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June 11, 2015

The Lineup Card

12 Times We Almost Caught That Foul Ball

by Baseball Prospectus

This week's Lineup Card is dedicated to BP alumnus Jay Jaffe, who caught his first-ever big-league foul ball last week:

1. A story of brotherly love
Back in 2004, my family and I spent a couple of weeks in the summer going on a baseball-related road trip down the East Coast. As part of the trip, we made our way down to Baltimore for a couple of games in Camden Yards. It was the nicest ballpark I’ve ever been to, and we were lucky enough to have the best seats I’ve ever had the privilege of sitting in. My parents, my brother and I were sitting in the first row of the upper deck directly behind home plate. My uneasiness with heights made it a bit unnerving, but I overcame.

Anyway, midway through the game, Marco Scutaro came to the plate. On one pitch, the moment my brother and I had been waiting for finally happened. He popped one up high behind home plate, and it was coming right for us. More specifically, it was going right towards my brother, who was sitting directly next to me. Time stopped for a moment, and I had time for a soul-searching inner monologue. There were two courses of action for me to take: one that I knew I should do, and one that I really wanted to do.

The first choice was sitting back and letting my brother have this. It’s important to realize he is three years older than me, and I was 13 at the time. His happiness was low on my list of my priorities. Still, it would be cool to be able to take a foul ball home, even if it wasn’t mine. The other option was to jump in front of him and try to take all the glory for myself. Now, I was decently athletic at the time, but I was also very klutzy. If I went this route, I knew there was a good chance we’d collide, and the ball would bounce off of us and fall down into the lower-level seats.

When time restarted, I had to make a decision quickly. Like the coward that I am, I sat back and let my brother catch the ball. He caught it cleanly and immediately a huge smile appeared across his face. I regretted my decision within seconds and the jealous 13-year-old in me still does to this day. That glory should’ve been mine or no one should’ve had it, but I chickened out. I’ll never forgive myself. —Matt Collins

2. A free baseball with a side of peanuts
It was one of the last games of the regular season in 1997 and the New York Yankees were playing the Detroit Tigers at old Tiger Stadium. I’m not sure exactly which game it was because we went to at least two of the games in this series. The foursome in attendance was my father, my friend, his father, and me. My dad was friends with Ernie Harwell, the late Tigers broadcaster, and we got to meet him and Al Kaline before the game. I still have a ball with each of their signatures next to other Tigers luminaries such as Bobby Higginson, Brian Hunter, Brian Moehler, and Doug Brocail. Anyway, a foul ball was hit by—we think—either Jorge Posada or Derek Jeter (someone with a two on the back of his jersey) at some point. Now, none of us caught this foul ball on the fly; nobody in the stands did. It was one of those rare low-line-drive fouls that went almost straight back and I remember the sound of it hitting the concrete back wall on the concourse. The crazy thing was that somehow nobody on the concourse scooped it up and it started to roll down the steps of the stands. The next time my dad reached under his seat for some peanuts, a ball with a big black mark alongside Bud Selig’s signature was sitting in his cardboard food tray.

I should mention at this point that my friend and I were both 7-year-olds who were wearing plastic batting helmets. Dad hands me the ball and me and my friend are pretty excited. OMG A BASEBALL. What a moment! Then my friend started bashing me on the head like I just hit a walkoff single or something. Ouch. Joy followed by pain. Sunshine and rain. —Nick Shlain

3. A costly seat swap
The year was 1983. I think. Maybe it was 1982. I don’t know. We get it, I’m old. Baseball Reference keeps track of a lot of things, but it doesn’t track how many foul balls go into the stands on any given night. I was at a Yankee game as part of a corporate outing at my Dad’s company. For reasons I cannot fathom now as a rational adult, I was obsessed with catching a foul ball as a child. Like many things that we want in our childhoods, this was foolish. I know that now.

There were probably about fifty of us at the outing. We were behind home plate, but my Dad told me we were too high up to catch a foul ball. He wasn’t a baseball fan, but eyeballing it I assumed he was right. This was until Al Bumbry came to the plate.

Bumbry was an outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles. No one was coming close to hitting a foul ball into our section, but Bumbry kept sawing the ball off right behind him, and the trajectory of those balls kept getting higher and higher. Still, no ball in our section.

My younger brother Steven and I kept moving around in our section, trying to get some elbow room. We moved three sections behind us and seven seats over to an aisle seat. We were there for about two innings. For reasons unbeknownst to me, I moved back down by my dad in the fifth inning.

