I am a man on a mission.
My mission is to get a baseball at a baseball game. I don't mean buy one at a souvenir stand. That's easy. Too easy. This may sound silly -- it may be silly -- but my goal is to get a home run ball, a foul ball or, worst case, a ball thrown into the stands by a player. In my lifetime, I’ve gone to hundreds of major league games. Mostly Yankees home game, but also Dodgers games growing up in LA, and over the years games at a dozen various ballparks, plus a handful of minor league games. And yet I have never gotten a foul ball, home run ball or caught a ball from a player.
I have come tantalizingly, even comically close, but I have never succeeded. My quest for a ball has taken on an almost monomaniacal focus not unlike Captain Ahab’s (and look where that got him).
About 15 years ago, at Boston’s Fenway Park, Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez tossed a ball in my direction. I dropped it and another fan scooped it up.
At a Yankees game earlier this year, between innings, I waved my arms wildly to get the attention of Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner. We made eye contact. Incredibly, Gardy fired the ball straight to me. I reached for it. A little down and to my left, but I had it. I was sure of it.
The ball hit the meat of my left hand below the thumb and bounced off, falling below the seats in front of me. I saw it, started to go for it just I saw from the corner of my eye another fan closing in fast. He beat me to it, brandished it like a trophy then spirited it away. My hand stung for an hour. My ego stung longer.
At the next few games I attended, I found seats in the zone where I’d determined was where pop fouls often go. Second level. Just past first base. When a right-handed batter fouls off a pitch that’s where they often to go.
At the next Yankees game I went to, four foul balls game landed within 10 feet. I got none. I changed seats, moved to an empty seat two rows down, hoping to change my luck. The next foul ball hit that way came flying in my direction as if on a zip line. I reached up. It flew over my fingertips. I turned to see some guy who had taken the seat I’d left spear it one-handed. Fans around him applauded. I just glared as he showed the ball to the others in his group.
This dude got my seat and my ball
The next game I went to, I stationed myself in the foul ball zone on the opposite, left side of home plate. Left-handed batters would hit them there.
As pre-game practice ended, a visiting White Sox player strolled toward the dugout carrying a ball in his bare hand. I waved and waved. He saw me. He reached back to throw the ball. Then he stopped. I could see his attention shift to somewhere below me. I looked down. There was a woman in a thin, white top. Oh no! Oh yes, he was looking at her. I was certain of it. Sure enough, he lobbed the ball in a gentle arching parabola to her. She caught it.
“That was my ball!” I shrieked at her.
The woman turned, smiled at me. She thought I was joking. She was very pretty. No doubt that's why the player threw it her way. It just wasn’t fair. I took my seat, sulking.
Okay, so now you’re probably thinking this whole thing is what? A little over the top? A lot to bet the top? An adult — an older, ostensibly mature adult — obsessing over a baseball. Let’s stipulate that it’s ridiculous.
I still want my baseball.
Don DeLillo’s short story Pafko at the Wall takes place at the 1951 Giants-Dodgers playoff game that the Giants’ Bobby Thompson’s won with his 9th inning home run, he describes a foul ball plucked by a fan as “this five-ounce sphere of cork, rubber, yarn, horsehide and spiral stitching, a souvenir baseball, a priceless thing somehow." DeLillo understood.
In 2015, I happened to be at the game when the Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez got his 3,000th hit, a home run drilled into the right field grandstand.
I was a correspondent for ABC News at the time. The fate of that home run ball quickly became a story when the fan who caught rather noisily rebuffed the team’s efforts to persuade him to give to Rodriguez. It was becoming somewhat of a tense stand-off between the fan and the team, which was offering all kinds of items in exchange for that historic baseball.
I was assigned the story and sent to interview the fan, Zack Hample, at his family’s Upper West Side apartment. He was in his 20’s, with a quick wit and a strong will. He wanted the ball for his collection and he was quite indignant about the Yankees' heavy-handed efforts to get him to give it up.
Hample was a souvenir baseball zealot. After the interview, he showed me hundreds of balls that he’d collected. Home run balls. Batting practice balls. Balls tossed his way by players. Errant balls he had scrambled to grab. Probably balls dropped by ham-fisted fans like me. The souvenir baseballs were all tagged and catalogued by date and location.
Hample gave me a fascinating dissertation on where the best locations are in a ballpark for getting a batted ball. He told he had once even learned enough sign language to sign to a ball player who was deaf “ Please Throw Me A Ball.” The player did. (Hample, by the way, eventually gave the ball to A-Rod).
Zack Hample with the A-Rod ball
Like many things in life, my baseball quest has a history and a context. I grew up in Los Angeles, a Giants fan (being a native of San Francisco), among Dodgers fans, going to Dodgers game. I almost felt like I was behind enemy lines at Dodger Stadium. But I loved baseball and the Dodgers were literally the only game in town.
Going to those Dodger games was a family affair. My parents were huge sports fans, but especially baseball. My older brother, Keith, and I were baseball nuts since we were practically infants. We spent hours playing catch. We played Little League together starting when I was 8. Going to Dodgers games together as a family was and still is one of my happiest childhood memories. The whole thing: bundling into the car, the mounting excitement on the ride to Chavez Ravine, the long walk from parking lot to stadium, the gorgeous symmetry of the field, the startling brilliant green of the grass, the smell of Dodger dogs slathered with mustard, the restless kinetic energy of the gathering crowd, and the sound of Vin Scully — that soothing, kind voice — simultaneously blaring from thousands of transistor radios. The game itself. It was all wonderful.
July 2017. The last Dodgers game I would ever attend with my brother and mom
We usually sat in the right field bleachers. I don’t know why but that was our spot. In the bleachers, there were several sets of stairs that led from the concession area below up to the seats. At the top of the staircase was a landing just behind the the right field fence.
At one game — I was maybe 11 years old at the time — we arrived very early. I stood on one of the landings with my father watching the Dodger outfielders complete their pre-game warm up tosses. Suddenly, the Dodgers right fielder wheeled and threw the ball toward me. It was coming right to me, gently, softly. I reached for it with both hands. I touched it. I had it. It was mine! Then somehow I fumbled it, frantically tried to gain control of it and dropped it.
Recalling it now half a century later, I can see it happening in agonizing slow motion: the ball falling, falling, falling between the landing and the wall. Gone. I felt sick.
But, no! With a cat-like burst of motion that astonished me, my dad raced down the stairs. Seconds later, he reappeared with the ball and handed it to me.
That was the only ball I’ve ever gotten. I hadn’t earned it. I was painfully aware that I had blown it. And I would again years later. But that day, that one time, I got a souvenir baseball, but something more than just a baseball. It was dad’s gift to me. He had gotten it because he knew with a parent’s instinct that to me, that ball was a treasure. It was gold. I had never doubted my father’s love for me. That day, I saw it. That meant everything to me. The baseball, which disappeared over the years, was nothing.
Better luck next time?
I am a man on a mission. I am going to keep trying for a baseball at a game. I’ve even started bringing a glove. Maybe I’ll never get one by myself. You do learn some things in life. But I did get that one. My father got it. He got it for me.