Catching On: Washougal man invites strangers to play catch

John Scukanee has played a game of catch every day since March 2

Contributed photo courtesy John Scukanec Washougal resident John Scukanec began a mission in March to play catch with somebody every day for a full calendar year.

Contributed photo courtesy John Scukanec Washougal resident John Scukanec plays catch outside of T-Mobile Park in Seattle earlier this year.

Washougal resident John Scukanec (left) has played catch with several celebrities, including Seattle Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic (right), since March 2022.

Washougal resident John Scukanec plays catch with a neighbor during a snowstorm in April 2022. (Contributed photos courtesy of John Scukanec)

On the evening of Wednesday, March 2, John Scukanec grabbed a baseball, picked up his mitt and dragged his son, JR, out to the back yard of their Washougal home to play catch. It was 9:30 p.m., cold and wet, but Scukanec didn’t care. He had determined that he was going to play catch with somebody not only that day, but every day for the next calendar year.

That was “day one.” Six months later, the streak is still going.

Scukanec has played catch every day for more than 200 consecutive days, and he plans to keep going for as long as possible.

“I look forward to it every day,” said Scukanec, a code compliance officer for the city of Vancouver. “What’s cool for me is I just don’t know (what’s going to happen). At worst, I’m playing catch with someone, which is awesome. It’s hard to beat that. They tell their story, and I just listen. I’ve had people say to me, ‘I don’t have a great story.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, everybody’s story is a great story.’ I’m excited to meet people every day. The cool thing for me is the uncertainty. People are like, ‘You’ve played catch (for more than 200) straight days. Is that boring?’ It’s not because every single day is different.”

Scukanec’s journey began earlier that day when Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that the 2022 MLB season wouldn’t start on time after the league and the Major League Baseball Players Union were unable to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement.

The news hit Scukanec, a passionate MLB and Seattle Mariners fan, particularly hard.

“I had opening day tickets for the Mariners. (Media members) were talking like the season was going to be canceled,” said Scukanec, who grew up in Vancouver and played football for Washington State University (WSU) in the early 1990s. “I was in a bad mood. I was driving around at work, and I was on my phone, and I came across a podcast (in my) Twitter timeline that I’d never heard of before. It’s called ‘The Baseball Bucket List Podcast.’ It was about baseball, and I was in a bad mood, so I decided to listen to an episode.”

The episode featured a story about Kansas City, Missouri, resident Ethan Bryan, who published a book titled, “A Year of Playing Catch,” in 2020.

“He started Jan. 1, and he went the entire year (playing catch with somebody) and wrote a book about it,” Scukanec said. “(The podcast hosts are) talking about him and his experiences, and the fact that he wrote a book. I’m listening to this and thinking, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard. This is amazing.’ And at one point, I said to myself out loud, ‘This sounds like something I would do.’ And then I thought, ‘I wonder if I could do this? Could I play catch every day for 365 days? Can I find enough people? How would it unfold?'”

When he got home, he launched his quest with a declaration to his family members and a passionately-worded social media post.

“I love baseball. I miss baseball. The idiots in charge of the game are screwing it up. I heard about this idea recently on a podcast and loved it, so I’m going to try it. I’m going to try and play catch every day, starting today … for 365 days in a row,” he wrote.

“Sometime, somewhere with someone each day, I’m going to try and have a catch. I acknowledge that there will probably be a lot of me and my kids or wife tossing the ball around for two minutes in the backyard to keep the streak alive, but what’s better than playing catch with your kids? Maybe along the way it will get interesting. I will look for opportunities to play with strangers or people I don’t know well and in a variety of places as we go along … Is this dumb? Maybe. Will I make it all 365 days? I’d like to think so.”

And even though MLB and the players’ union came to an agreement one week later and the MLB season started only one week later than originally scheduled, Scukanec kept going. He’s found pure joy in connecting with people and spreading a message of positivity and kindness along the way.