In the sixth inning, Bumbry finally hit the foul ball I could have caught… had I only stayed in that aisle seat. But no. The ball plunked onto what was now an empty seat. It rolled into the next row, where two 8-year-old boys who had been whining at their Mom that they wanted to catch a fly ball but then had to go to the bathroom had been sitting until 10 minutes prior. It was grabbed after rolling down another row by my dad’s friend, whose name eludes me now.

You didn’t give little kids foul balls you caught back in those days of walking 10 miles uphill to school both ways if the dinosaurs didn’t eat you first. You kept those balls for yourself. So I didn’t even think of asking that guy for the ball. I just sat there and dejectedly stared at the rest of the game, knowing I might never get another chance to catch a foul ball at a major league game again. It turns out I was right.

As we were leaving the park, my Dad tried to touch my shoulder to offer comfort. I quickly pulled away. Kids grow into manhood for different reasons. For me it was not catching that foul ball. I figured out right then and there that life wasn’t going to hand me anything, and that I was going to have to earn it. I learned that life is full of disappointment, and not catching that foul ball prepared me for all the eventual badness that was going to come my way, from countless rejections by girls in high school, to lots and lots of acne, to not getting approved for that loan on a starter home (this did not happen in high school, but rather later on in life, in case you were confused about this). I really wanted that foul ball, but I should thank Mr. Bumbry for not hitting that ball right to me and granting me a happy childhood experience that I would cherish forever. From my pain that day came growth, and with that growth eventually triumph in this crazy game that we like to call life. —Mike Gianella

4. The bachelor party
I've never caught a foul ball, but I do have a real ball with Bud Selig's signature on it, thanks to David Riske. It was July 6th, 2005. Why do I remember that so well? Because it was three days before my wedding, and my buddies decided that the best bachelor party for me would be a baseball game. They know me well. We toured Jacobs Field, got to sit in the dugout, and generally just geeked out on baseball, and then watched batting practice. Shagging flies in left field that day was Riske, then an Indians reliever. My buddy Omar (who is himself getting married this October!) leaned over the Jacobs Field left field wall and called out to Riske, "Hey, we got a bachelor party here, can we have a ball?" It's the sort of request I'm guessing that players get all the time, but this time, Riske was merciful and tossed us one. (Later on, Omar tried to get one for himself the same way... it didn't work.) #Karma

Ten years later, I still have the baseball. And the wife. And the soft spot in my heart for David Riske. And the same messed up friends. —Russell A. Carleton

5. Heckling Chad Qualls
My buddy and I traveled down to St. Louis to visit the new Busch Stadium in 2006 and caught a couple games. On May 29th, we witnessed Roy Oswalt twirl six scoreless innings before Chad Qualls served up a three-run homer to Albert Pujols in the bottom of the seventh. It proved to be the difference in the game, as the Cardinals won 3-1. Jason Marquis went seven innings and got the win. Adam Wainwright pitched a perfect eighth, and Jason Isringhausen secured the ninth for his 17th save of the season.

The following day, my buddy and I returned to Busch Stadium. We stood in the left field bleachers during batting practice, doing our best to snag a BP homer. Every once in a while, a Astros reliever would toss a ball into the stands and a gaggle of teenagers (and a few grown men) would wrestle over it.

An Astros hitter laced one off the left-field wall, and Chad Qualls picked it up after it came to rest in the outfield. The fans surrounding me pleaded for him to throw it to the stands. He wound up and lofted it into the air. It fell short of the stands and landed in left field once more. My buddy laughed and said loudly, “Dude, you really suck.”

I snorted with laughter. To both of our surprise, Qualls turned around and said, “Excuse me?” My buddy didn’t miss a beat. He responded, “I said you suck. You couldn’t get the baseball to the bleachers, which is rather sad. Even I could do that.”

Qualls looked incensed. He screamed back, “You’re a little b----. You wish you were good enough to be on this field.”

My buddy giggled, “I saw you give up a tater to Pujols last night. That didn’t look hard. I could do that, too.”

Before Qualls could respond, another Astros reliever grabbed him and began walking him away from the stands and toward the infield. Qualls screamed over his shoulder, “You wish you were good enough to be on this field! You wish you were!”

My buddy turned to me and said, “That was fun. I want a pretzel.” He began climbing the stairs on the center-field side of the bleachers and asked if I was joining him. I shook my head, laughed, and quickly followed him. We got a couple of pretzels, a couple of sodas, and found our seats on the third-base side. My buddy didn’t mention the altercation again during the game, aside from saying, “I hope my little buddy Chad gets to pitch today.” —J.P. Breen

6. An injured finger and a happy child
I've had two encounters with foul balls. The one from Gordon Beckham that injured my finger and went to another fan. And the one I that I got my hands on, off the bat of David DeJesus.

