Ethan Bryan, left, and Mark Zubizarreta hold up a gold baseball labeled #FriendlyBall
Author Ethan Bryan, left, and Mark Zubizarreta played a game of catch with a baseball made from the same leather as a Gold Glove Award. The #FriendlyBall is part of a new catch-playing project by Bryan. (Photo by Ethan Bryan)

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As long as there have been baseball teams in the United States, there have been barnstorming baseball teams.

According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, “The first formal barnstorming tour likely took place in 1860 when the Brooklyn Excelsior, a talented amateur team of the time, played games around the state of New York.”

On March 25, Mom and I left Springfield, Missouri, at 7:30 a.m. and drove to Fort Worth, Texas, all so I could play catch.

Said another way, in a 36-hour window, we drove 1,000 miles just so I could throw a ball.

When we set out, I felt like a barnstorming ballplayer, driving all day to show up in an unfamiliar city and making new friends through the game. No league affiliation. No sponsored support. Just a love of the game and a belief that it can make a difference in our play-deprived culture.

Have gloves. Will travel.

‘Play, uh, finds a way.'

On March 25, at 7:00 p.m., Friendly Baseball would celebrate its opening day. The sandlot-style league was created by Mark Zubizarreta in 2012 with the goal of removing as many barriers as possible for people of all ages and abilities to come together and simply play the game.

Mom and I were more than halfway to Fort Worth and had stopped for a bite to eat when we received word — the game had been rained out. Northside High School’s baseball field couldn’t drain the overnight deluge.

In the epic words of Nuke LaLoosh in “Bull Durham,” “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.”

Mark texted, “We’ve rented a hitting cage and turf catch area at D-Bat Benbrook.”

Play encourages creativity, adaptability and flexibility. Modifying Jeff Goldblum’s “Jurassic Park” quote, “Play, uh, finds a way.”

Catching golden baseballs

I put on my Nashville Sounds “Catch 365” retro jersey and drove to the indoor baseball training facility. There, I played catch with seven different people, including Mark and Anna DiTommaso. Anna is the founder of Baseball Bucket List and the host of the Baseball Bucket List podcast.

At Friendly Baseball’s Rained-Out-Opening-Day-Event, Mark helped me launch a couple of new projects. Rawlings donated two gold baseballs especially for these projects. The baseballs are made from the same leather as their Gold Glove Awards. (The Gold Glove Award gloves are actual gloves. They can be used for a game of catch. That’s on my catch-playing bucket list, too.)

Author Ethan Bryan, left, and Anna Di Tommaso pose for a selfie after a game of catch.
Ethan Bryan, left, and Anna DiTommaso pose for a selfie after a game of catch. DiTommaso, the founder of Baseball Bucket List, is one of seven catch-playing partners Bryan met during a barnstorming trip to Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Ethan Bryan)

Much like the league, the baseballs are a tool to encourage people of all ages and abilities to come together and simply play. The idea is straightforward: Play catch with one of these gold baseballs, take a selfie, post it on social media and pass the ball along to your catch partner. Repeat.

Each baseball is labeled with a hashtag to make it possible to track them as well as to provide focus for the purpose of the ball — kind of like a baseball version of the elementary school Flat Stanley project.

The first ball is the #FriendlyBall. I played catch with Mark using this ball and he played catch with Anna, who will use this ball to throw out the first pitch at Friendly’s Opening Day…eventually. (The second attempt was also thwarted by storms.)

The second baseball is the #DadsPlayCatch ball. The U.S. leads the world in fatherlessness. The whole point of this ball is for dads to play catch and encourage one another to be their best as dads. I played catch with Frank, who quickly came up with the name of another dad with whom he wanted to play catch.

A special catch-playing opportunity at Hammons Field

Author Ethan Bryan, right, with catch-playing partner Frank. Frank is holding a gold baseball labeled #DadsPlayCatch
Author Ethan Bryan, right, and catch partner Frank used the #DadsPlayCatch ball, provided by Rawlings, during a game of catch in Fort Worth, Texas. The ball is part of Bryan's new catch-playing projects. (Photo by Ethan Bryan)

At the end of April, I’ll be speaking at Hammons Field as part of the first Men’s Mental Health League: Suicide Prevention Summit, a Be Well Initiative by Burrell Behavioral Health, sharing stories about the power of playing catch. You can register and find more information about the conference online. I’m bringing another two gold baseballs with the simple label #WannaPlayCatch.

If you want to be one of my catch partners at the conference and use one of the gold baseballs to spread joy and connection through the community (and, hopefully, share it online), feel free to email me at If more than two people email me, I’ll do a drawing lottery-style and announce the winners at the conference.

Developmental psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith bluntly stated, “The opposite of play is not work, it is depression.”

Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play stresses, “We are built to play and built through play.”

Play is that which brings us joy and connection.

Playing catch helps open the doors to conversation, encouragement and new friends.

In short, playing catch is an exercise that celebrates the wonder of being human.

Keep playing. Keep dreaming.

Ethan Bryan

Ethan D. Bryan is convinced baseball tells the best stories. His baseball stories have landed him an invitation to the White House for the Kansas City Royals’ World Series celebration, a trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and a couple of appearances on ESPN. The author of a dozen books including A Year of Playing Catch, Ethan lives in Springfield with his wife, Jamie, and warms benches in the Grip’N’Rip Baseball League every fall. More by Ethan Bryan