The object of desire
I went to my first baseball game in 1962 at the age of seven with my father and my uncle, Irving. Before leaving for the Polo Grounds, Irving said, “Don’t forget your glove-you might get a ball.” As we settled into our seats I asked, “Why is there a screen behind home plate?”
Irving answered, “To protect people from getting hit by the ball.”
Having been instructed to bring my glove and hopeful of getting a ball, I was confused, “Don’t you get to keep the ball if you catch it?”
Dad said, “Sure, but, not if you’re dead.”
Thus began my obsession with getting a ball.
On the back of tickets to Major League games is a written disclaimer indemnifying the team from any responsibility for objects “hit or hurled.” This primarily addresses balls that get hit into the stands. Of these, most are near the screen. The screen frees the team from having to post any warnings about the obvious peril of sitting in the high-risk areas closer to the batter. Signs saying, ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK would not be conducive to fun at the old ballgame. Unlike the avaricious owners of football teams, who raise end-zone curtains to capture the balls of extra point and field goal kicks too cheap to let a few fans have the souvenir of their lives, the baseball screen is sincerely intended to protect the innocent. Baseball has long understood that souvenir baseballs are good for the game.
Where you sit at a game reveals a lot about your character. Do you identify with the poised and wary left-side third baseman? Are you more drawn to the steady lumbering consistency of first base? Do you like to watch the ball cross the plate and second guess the umpire, or bask in the sun of the center-field bleachers, watching the pigeons fly and the grass grow in between the action. Where you choose determines your chances of getting a ball.
The location behind and above the screen is where the most action is. You don’t have to worry whether the hitter is a righty or a lefty, whether the pitcher is a low ball, highball, inside, outside, fastball, or finesse-type. Simple physics- momentum, impact, deflection, and carom, all are working towards your desire to get a ball. The vectors delivering and then deflecting the ball come with greater frequency. I’ve always wondered is a scorcher fouled off to first or third, where there is no screen, as dangerous as one which comes straight back?
My preferred location was behind third base beyond the protection of the screen. When I was a kid, going to Yankee Stadium was a major expense. Choice of where to sit was severely limited. My friends usually got general admission seats for a $1.50. This certainly didn’t put us in the high foul ball activity areas the more expensive box and reserved seats did, but they were the most affordable chance we had of getting a ball-and they were way better than the 75 cent bleacher seats where only a rare mammoth home-run might deliver the coveted prize. Anything coming my way behind third was going to be hard to catch, but at least it was better than watching balls hit the screen. Of course, by improving the chances of getting a ball, you also minimize the significance that ball might have. A foul ball isn’t as meaningful as a home. It won’t be as grand as Henry Aaron’s 715th home run(1) that broke Babe Ruth’s record.(2)
It bothers me when fans make no effort to catch a ball. One night Nancy and I were at the Kingdome, with six-thousand other 1/2 priced Family-Night bargain hunters watching a Mariners/Cleveland game, when Andre Thornton lifted one down the third base that was curving towards us. I tracked the ball and instinctively stood and started moving towards it getting ready, hands up, following the trajectory, moving towards the aisle, then seeing it veer towards the aisle two seats away from us. The two guys in those seats didn’t move a muscle to get the ball that was there’s for the taking. One had a cigar in his mouth, the other a beer, and they watched as the ball landed, bounced high in the air and caromed towards home where some guy a few rows away simply reached out his hand and grabbed it. I was disgusted- that ball belonged to those guys. So disgusted, I said to them, “The next time I’m going over you. You didn’t even move. They answered that at their age (in their forties) they’d rather buy a ball than risk their teeth. “Buy a ball! Buy a ball! Do you know what you’re saying? Would you buy a Purple Heart?” Bingo! The one with the cigar finally had his inner boy awakened and he said, “Yeah, the next time, go over us.” At least he understood, even if he wasn’t going to try for the ball himself. How can you not go for the ball, even if only to have a story to tell?
Broadcasters get to watch every game from a great mezzanine location and you can tell which broadcasters have lost their love for the game by how they respond to the foul ball. They are in souvenir heaven above the screen, yet high enough to be protected from anything coming too hard. After all, a lot of them are former ball players whom age has stolen a millisecond (or two) from their “quick hands.” Balls come at them so often they can frequently pick and choose the ones they go after. It’s only a matter of time before one will simply get trapped in the booth. They can casually pick it up, toss it to a fan, and then wave to acknowledge the fan’s appreciation for this charitable act. Even so, some of them don’t go for the ball anymore. It’s tragic. There may be thirty thousand people praying for an opportunity to get just one ball in their lifetime while some broadcasters don’t even try.
“The Scooter”, Phil Rizzuto, a former Yankee short-stop turned broadcaster, would vacate his radio responsibilities to go after anything near him in the booth. Scooter, would be doing the play by play, “Horace Clarke on second takes his lead. Roy White, batting right-handed, in the batters box. McNally winds up, delivers the pitch…” All of a sudden the microphone goes “thunk”, the voices stop, and seconds later the Scooter would give an account of his scramble for the ball. “Holy Cow!” This was a man who loved the game.