It was a strange one that basically went backward from the batter's box and just past the screen to my seat that day. The ball literally bounced off my chest and settled at my feet. Naturally, I picked it up and handed it to the nearest child.

While his mother was thanking me, the little lad decided the ball should be put back in play. Luckily this was was stopped at the last second thanks to his mom's peripheral vision and quick reflexes. It still caught the attention of the San Francisco broadcasters. If only I could find that clip... —Harry Pavlidis

7. When a bigger kid (man?) pushed me out of the way
The year after the Mets ran into the steamroller named Orel Hershiser in the NLCS, my dad and I started sharing season tickets at Shea Stadium with a whole bunch of families in my town. We'd all gather at one of their houses a couple of weeks before the season and divvy the games up, with each of us taking about seven or eight. This was essentially the first fantasy draft I ever participated in. My dad and I would game plan what teams (or players) we wanted to see that year. The non-home team division of that list was usually Ozzie Smith, Erik Davis, and Will Clark—for no particular reason I can remember. So in March of 1990, I made sure to grab a game against the Giants.

Our seats were down the left field line about two-thirds of the way between third base and the foul pole. I'd always bring my glove just in case because that's what you do when you're eight years old. At that game against the Giants, it finally came in handy. My still-all-time-favorite-player Howard Johnson stepped up to the plate and drilled a 350-foot liner off the barely-foul scoreboard in left field, narrowly missing a home run. Former Met, and the previous year's National League MVP, Kevin Mitchell sauntered over to grab the ball and looked up to find a kid in the stands to throw it to. He looked right at me. My first thought was, "Oh my god he's going to throw this ball to me." He smiled—and Mitchell had a great smile—and underhanded the ball seven or eight rows deep into the crowd where I was standing with my glove. It was a nearly perfect toss. My eyes lit up as it was in the air. All of my Little League training was about to pay off as I reached out for it.

That was when I felt the hit. My glove was empty. I barely caught myself on the seat next to me before I hit the beer-soaked floor. I don't know how old the person who knocked me out of the way to catch the ball was. I mean, this was over two decades ago and every time I think about this story, the culprit gets older and older. Maybe it was a 30-year-old man. Maybe it was a large 10-year-old kid. Either way, he had at least a foot on me and a baseball touched by the bat of my favorite player and the hand of a reigning MVP. That's the draft. —Bret Sayre

8. A glimpse of what minor-league fans will do for a ball from the bullpen

As players, we understand the importance of fans catching a foul ball or getting one tossed to them by a player. When it comes to the latter, it can make a young fan smile, an old fan reminisce, or a single lady swoon. I never had the opportunity to catch many foul balls in the stands, but I have caught a few home runs that were headed to the various bullpens I sat in. And being in the bullpen, we always had about 20 balls at the ready for some in-game entertainment.

The power of a baseball is mighty: It's funny what fans will do for one, especially during a game. In the minor leagues, you have the opportunity to interact with fans (depending on bullpen location) during the game, unlike in most MLB parks. So, various situations will arise where fans will come to the bullpen and ask, beg, barter, and entertain us in hopes of obtaining that priceless sphere of leather.

Midland, Texas happened to be one of the most entertaining spots one summer evening. A group of 20-somethings leaned over our bullpen located behind the left field wall and struck up some conversation as we tried to pay attention to the game. A male spokesman was trying to get us to throw him a ball, but of course we ignored any guy that wanted a ball. We politely told him to go away and said that if he had nothing in return, then no ball would be awarded to him. At the same time, three lovely ladies who had accompanied this man chimed in and asked for the ball just the same. Of course, our attention as relief pitchers with too much time in our hands was immediately thrust upon these lovely young ladies. So, the song and dance of bartering for the ball began. Then, after much back and forth, the male that had first asked for the ball walked over to one of the young ladies and whispered in her ear. The next thing we knew, there was one scantily-clad blonde leaning over the bullpen saying, "these for a ball!" Well, she got a ball, signed by the whole bullpen. The male that had first asked for the ball leaned over the bullpen and said thanks as well, and he left with the parting words, "I knew my sister would do that!" And that was our trip to Midland. —Colin Young

9. When I embarrassed myself in front of baseball-writing luminaries
Last July, I was fortunate enough to get credentialed to attend the 2014 Futures Game, and it was an amazing experience. Because I was hosting a chat, I watched the game in the press box, normally a place I spend as little time in as possible. MInnesota's press box is very nice though, and I was surrounded by some real "star power" with Erik Karabell and Jon Heyman to my right, and Jeff Passan directly to my left.

