It’s the stuff a kid’s dreams are made of, playing catch every day. For an entire year. Straight.
That’s what lifelong Seattle Mariners fan and father of two John Scukanec (’96 Crim. Just.) did from 2022 to 2023, starting with his son in their Washougal backyard. The goal quickly took him beyond the game, giving him the opportunity to connect with others, learning about their lives and hearing their stories, all while throwing the ball back and forth.
“It started out as a novelty,” he says, noting he asked family members first. He tossed the ball with his sons and wife, sister and parents. Then he thought, “I’m going to run out of people.”
So he started asking strangers. An Uber driver. A firefighter. A skateboarder. A homeless man in the park. A woman on an airplane.
Back and forth. He would share. Then they would share. He would ask a question. Then they would share more. Back and forth. The natural rhythm of a game of catch. The natural rhythm of a conversation between two people.
They would talk about “life, family, everything,” Scukanec says. “Growing up, where they are from, what they do for work. It never gets old. Everyone has a story, and you don’t know what it is until you throw the ball. The stories just unfold.”
It went on like that, every day, from March 2, 2022, to March 1, 2023, from the backyard to Seattle’s T-Mobile Park—with all sorts of stops in between. A high school. A senior center. Little league practice. In the mountains. On the beach. At 30,000 feet.
Scukanec has played catch from Seattle to Salem, Oregon, on the WSU Pullman campus, and as far away as Kansas City, Missouri. He’s played in the rain. And, in the aftermath of a snowstorm, he threw snowballs back and forth until they broke, then made new ones to toss.
That was fun, but snowballs don’t make the same sound. The crisp and satisfying crack of a ball landing squarely in the sweet spot of a mitt. That pop is part of what he’s after. It’s part of what makes him “get romantic about baseball. We did it when we were kids. There’s just something about it.”
There’s the sound the ball makes coming into contact with the glove, the eye contact with another player, the connection, the nostalgia, the rhythm, the back and forth. “You’re not worried about today or tomorrow,” Scukanec says. “You talk and you connect and you share. The same thing happens when you see someone in a WSU hat or shirt and you say, ‘Go Cougs!’ and they say, ‘Go Cougs!’ Playing catch just takes it one step further.”
Scukanec got the idea from a podcast. He had stumbled upon The Baseball Bucket List Podcast and just happened to be listening when author and lifelong Royals fan Ethan Bryan of Springfield, Missouri, discussed his 2020 book A Year of Playing Catch: What a Simple Daily Experiment Taught Me about Life. Bryan documented his quest through 10 states and 12,000 miles in 2018 to play catch every day for a year. On the podcast, he talked about life lessons, catch partners, and much more. And it sparked something in Scukanec, who played football for the Cougs during college.
“I was big and good at football,” the former offensive lineman says. “But I love baseball. And I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I loved playing catch as a kid. And I decided, ‘I’m just going to try it.’ I told my family at dinner, and they were like, ‘Whatever.’ My wife was like, ‘That’s sweet, dear. Pass the ketchup.’ And my boys were like, ‘That’s dumb, Dad.’”
Scukanec reached out to Bryan before he started his #catch365 project. “I said, ‘I heard about what you did, and I’m going to try to do it.’ He said, ‘Do it. It will change your life.’”
Scukanec made a point to not read Bryan’s book until he was done with his own yearlong game of catch. “I wanted it to unfold naturally,” he says. Other than the idea itself, “I didn’t want to be influenced by his experiences. I didn’t want to have any pre-conceived notions about how it would be.”
While he instituted his version of project, “I tried to make it not about it me. It’s about the other person. It’s always about the person who’s catching the ball and throwing it back to me.”
Day one, he played ball with his oldest son, JR.
Day two, he played catch with his younger son, Jackson. “He was standing there with his glove and baseball, waiting. He said, ‘Are you still doing that catch thing?’ And I started crying. I got emotional. We hadn’t played catch since he was probably 10. The next day he wanted to do it again.”
He tossed the ball with his mom on Mother’s Day and his dad on Father’s Day.
When he and his wife of 26 years came to Pullman for their youngest son’s orientation, they played catch on campus. He met Heather (McMahon) Scukanec (’96 Soc. Sci.) at Orton Hall. “We played catch in front of the place we met and our whole story started.”
He tossed the ball with other Cougs, too, as well as celebrities and professional baseball players. There was former Major League Baseball pitcher Jamie Moyer and former Coug football teammate Ryan Leaf (’05 Lib. Arts).
“I saw on Twitter that he was going to be in Portland,” Scukanec says. “I hadn’t seen him since we played football together 25 years ago. I reached out on the Internet, and he remembered me. We played catch and talked about old times and old teammates.”
He tossed the ball with buddy Mark Schuster (’95 Busi.), past president of the Washington State University Alumni Association’s board of directors. They were teammates on Coug football back in the 1990s, too. And they played their game of catch in front of the Lewis Alumni Centre on the WSU Pullman campus.
