fun doing something physical, outside, away from lonely screens. Intentionally choose to celebrate what is good. Cooperation. Imagination. Experimentation. A relationship built on trust. The power of play.
On January 1, with the wind chill at 1 degree, Sophie and I put on a half dozen layers and went to Fassnight Field to play catch. The sun was bright, the sky was high, and no snow was on the ground. There weren’t any real rules, although we stayed until each of us threw the ball 30 times. My hand wouldn’t fit inside my favorite glove with a glove underneath, so I felt the full effects of the temperature on my bare hands. That afternoon, once it warmed up another 4 degrees, my oldest daughter, Kaylea, and I bundled up and went into the backyard for my second game of catch on the first day of the year. I took a selfie of our fogged-over glasses.
And then Inspiration whispered. Why not play catch every day for an entire year? No one ever said Inspiration was logical.
Two of my mantras are “Baseball brings people together,” and “Baseball tells the best stories.” These mantras undergird almost all of my writings. Playing catch every day felt like a natural way to truly test those mantras. Ten-year old me couldn’t wait to get started. Forty-three year old me worried about my arm falling off.
A week later, thanks to a story posted on MLB.com, my catch-playing effort went semi-viral. I was on CBS, ABC-NY, and Inside Edition. I received invitations from coast to coast, from the Daytona Tortugas, a Minor League Baseball team in Florida, to complete strangers who applauded the idea. I did radio interviews and, in time, answered every email. (I think.) My wife was confounded by all the attention. “Why do people care so much about you playing catch?” I just laughed and purchased multiple tubes of Icy Hot.
As is the usual, Inspiration left the vast majority of the details to me. Each day, I was forced out of my comfort zone to ask friends and family and complete strangers if they’d be willing to toss a ball with me. Rejections far out-numbered agreements.
I am well-versed in experiencing rejection. The road to publication is lined with rejections by the hundreds. As far as catch playing goes, I’ve been rejected by President George W. Bush and ignored by every late-night talk show host. I’ve reached out to dozens upon dozens of people via Twitter. The vast majority have done an excellent job of paying no attention whatsoever to my catch-playing requests.
But living a good story demands risk, courage, and perseverance. So I press on, trusting that someone will eventually say yes each day. Every morning, I wake up both anxious and excited to see what story will unfold that day.
“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” (Matthew 6:34, The Message)
Mom used to read this verse to me regularly before bedtime prayers, although in a different translation. I have always been a gifted worrier and asker of all the “What if..” questions. Some of that worry comes naturally; no one on this planet could out-worry my grandmother. Some of that worry comes from life experiences.
Two years after my first MLB game and two years before I played on my first baseball team, at the age of six, I lost all of my hair. Alopecia areata. Back then, bald was not cool. There weren’t any bald baseball players or athletes. The only bald people I knew of were Gordon on Sesame Street (I met him twice) and Kojak (I never met him). Finger pointing and awkward stares and bullying were part of life growing up. Thankfully, I grew up in an amazing family. I remember asking Dad if I could still play baseball even if I was bald. When he said yes, all was right with the world.
The joy and freedom I experience in a simple game of catch is profound. Worries are replaced by smiles. As I tinker with random grips and sidearm throws, I live fully in the present — the zen of playing catch?
Day #45 of playing catch was Valentine’s Day. I had saved that day for playing catch with my wife, Jamie. “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”. “Adventure” is a great word to describe our 21 years of marriage. We’ve been evicted from our apartment, owned almost as many cars as years of marriage, been down to our last $20, and averaged a move every two years. Jamie has stood by my side as I re-learned how to walk three different times. From ACL surgery (while she was seven months pregnant!) to ankle surgery, we have covenanted to share in all the fullness of life.
I first learned about Miracle League while writing America at the Seams, visiting with the founder as the featured story for the state of Georgia. Miracle League creates specialized fields and uses a buddy system convinced that, “Every child deserves a chance to play ball.” Inspiration whispered again. Jamie is an elementary school teacher for students with multiple disabilities. Over the years, several of her students have played in the local Miracle League. So while I play catch, I’m also trying to raise money for Miracle League — through crowd-funding and t-shirt selling and movie screenings — as a way to honor her important and energy-consuming work.
On Major League Baseball’s Opening Day, I was sent a gift — a brand new glove. A few days earlier, the laces on my favorite glove finally broke, after 28 years of use. For fun, I posted a picture on Twitter and tagged the baseball glove manufacturing company. I was completely surprised when the company replied, “Hey Ethan, we’re really sorry to hear about the glove. It happens, unfortunately. We’d be happy to help if we can. We can re-lace it for you or we’d be happy to send you a new model.”
I am still learning a lot about living good stories by writing. Never give up. Get a mentor. Expect rejection. Cling to hope with every fiber of your being. Give to those around you.
In Shoeless Joe, the book that inspired the movie Field of Dreams, W. P. Kinsella wrote, “If I had my life to live over again, I’d take more chances. I’d want more passion in my life. Less fear and more passion, more risk. Even if you fail, you’ve still taken a risk.”
So, this year, I’m taking a risk. I have no idea how the story will end. But I’m hoping it will make a good story for years to come.
You can also read about the day we met Ethan in his Backstory, 'The Ripple Effect'.