Somewhere in the middle innings, a popup came back our way. I didn't think it had any shot to get to us off the bat—but it kept getting closer and closer. Instead of getting ready to catch the ball, my reaction was to cower, rolling back in my chair and covering my head as if a grenade was going to go off. Upon uncurling myself I saw Karabell smiling, holding the ball in his hand; he had apparently caught the ball on a bounce off the desk and was putting it in his backpack.

And that was the day I embarrassed myself in front of three of the most prominent baseball writers in the business. —Chris Crawford

10. The foul ball that made me a baseball fan
The first baseball player I ever heard of was Mark McGwire, and the first baseball season I remember is 1998. That summer in Chicago, it was hard to avoid hearing something about The Race, even for a kid whose most notable athletic achievement to date was tripping—yes, tripping—over the ball in gym-class kickball. I ended up hearing about McGwire first, counterintuitively, because my dentist had offered me a light switch cover emblazoned with his image, juxtaposed with the jaunty phrase 'Hit the Lights!'. He probably offered me a Sammy cover as well, but I liked red, so I took Big Mac's. I still have no idea why that dentist had light switch covers available as after-visit gifts. It probably stems from the same deviant pathology that led him into dentistry.

Anyway. We're supposed to be writing about foul balls. At some point that season, I ended up at Wrigley Field. How, I'm not quite sure, because my family wasn't very into baseball at the time, but like I said, The Race was hard to avoid and Wrigley was the place to see it. I remember where I was sitting--the third base side, about thirty rows back, and twenty feet past the bag into the outfield --and I remember, most of all, that watching Sammy Sosa take his swings was the most exciting thing in the world for me. It delighted every part of my six-year-old-self. He clearly, in a way that was transparent even to me as a child, wanted to hit the ball as far as he possibly could, and that made every swing a moment.

The foul ball I most remember is one he hit that day. With one of his mammoth swings, he grazed the very bottom of a baseball he no doubt intended to send to Mars. The ball, having no choice but to obey the laws of phsyics, shot straight up into the air at a speed that seemed to my eyes tremendous, rocketing past the small white flags lining the top of the grandstand and silhouetting, for a moment at the top of its arc, high above the Wrigley roof, against the bright blue sky. It started to fall downwards but found it couldn't, richoheting off the top of the grandstand roof, bouncing twice, and then rolling backwards onto Clark street. It makes sense that I didn't see it land. I didn't think it would ever come down. To date, no ball I've ever seen hit, including some truly mammoth home runs, has impressed me more completely than that foul ball Sammy hit that day. By putting the ball so high in the air, he did a thing that I didn't think was possible, something I'd never seen before, and that was the day I became a baseball fan. —Rian Watt

11. The ball in the box

As a side-effect of my second job, I trail baseballs like candy behind me. There are two on my desk at my first job, at least two rolling around in my car with the empty water bottles, one on my nightstand, one on the floor, and a neat row of them on a bookshelf, including a now-curiosity NCAA raised-seam ball. The ones I don’t hoard are given to children, put carefully in hands or gloves.

Then, in the last acrylic box, a little dusty, sits an indistinct little piece of personal history. It’s nothing special. There’s no name scrawled in ball-point pen, no value-raising clarity to its features. Nothing about it makes it important in any way other than the fact that there’s a real possibility I wouldn’t be writing this right now if not for that ball.

When I was growing up, I got lucky. Ticket prices and proximity to the newly-opened Ballpark in Arlington combined to made it easy for my parents to haul a hyperactive four/five/six-year-old to as many games as possible each summer, and not feel guilty for walking out in the sixth/seventh/eighth. They’d pack dinners and we’d go for batting practice. I absorbed baseball with the sunshine, dressed in the red and (then) navy of the home team.

It was at one of these batting practices I got that baseball. Now, my personal mythology makes the giver of that ball, back in the mists of time, a certain red-haired outfielder who saved a perfect game. I have no way of knowing for certain—my parents can’t even remember the exact year. Even the ball itself is no help, as Gene Budig’s signature only certifies that I got it between 1994 and 1999. I just have this dim recollection, perhaps strengthened by a decision that “yes, Rusty Greer gave me this ball!” and even that is mostly memories of sunshine and green grass.

It doesn’t really matter who gave it to me, though, just as it doesn’t matter when my first game was, or where I was standing. It’s just a starting point, something I can whittle my current pursuit back to, an anchor for my experience. —Kate Morrison

12. A different kind of souvenir
The only thing I ever caught in a crowd was a garter belt. —Matt Sussman

Related Content:  Foul Balls

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