“It started selfishly, I guess,” he said. “I thought, ‘This will make me feel better. I’ll play catch every day. I don’t know how long the lockout’s going to go, so we’ll just see. And if there’s no baseball season, at least I’m playing catch.’ Along the way, (I discovered that it) may do some good (for people). That wasn’t my goal when I started out, but I’m humbled to be a part of it. If I’m helping to facilitate some good in the world, that’s (really satisfying).”

Scukanec knows he can always ask a family member or neighbor to join him for a quick toss session to keep the streak going if he’s ever in a dire situation. But most of the time, that hasn’t been necessary.

“My brother (Jason) has a sports radio show on 1080 The Fan in Portland every night, and I have a nightly segment on there where I go on and talk about Mariners or baseball or whatever,” he said. “A lot of the people follow me on social media because of the radio show, so when I first put it out there, people would reach out and be like, ‘Oh, this is cool. I’ll play catch with you.’ “And the second way (I find people to play catch with) is by asking complete strangers. I have completely overcome my fear. I have this little speech that I’ve developed because I have to convince them that I’m not crazy and I’m not asking them for money. It usually starts out with, ‘I know this is going to sound weird, but… .”

Scukanec has played catch with family members, neighbors, co-workers, and former classmates. He played catch with entire Little League and high school baseball teams. He played catch with a 3-year-old boy and a 78-year-old woman. He played catch with a homeless person. He played catch with a woman named America on Independence Day. He’s played catch with a few celebrities, including Mariners outfielder Jarred Kelenic, former Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer, former WSU star quarterback Ryan Leaf, Portland Trail Blazers radio broadcaster Travis Demers, and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) hall-of-famer Jake “The Snake” Roberts.

He’s played catch in office buildings and warehouses, and outside movie theaters and restaurants. He played catch in a Costco parking lot. He played catch in front of a portable toilet that was on fire. He played catch on the banks of the Columbia River. He played catch at T-Mobile Park, home of the Mariners, and Pike Place Market in Seattle. He played catch at Volcanoes Stadium in Keizer, Oregon, after throwing out the first pitch before the start of a Salem-Keizer Volcanoes game. And he’s played catch in many, many city parks all around the Portland metro area.

And through all of that and more, Scukanec has never had a bad experience. He’s never been not thanked. And, somewhat miraculously, he’s only been told “no” once — “and even that turned into something awesome,” he said.

“I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, or (the fact that) we’ve all played catch at some point, or it makes you feel like a kid again,” he said. “So many people tell me, ‘I hadn’t played catch since I was 10 with my dad,’ or, ‘I haven’t played catch in 20 years.’ So many people say afterwards, ‘You know, I feel better. That was the best part of my day. I was having a crappy day, and that made me feel better.’ And I think it all goes back to at some point, like, we’re all 12 years old, out with our buddies playing catch, and I think something about this takes you back there, and people are willing to give it a try.”

Scukanec enjoys listening to other people’s stories while playing catch, but every once in a while he becomes a big part of someone’s story.

One day in late July, Scukanec received a Twitter message from a 22-year-old Portland resident named Alexandria Goddard, who asked him if he would meet her for a catch.

“I said, ‘Sure,’ so we picked a date, and it ended up being a Sunday in a park,” he said. “I show up at the park and she’s the only one there. She looks like she’s a baby. She looks like she’s 16 years old. And I’m like, ‘Well, that can’t be her.’ And after a little bit, there’s nobody else out there, so I get out and I go over to her, and I said, ‘Are you Alex? ‘And she says, ‘Yeah.’

“I said, ‘Why are you here? You’re not my normal (type of catch partner).’ And she said to me, ‘I saw you on the news and I had an overwhelming feeling I needed to play catch with you. I don’t like baseball. I’ve never played catch. I don’t own a glove. I just felt like you needed to play catch with you.'”

They started to play catch, and Goddard told Scukanec her story.

“She tells me that she told her mom, ‘Hey, that guy we saw on the news, I’m going to play catch with him,'” Scukanec said. “And her mom says to her, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe it. Your grandmother would love this.’ And Alex says, ‘What do you mean?’ And she says, ‘Your grandmother loved baseball.’ Alex tells me, ‘My grandmother lives in Florida. I don’t see her. I don’t talk to her. I haven’t talked to her in a couple of years.’

