Without fail, every time I attend a baseball game with my buddy Matt, he reminds me that he has never caught a foul ball. Nor a batting practice ball. Nor a ball thrown by a player into the stands. Potentially, he has never even touched a baseball while standing within 20 feet of a ballpark.
Which brings us to a Sunday afternoon game between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros.
With Nationals’ prized prospect Stephen Strasburg on the mound, Matt and I sprung for seats closer to the rubber – third-base side, lower bowl. Yep, prime real estate for foul balls.
Before the first pitch of the game, Matt convinced me to move down four rows so our view wouldn’t be obstructed by a trio of abnormally tall Nationals fans.
The game began shortly after we moved and three pitches later, it happened.
Crack. The ball sliced through the afternoon air. Then there was that moment when your limbs catch up with your brain and you realize the thing is screaming toward you. Matt stood up but didn’t have to step to his left or right. It was right at him. While not the most glamorous corralling – the ball bounced off the scorebook he was holding and he scooped it out of the seat in front of him – Matt released a jubilant yell before hoisting the three-inch orb high in the sky. Victory. And in the first inning, no less.
Matt remained giddy throughout game. Moments after his, well, moment, his hands trembled as he attempted to take a sip of his drink. Fans in nearby seats shouted their congratulations as he admired the ball, rolling it between his hands.
This ordeal had me wondering about the allure of the baseball. Why are fans so absurdly obsessed with obtaining two pieces of leather wrapped around some yarn and cork?
Earlier this season, a fan of the Texas Rangers tragically fell to his death attempting to catch a ball thrown to him by Josh Hamilton. So badly did he want the ball that he lost awareness of his surroundings and toppled over the guardrail. There have been many fights in the stands over baseballs. There’s even a secret society of fans called ballhawks who travel the country attempting to catch as many baseballs as possible. Some of the top ballhawks are said to have trophy cases of more than 4,000 baseballs.
Clearly, catching a ball represents far more than a happy little occurrence. Here are some possible reasons why.
1) The Association with Greatness. Moments after Matt caught the ball, the realization set in that he was holding an object that seconds before was in the hand of a Major League pitcher. And not just any pitcher. Stephen Strasburg. He has a holiday (Strasmus) dedicated to every start and is said to be the savior of D.C.'s struggling ball club. Thus is the attraction for many people who snag these goodies. If it comes off the bat of Albert Pujols or the hand of Roy Halladay, people can establish a deeper connection with that player for life. Being forever linked – though a one-way street because, in 99 percent of ball-catching instances, the player couldn’t care less if you made a one-handed grab with five beers in your other paw – is an appeal that won’t wear off any time soon.
2) The Moment in the Spotlight. Even though Matt dropped the ball, everyone in the section immediately focused their attention on him. They peppered him with questions about whether he had caught one before. They joked about buying it from him. They watched in awe as he investigated the exact spot where the bat struck the ball. Attracting the gaze of an entire section – or in the case of some of the more spectacular catches, an entire stadium – by accomplishing such a simple task is a rush. Catch a ball and potentially make it on Sports Center or be mentioned by the team’s announcers? Sign me up.
3) The Monetary Value. This mainly applies to the aforementioned ballhawks, but clearly baseballs hit by superstar players in superstar moments possess a ton of value. Why that is becomes a whole different discussion, but catching a milestone home run baseball is akin to owning the guitar Clapton used to lay down Crossroads. Many of the ballhawks will hold their prize for ransom, asking the player for signed merchandise or even cash in exchange for their acquisition. The ballhawks spend hours plotting out where they will sit and tracing the hitting patters of particular players to best maximize their chances at catching a ball and cashing in. These aren’t the common fans, but if a regular Joe happens to catch a historically significant baseball, he’ll often be rewarded handsomely without attempting to blackmail the team. That was the case for a 20-something fan in New York who caught Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit (which happened to be a home run) and received four season tickets in a luxury box at Yankee Stadium for the rest of the season.
4) The Storytelling. Just like Matt’s heroics have been recounted in this column, whenever a guest visits a home or steps into the office of someone who has caught a ball, they’ll no doubt request details. Thus leading the possessor on a grand tale involving the defeat of foaming rapids of seats, ferocious fans of the opposing team and fire-breathing security guards in order to make the catch. The replay value involved with grabbing a ball is astronomical. The same goes for coaxing a ball from a player during batting practice.
5) The Situation. This one ties in with many of the previously-mentioned points, but there’s an unusual case that bucks the trend. If a fan catches a home run ball hit by the opposing team, they’re urged by those in attendance to throw it back on to the field. This tradition has historical significance that’s based at Wrigley Field, but has caught on at many ballparks around the Majors. Fans who catch such a ball must be conflicted about whether or not to throw it back. While it would sufficiently create a moment of glory and win the hearts of a fan base to heave it back, there would be no concrete memento of the event. All things considered, it’s probably an enviable situation to be in no matter the outcome.
My first experience with a foul ball came at Veterans Stadium. The Phillies were in the midst of another losing season, but the crowd was significant because the Red Sox were in town. Bobby Abreu fouled one toward the upper deck and the masses rose, my middle-school self included. The ball was coming toward us, and hit off the hands of a fan two rows up. The only person who didn’t stand was my mother, who sat to my right. And after that ball bounced off Mr. Butterfingers, it nestled directly next to my mom, who calmly picked it up and smiled a childish smile. She turned to her left and handed me the ball. I smiled a childish smile.
Take that, you damn ballhawks.