I have never gotten a ball.(3) though I’ve had a few close calls.
On Father’s Day in 1964, my father and I went with friends to Shea Stadium for a double-header between the Mets and the Phillies, while our female counterparts went to the World’s Fair for the day. Though not my first game. baseball still was still confusing to me and as the first game progressed I became bored. There was no “action.” and I wished I could have gone instead to the World’s Fair. If I mention that Rick Wise made his major league debut in the second game would that tell anything about why the first game was so boring to me? It was Jim Bunning’s perfect game; twenty-seven consecutive Amazing Met outs. The significance of that Perfect Game was lost on me until years later, but I was there and If I’m ever seeing a game with the pitcher getting into the fifth or sixth allowing no hits, I’ll let drop to others around me that it’s not that big a deal to me because I’ve already seen a Perfect Game. It’s obnoxious but I can’t resist even though I don’t remember much of the game, I do remember a foul ball bouncing off of numerous sets of outstretched hands, like a skimming rock at the beach, almost getting to me. It didn’t, instead settling in the lap of some guy in a white tee shirt who “caught” it with his stomach. I remember the seams and soiled leather of the ball resting against his ample beer belly. It should have been mine.
My second close encounter came during batting practice at Yankee Stadium in 1968. The mighty Orioles were in town to destroy the then pathetic Yankees. Boog Powell was in the hitting cage creating souvenirs for the early arriving faithful. I was about 375 feet away from the Boog in the second deck of the right field stands above the Yankee bullpen watching Steve Hamilton warm up looking like a hamster with his cheeks full of tobacco. The Boog looked small from where I stood. Though he couldn’t run and wasn’t the greatest fielder in the world, he sure could knock the ball a long way and was putting quite a few balls into the nearby stands. The Boog was a souvenir baseball machine and I was ready if the Boog unloaded. This he did and as the ball sailed towards me I felt my chest tighten, my eyes began to bug out in anticipation of the moment of truth. Closer and closer, I saw the seams, it definitely was mine, until, at the last second some guy reached up and snared it less than six inches in front of my face! My first reaction was outrage: I was robbed! My second reaction, realizing in my excitement I never lifted my hands to catch the ball, was relief! It was mine all right and it would have crushed my face, fallen down and then someone would have picked it up. Later when showing it off he would laugh at the dope whose blood was on the ball because he didn’t put his hands up.
Two lessons were learned from that episode. The first; remember to go after the ball with everything you’ve got. The second; remember everyone else is going to do the same. The rules are simple. Whoever gets the ball wins. Possession is ten tenths of the law. Except…
I was at another Mariner’s game, sitting in the left-field seats where all the homers land, when a ball got ripped foul behind first base. It was a vicious liner which hit some unsuspecting kid then moved through the crowd until some guy about forty-years old got it. Like me he had probably waited his whole life for a ball and now he’d gotten one. As he waved the ball in ecstasy, the crowd started to boo. They wouldn’t stop. On the big screen in the outfield they showed the kid who the ball caromed off of, was crying and the crowd wanted the man with the ball to give it to the kid. Honestly, I was thinking, “No way I’d give it up”. Sure I felt sorry for the kid, but, a ball’s a ball and there’s a code about all of this. The ticket stub specifies objects which leave the field of play become fair game for keeping and that if one hits you but you don’t get it, it’s tough noogies for you. But, the crowd didn’t let up. It was fate. He had to give the ball to the kid or else become a heel forever. I thought, “I could live with that,” but he couldn’t and gave the ball to the kid. The crowd cheered, the kid smiled waving the ball, and the guy was a hero. Inside I know he felt horrible-heroism is overrated. He probably sat alertly the rest of the game hoping that justice would be done and he’d get a clean one to keep. My heart went out to this guy. He was robbed. The kid will cherish that ball about as much as I did Bunning’s perfect game. One day when he grows up he will confront the ignominy of the ball that sits unnoticed in the bottom of some box, gathering dust, unimportant and undeserved. The baseball God’s are clear on this and what starts as an ember will soon burn a hot fire of remorse in his conscience until justice is done. Somehow he’ll track the guy whose ball it really is and return the ball to him where it will then be displayed on his desk, or on a shelf above the hearth, in a sacred place suitable for an object of worship. Every one who visits the house will hear him tell the story again and again, each time a little different, each time with more insight into his life, each time swelling with increasing pride.(4)
A souvenir baseball engraves time in your memory. It is a living moment capturing the exuberance of youth, filled with passion, marking not so much a calendar date, but a stage in a lifetime. I know I will get a ball. Time, fate, and probability will favor me some game. I still choose my seat based on this desire. It will be the ultimate souvenir.
1) Aaron’s record was later broken by Barry Bonds.
2) Caught by Tom House, another player in the bullpen.
3) I have since gotten two at Minor League Games.
4) I gave one to an eight-year old friend at the game with me.
© 1986 Joey Emil Blum