There was actor Jon Heder, best known for playing the title role in the 2004’s quirky cult classic Napoleon Dynamite, Seattle TV journalist Eric Johnson (’84 Comm.) of KOMO-4, actor Carl Weathers, who was Apollo Creed in the first four Rocky films, and actor Kane Warren Hodder, who played Jason Voorhees in four Friday the 13th films.
He also flew to Missouri to play with Bryan, who inspired the project. “He needed it be a part of fit,” Scukanec says. “His idea made such a difference to me that it felt like if he wasn’t part of it, it would have been lacking.” They played at Kauffman Stadium, home of Bryan’s beloved Royals. “It was a Field of Dreams moment for me,” Scukanec says.
He documented his long game on Instagram and Twitter, posting selfies with those willing to play. But, “I never expected in a million years for it to become what is has become. It’s been very cool. It’s still crazy to me that people care about some guy playing catch.”
At some point, people started asking him to play. A retirement home called. So did a high school. A code enforcement officer with the city of Vancouver, he’s even tossed the ball with a few people he’s come to talk to about violations when they recognize him from TV or social media.
“I go to people’s doors to tell them they need a building permit, and they go, ‘You’re the guy who plays catch with people.’ And I play catch with them for five minutes before I tell them they’ve got to clean up their junk or cut their grass.”
Only once did someone say no—“a guy in Seattle.” And while he was declining to play, another man offered. “He overheard me ask, and he jumped in and said, ‘I’ll do it.’” So, Scukanec says, “it’s never failed. People are engaged with it. It’s connecting with people. We don’t do that enough.”
Seventh inning stretch
Day 365, “I walked out onto the field at T-Mobile Park, my favorite place to be, and I got to meet my hero and play catch with him for an hour. And that doesn’t add up. It’s silly to envision. It’s ridiculous to think that it would ever happen. But it did. It was really humbling.”
That day, he played catch with Ken Griffey Jr. on the Mariners’ home field. The night before that, he tossed a ball with Super Bowl champion Bryan Walters, former wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. And he decided that, although the year was up and he reached his goal, he wasn’t done.
“I’ve become obsessed with it,” he says. “I just love sharing it with people.”
He changed the hashtag to #catcheveryday and kept going. “I enjoy it,” he says. “I do it because I like to do it. I look forward to it. It’s super fun to meet people and have those interactions.”
He’s played catch with some 700 people so far. The youngest was 3. The oldest, 93.
“I sat in a chair at a senior center in Beaverton, Oregon, and tossed the ball 6 inches, and it was incredible,” he says. “We can stand a few feet apart, and it’s every bit as good as standing on the field at T-Mobile Park, playing with Ken Griffey Jr. It doesn’t have to be someone new. You don’t even have to be good at it.”
His younger son isn’t a super athletic type. But the entire experience has given them more time together.
“Day one, it was raining and cold, and he thought it was the most ridiculous thing,” Scukanec says.
But day two, he was ready and willing to play. And when Scukanec contracted COVID-19, Jackson helped him keep the streak going, masking up and tossing the ball to him while Scukanec convalesced in bed.
In 365 days, they played 275 times. “I would come home and he would say, ‘Who did you play catch with today?’” If it was no one yet, “He’d say, ‘That’s cool. I can play catch with you.’ Sometimes, we didn’t talk. Sometimes, we would play for five minutes. Other times, maybe 45 minutes. Having that last year to play catch before he went off to Pullman—you can’t beat that. It’s been incredible. I’m really grateful for that.”
They got in one more game in August outside Stimson Hall when Scukanec and his wife dropped Jackson off for his first year of college. “The fact that he’s ready to head out into the world and go do his own thing and still wants to play catch with his dad—what’s better than that? There isn’t anything better than that.”
Today, Scukanec has no plans to stop.
He carries his Cougar-head flag in his car along with a ball and gloves—ever-ready for a game of catch, especially if it’s with a Coug. “I will literally see someone on the side of the road, and I will pull over and tell them, ‘Hey, I’m doing this thing. Is there any way you can play a game of catch with me?’”
He hears from folks on social media almost every day. “Some say, ‘Thank you. I haven’t played a game of catch in 20 years, and because of your story I went out and played with my kid or my dad and keep going.’ I hope to keep it going indefinitely.”
Who would he love to toss a ball with? Music idol Dave Grohl, frontman of the Foo Fighters and drummer for Nirvana, comes to mind. So does Nirvana cofounder and bassist Krist Novoselić (’16 Soc. Sci.), also a Coug. He completed his degree through WSU’s Global Campus.
“Maybe on Day 1,000 I’ll get to play with Dave Grohl or Krist Novoselić,” says Scukanec, who’s been called the “Forrest Gump of Catch.”
Perhaps, he says, “Someday, the game will end on its own or I’ll be done with it.”
Meantime, “I’m hoping some Coug somewhere reads this and says, ‘I’d like to play catch with that guy.’ And we get more catch out of it.”
Washougal man attempts wild feat—a game of catch every day for a year (KGW, July 22, 2022)
Eric Johnson on the joys of a simple game of catch (November 23, 2022)