“So her mom’s telling her about how much her grandmother (would love this), and she said, ‘You should call your grandmother and talk to her,'” he continued. “So Alex calls her grandmother. They talk for an hour. She’s telling me this, and she’s getting emotional, and I’m getting emotional. She says, ‘I haven’t talked to my grandmother for that long in years. She told me about her life, and about how she was an Oakland A’s fan when she was growing up,’ and all these things.”

After they were done playing catch, Goddard hugged Scukanec and said, “I’m going to go buy a glove because I don’t want this to be my last catch.”

“And I said, ‘Hold on. I have an extra one in the car,'” Scukanec said. “I gave her the glove, and she’s like, ‘You’re giving me this glove?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely. I have one condition. You have to use it.’ So she takes off and she leaves, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.

“Two weeks later, I got a message from her that said, ‘I just want you to know that catch changed my life,'” he continued. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘I told my mom about it. She went and bought a glove. My dad found his glove. I play catch with my parents three times a week. My brothers come over and play. I talk to my grandmother every Sunday night for an hour. I’m going to visit her at Christmastime and learn about her life. I really believe, John, that the feeling I had that I needed to play catch with you was so I could connect with my grandmother.'”

Goddard wrote on a social media post that her experience with Scukanec was “unique and special.”

“He totally made my day — and then he made my grandma’s day, too, when I called her to tell her that she was a prominent part of the conversation,” she wrote. “It’s a little silly to think about driving half an hour away to play catch with a total stranger, but it was a definite highlight of the day, week, month — heck, the whole summer. If you’re ever in the park throwing around a baseball, frisbee or basketball, consider inviting a total stranger into the game. It’s worth it.”

Those types of experiences have resonated deeply with Scukanec.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve heard so many stories. The line that I sort of stole is, ‘It’s just a catch until it’s not.’ Sometimes it’s just a catch, but sometimes it’s more than that. And the cool thing is I have 50 of those stories (like Goddard’s). I’ve learned that it has nothing to do with baseball. It has nothing to do with playing catch. Playing catch is just a vehicle to connect with people.

“Honestly, it’s ridiculous how many strangers I’ve cried with or shared stuff with or had moments (with). I’ve had so many people tell me, ‘I don’t know why I just told you that.’ I’ve learned that once you start playing catch, it’s a shared experience. There’s trust involved. You drop your guard and just talk to people, which we don’t do enough, especially coming out of the pandemic.”

Of course, committing to a regularly-occurring outdoor activity in Southwest Washington means dealing with a variety of challenging weather conditions, which Scukanec has certainly faced along the way, particularly during the first few weeks, which were abnormally rainy and cold.

Sometimes he’s had to get a bit creative, but he’s always found a way to accomplish his goal, even if it’s just for four or five tosses.

“One day I had a catch at a park in Camas, and a guy drove up from Salem, (Oregon), for it,” he said. “The moment he gets out of the car, thunder and lightning (strike), just pouring down rain. And I’m like, ‘I can’t send him home. He drove all the way up here.’ The good thing was the park we were in had one of those covered picnic (shelters), so we just went under that and threw across the tables. Early on, when the weather was a factor, I’d go somewhere like that, where if it was too wet to play, we played undercover. If it’s 110 degrees, I’ll make sure there’s shade or whatever, but summer is easy. I figure we’ll get into the winter, and there’ll be a day in December where it’s 8 degrees and (wet) and nobody’s going to want to come out and play catch, and that might be a little challenging. But so far, so good.”

Scukanec also has been challenged to fit his daily catch session into his busy life, which also includes a family, a job, and other hobbies, activities and responsibilities.

But he’s been able to make it work, even during his vacations.

“I would be lying to tell you that it’s not a thing. Like, it’s a thing,” he said. “But my family has been great. We went to the beach for a week a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t schedule anything there, so I literally took my glove and just walked down the beach every day, and I found people. Early on in the process, my wife was involved in a couple of experiences that were kind of cool, and she told me, ‘I get it. I get why you’re doing it. It’s not about baseball.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s about connecting with people.'”