I got my ball. After fifty years and dozens of visits to Major League stadiums, I finally got my genuine Major League game ball. As usual, there is a crazy story behind this event, which I’m sure you will agree that it will result in a deeper level of Hell for me someday. But first, for those of you who are not baseball fans, or had a deprived childhood, let me provide some background regarding the significance of this event.
For most normal red-blooded American kids, when first attending a Major League baseball game, you quickly realize that nothing on this earth could be more thrilling that getting a ball that was hit into the stands. Why do you suppose so many kids and even adults bring their gloves to the game? They constantly show the guy catching balls in the stands on TV broadcasts of games. I’ve watched thousands of games, each with dozens of foul balls and home runs, and in each case, someone ends up holding that white sphere of triumph over their head to show off to the world.
I’ve seen men catch balls while holding a baby. I’ve seen people catch them in their beer cup. Since the first guy usually misses the ball, I’ve seen people diving over and under seats to find the prize. Commentators frequently mock adults for diving over other patrons, elbowing someone out of the way, or even worse, snatching a ball from a kid’s hand. I’m not condoning this behavior, but I also don’t need judgement from a team employee or a former player who can go down to the clubhouse and pick up a ball at any time.
If you are familiar with the Steve Bartman play in the 2003 National League Championship Series game 6 that effectively cost the Cubs a chance at their first championship in over a century, you’d get all of this. A Cubs fan decided to go for a ball at a critical time in the game which prevented Moises Alou, a Cubs outfielder to catch it. This opened the floodgates to a Marlins rally that basically ended the Cubs season. Even though every single fan in the section was reaching for the ball, it was Steve Bartman who touched it. He is currently living a slightly more secluded life than Salman Rushdie.
Most baseball fans are like me in that they’ve never got a ball or even came particularly close. Still, I’ll bet any real baseball fan can tell you the closest they came to a ball. Mine was a night game at Yankee Stadium on May, 11th 1979. I know it was at the end of my junior year in college, but I have no recollection who I went to the game with. I do know that I was sitting in the left field bleachers, just a few rows behind outfielder, Lou Piniella. With two California Angels on base in the top of the fourth, Don Baylor lifted a high fly ball in my direction. As Piniella moved back to the wall, dozens of fans and I instinctively stood as one, waiting for the ball to arrive. It landed about four rows behind me. Pretty crazy, right?
I’m not the only one like this. A few years back, I was at a game in the new Marlins Park in Miami with my friend Tyrone. We had good seats in foul territory and spoke of the opportunity to get a ball. Tyrone is tall and could have the opportunity to reach over another fan. Obviously, there are no rules when everyone covets the same thing. Still, Tyrone deludes himself into thinking that he can follow a code. Even crazier is his belief that everyone else should follow the same code. He still insists that if he were in the Bartman seat, he’d have had the discipline to not reach for the ball. Yeah, right.
This came up when a ballhawk took up residence in the walkway in front of our seats. A ballhawk is someone who regularly gets balls using a combination of determination, tenacity, and asshole-like soulless behavior. Tyrone seems to think that one ball is enough. I pointed out that this was not true for any of the other things that we once coveted like cookies, money or sex. After the first time, we just wanted more and still do.
A couple of years later, Tyrone and I were at Fenway Park in Boston sitting in the right field bleachers. During batting practice, I walked up to the wall where pitchers were shagging fly balls. Some of the pitchers would occasionally toss a ball to a fan. This is another legitimate way to obtain a game ball. They were throwing the balls mostly to kids. Tyrone said this fit his code. Then, a kid, about six, handed a ball to his father. Dad asked, “How many is that?” The kid replied, “Four.” At this point, Tyrone figuratively swerved across five lanes of traffic. He wanted to go and beat up the father for not stopping his kid from being a hog. So much for the code.
On this occasion, I was in Atlanta visiting my friend Carlos for a few days. Carlos’ wife Ines and their three kids were in Spain visiting relatives. He has season tickets to the Braves new stadium which is across the highway from his job and not far from his home in Marietta. We went to parts of five different games in five days, although a deluge at the beginning of the first one caused a long rain delay, and we left before the first pitch. He did take me on a nice tour of the stadium where I got a picture with a statue of Hank Aaron.
On Saturday, Carlos took me to the batting cages to hit several balls before lunch and then the 4:30 Braves game against the Milwaukee Brewers. I was wearing a bright yellow Brewers cap with the old-style logo. I did not wear this due to any allegiance to the Brewers, rather to be provocative to the local Braves fans. Carlos upgraded our seats to spectacular ones in the cutout in foul territory along the left field line. This would be a good place to get a ball. Alas, nothing was hit our way other than a double down the line that was still in play.
At the end of the game, the kids all left the area and a few adults stood to harass the half-dozen Brewer relief pitchers who were walking from the visitor bullpen to the dugout for a ball. A guy tossed one to someone in fair territory and I thought the balls were all gone. Still, I sheepishly lifted my cap to (falsely) show the Brewer pitchers that I was one of them. Meanwhile, Carlos was pointing to me when he shouted, “He’s an old man! Give him a ball!” He followed that with “My father is a cancer survivor!”
Yes, he went that low. You may know from my previous writing that I once went to a Jets game in a wheelchair to get in free. I’ve been trying to make up for that horrid act for the past 35 years. Now I’m back to the fast track to hell. The problem was that I still was hoping for a ball. One pitcher looked right at me, stopped for a moment, took a ball out of his glove, and tossed it across the fifty-or-so feet between us. It took a perfect arc, directly into my eager hands. I caught it like Willie Mays doing a basket catch…and I felt like an excited eight-year-old.
Carlos was laughing hysterically. I reminded him that he was going to Hell for this, even though I felt it unlikely that any of the players actually heard him. He responded by telling me that he carefully calculated what he had said. He said that it was true that I was an old man, certainly when compared to his forty years. He also reminded me that his father had indeed beaten cancer. He felt that if any of the Brewers misconstrued that he was referring to two separate people, well, that was their problem. I reminded him that he would not be able to bring a lawyer when he meets St. Peter, and that the people in Heaven were particularly good at looking directly into one’s heart.
As for the player who threw me the ball, his name is Jacob Barnes. I had not heard of this second-year reliever prior to this moment. I will follow his career from now on. He’s from St. Petersburg and went to Florida Gulf Coast University. He’s right-handed and currently leading the league in games pitched. I will be forever indebted to him and hope he has a nice career.
I suppose the best outcome is that I now have a great story. On the way out of the stadium, I was carrying the ball and a guy came up and asked if I got it at the game. I told him the unvarnished story, and he hung on every word. He offered no judgement other than laughter. When you think about it, is that really such a sin?