Foul Balls

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageWe were sitting in the right-field stands at PNC Park, my buddy Mike and I, taking in the rare August sight that is a near-sell-out in a ballpark much too beautiful for the bad baseball it has housed for the majority of its existence.

Mike is a Pirates fan. A real one. He didn’t just board the bandwagon… not that there’s anything wrong with the forming bandwagon supporting a team that has posted losing season after losing season for two decades and now, stunningly, holds the best record in baseball.

Mike used to sit in the stands at Three Rivers, rooting on Denny Neagle and Andy Van Slyke and Don Slaught and Al Martin (though I’m not certain if he was an actual member of “Al’s Army”). He has spent his fair share of hours making the best of a bad situation at PNC, back when the lackluster play on the field was offset, in some small measure, by the occasional Jason Bay bobblehead or commemorative Jack Wilson “Jack in the Box” giveaway.

And the one constant, aside from the results, was this: Mike had never caught a foul ball.

He lamented this fact to me recently, taking note of the national story that a Tribe fan had caught not one, not two, not three but four foul balls on a single Sunday at Progressive Field.

“Man,” Mike said when he heard this, “I’m 0-for-life.”

Imagine, then, the flash of hope, the flicker of anticipation that fluttered in Mike’s Irish heart in that moment when right fielder Jose Tabata turned to the crowd after a between-innings game of catch, surveyed the scene and cocked his arm back for the toss above the 21-foot-wall in right. This is one of the things you have to love about the experience of attendance. Because Tabata, bless his heart, has a .695 OPS and is one of the primary culprits responsible for the Buccos’ right-field plight. Yet in a moment such as this, he can still make a fond memory for some fortunate fan.

On this night, in this seat, that fan was Mike.

I knew it from the moment of release. The ball was coming directly to Mike. It was a no-doubter. He lifted up out of his chair, extended his arms out and, with the God-given athletic skill that once allowed him to serve as a walk-on for the very prestigious, world-renowned baseball team at Ohio University, easily hauled it in.

He sat back in his seat, peaceful, fulfilled.

“I have never caught a foul ball*,” he remarked, studying this inspirational orb, scuff marks and all, perhaps envisioning a spot on his mantle for this treasured piece of memorabilia.

*And yes, technically he still hadn’t, because this wasn’t an actual foul ball. But work with me, people, I’m trying to tell a story here.

But then, just as suddenly as the ball was delivered into Mike’s anticipatory palms, you could feel the eyes upon him. Everybody in the crowd, it seemed, was staring at Mike, waiting, pining, imploring him to give the ball to the little kid sitting two seats to his left.

Mike could feel it, too. I swear to you the six or seven seconds after he came down with that ball felt like an eternity, a full trial and sentencing of a man scrutinized by his own, Pirate-loving peers.

And when the eternity had passed, Mike did the only thing a man in his place could have done without inspiring the ire of every inhabitant of Section 144:

He gave the ball to the kid.

Now, I want to make one thing very clear: I love kids. And I love that baseball, at its core, is a game that caters to kids. Certainly, some people get swept up in the passion of a pennant race at some advanced age and become late-blooming baseball fans. But I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of us who love this game love it because it cosmically connects us to our childhood in some small way. And baseball teams go to great, admirable and always evolving lengths to ensure that experience is passed down to future generations, so that the wheel is always in spin.

The other night, my uncle brought his three grandsons to an Indians game. They wanted to bring their gloves, but my uncle had to tell them their seats would be out-of-range for even the most mammoth of Jason Giambi blasts.

“But just in case,” he told them, “have your hat ready!”

Image

And this is how it should be, true ambition forming in the heart and mind of a young boy and the understanding that, if the fates allow and if he applies himself, perhaps his reverie will be realized. If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme… unless maybe if you’re sitting in Section 749, Row Q.

Anyway, this is what bothered me about what I witnessed at PNC: The hand-off from adult to child felt more expected than appreciated. The kid’s dad thanked my friend, certainly, and the gesture was applauded by the guy sitting behind us. But the whole thing seemed — to me, at least — to have all the emotional magnitude of a $10 bank transaction. It felt like Mike had merely completed his end of some pre-existing agreement written in tiny font on the back of his ticket.

At the risk of sounding insensitive or out-of-touch or just plain grumpy, when did this become a thing? When did giving little kids every foul ball (I would imagine, perhaps naively, that home runs are more commonly acknowledged as the property of the possessor) become part of some binding social contract? Because I know it wasn’t written into the fabric of fanship when I was a kid. When I was young, I could not even conceive of begging some stranger, in word or in enticing or teary eyes, to give me a freebie. The thought never would have even crossed my mind. Or my dad’s mind, for that matter.

I still remember the day Cory Snyder showed up to The Palace, the Euclid High School baseball field, to put on a hitting clinic (yeah, yeah, smart aleck, Snyder struck out in 25 percent of his career plate appearances… he was still a golden-locked legend in my young mind). At some point in the session, my dad stood up and vanished from our seats behind the backstop. I was too engrossed by the glory of Cory Snyder to pay any mind to this disappearance. A few minutes later, my dad, completely out of breath, comes back with a ball in hand. When I was older, he explained that he had outhustled a bunch of little kids half his size (which is really saying something, seeing as how my dad is a tiny Italian-American) to get me that ball — a ball I still have. That’s a father taking care of his son. That’s America. Or baseball. Or a Harry Chapin song. Or something. And if I’m blessed with children of my own one day, I plan to do everything in my power to create those little magic moments for them, too.

But anybody who watched, without the benefit of context, as my dad raced past those kids in pursuit of a ball off the bat of the great Cory Snyder probably figured he was just a jerk.

Point is, we’ve progressed to a point in our culture where such context has ceased to have any value whatsoever. There are people — a good number of people — who are content to give this souvenir away to someone else’s child without even a fleeting moment of contemplation. These are kind and gracious people, and they deserve to be applauded (my friend Mike, it must be noted, has expressed not even a hint of regret or uncertainty about his decision).

Of course, not everybody wants to give it away, and therein lies the difficulty. Catch a foul ball and keep it for yourself, and the moment is captured in high-definition, broadcast on big screens across the region and, next thing you know, you’re Deadspin material. How do you know that guy keeping that ball isn’t out of town on business with a son of his own waiting at home? How do you know he’s not planning to give that ball to his dying mother to fulfill her lifelong quest of owning an object once touched by Greg Dobbs? How do you know he wasn’t recently laid off from his job and ditched by his wife and this precious piece of paraphernalia is the only thing keeping him from jumping off a short bridge?

Or how do you know he’s not just a big baseball fan who always wanted to catch a freaking foul ball?

You don’t know any of this, and, what’s worse, we don’t have any finely stipulated statutes upon which to work off here. What is the age cut-off for both the bearer of the ball and the kid in question? How old is too old to keep a ball? How young is too young to expect a ball? How do you know if the guy giving the kid the ball doesn’t want it more than the kid, who very well might just toss it in his toy box and never think about it again (or, for that matter, toss it back on the field)? If you give a crying kid a baseball, are you encouraging him to waltz through life expecting that all good things will come his way if he whines a little? Are foul balls the new participation trophies?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I don’t know if it’s insensitive or unseemly to even be asking them.

I just know the whole thing strikes me as foul.

~AC

11 Comments

Larry David moment.
What about the “scream team” the people who throw things into the stands(Foam Balls/Tshirts etc) do the same rules apply to this also?

I think anything that comes from the Scream Team is tainted and should be given away to anybody who will take it.

I caught my very first foul ball last season at Progressive Field. It was shortly after my 29th birthday and the only thing I was thinking when I caught it (You know, that line drive to the seats in left field foul territory off the bat of Delmon Young, caught by the extremely excited guy in the 1920 Indians jersey that ended up #2 on SportsCenter the next day? Yeah, that was me) was “Thank GOD the only kid near me is the 1 year old son of the friend that I invited to the game.” That ball was not leaving my hands and I know I would have been tormented by anybody near me had some kindergartner, with a participation trophy in one hand, asked me for that ball and I said “No.” I spent 24 years of my life (I was 5 when I went to my first game) trying to catch a foul ball. I never begged the hundreds of people near me that caught foul balls growing up for the ball they had rightfully earned. A foul ball is something to be earned. Not given. That is how I have always felt and it is how I will always feel.

I believe that line about foul balls being earned and not given is in the Constitution somewhere.

I caught a foul ball off the bat of Brandon Phillips while attending a Bisons-Red Barons game (at the time that was their name). B-Phil was my favorite player and I had been following him since “the trade.” Much to my dismay, my older sister begged, whined, and pouted a guilt trip that was of epic proportions. Reluctantly, I gave her the ball.

Fast forward to the end of the game. We were outside waiting to catch a glimpse of the players as they boarded their bus. One by one the players walked by the crowd. Some players gave autographs, some politely declined, and Billy Traber told a little squirt no more than 8 years old to “go eff off.” Phillips signed for about 10 minutes.

And as if it were meant to me, for my generous nature to my sister, the Barons’ bus broke down thus allowing me to spend about 60 minutes engaging conversation with Ricardo Rodriguez and none other than Brandon Phillips. Rodriguez was more interested in flirting with my sister so I got to speak with Phillips one-on-one for a large portion of the time. We talked about his recent Sports Illustrated article and we shared a geeky moment from our childhoods regarding our hero: He-Man. He signed the ball for my sister and offered to sign my hat. I obliged.

I know Brandon Phillips got a perception among the Cleveland media and front office. I don’t care. To me, he’ll always be that guy chatting with me about He-Man and why he twirled his bat in the manner which he grew accustomed to. I didn’t get to keep the foul ball but I got a hat signature and a great story to tell.

#OriginalCastronautMember

Billy Traber. Wow.

And Phillips is one of my favorites too.

Long live the Castronauts.

Anth – I’m hoping you took Mike to the Souper Bowl after the game and visited your old friend in the dusty bottle to console Mike after his loss.

Not even King Vlad could console him after that.

I had the fortunate opportunity of snagging my first ball at Progressive about two years ago: a ground-rule double off the bat of Shelley Duncan, whereupon a 200-something pound dude promptly body slammed me into the concrete from behind–evidently frustrated at his near miss. Even before the pining looks came (and came the did, in all expectancy) it was a foregone conclusion in my mind that no kid was going to get that ball after I had shed my own blood for it. The ball later became a gift to my newborn son, and it now sits in his bedroom as a tangible piece of a story I anticipate telling him someday.

Perhaps the best approach to solving the problem of ball sharing would be to emulate ballhawk Zach Hample’s strategy: fetch a few balls from batting practice beforehand to have enough wealth to spread around in case you find yourself in a dilemma.

“with the God-given athletic skill that once allowed him to serve as a walk-on for the very prestigious, world-renowned baseball team at Ohio University”

From one Bobcat to another (class of 2000), two words, Mike Schmidt (I know you know this).

And in terms of the article, I have 4 kids so now I’d keep it for them, but otherwise I’d give it away. Never made sense to me for adults to keep foul balls. Just one man’s opinion though. Do people actually still have mantles?

Great topic and perspective, AC. I completely agree with your stance — not only should we get to bask in the glory of catching/retrieving a foul ball, but we do not need to be teaching entitlement to the next generation.

When I was a kid and I missed out on foul balls because the grown-ups had the height advantage, competing for foul balls just became something to look forward to — a rite of passage into adulthood.

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