From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

My Quest for a Baseball

To the fierce, ardent, leather-lunged professional fan, baseball is life itself, a motive for breathing, the yeast that helps his spirit, as well as his gorge, rise.

Jim Bouton

While attending the hundred or so major league baseball games that make up the better parts of my childhood memory bank, souvenirs of all kinds were gathered in earnest. Pennants and programs and tickets stubs and autograph after autograph—including one of Philadelphia Phillies star Mike Schmidt that was corralled after a parking lot sprint and is little more than an indecipherable wiggle, wave and dash of a pen.

But there was never a baseball—not a real live baseball. And a foul ball or home-run ball or batting-practice ball— any kind of ball from a major league baseball game was all I wanted.

As the years passed, near-misses accumulated along with my ticket stubs. At a sparsely attended minor-league game, I watched each pitch with eagle eyes, figuring nearly empty stands quadrupled my chances. I turned my back for one sip of a Coke and only heard—never even saw—the ball that thwacked the seat next to mine and was gobbled up by a more nimble adversary.

Lower deck seats and an uninteresting game at one Phillies contest emptied the stands and again increased my chances. But when a high pop foul was lofted my way, I froze in fear of its height and in awe at my dream coming true. It hit a few rows over and hopped over my head. My uncle called me “Gluefoot.”

Friends of my parents finagled third-base line seats for one game, and invited me to join them and borrow their fishing net in an attempt to snag batting practice grounders. Instead, stadium security snagged the net.

As time went by, and I grew from chubby ten-year-old to a chubby and awkward thirteen-year-old, my foul ball lust only increased. But so did my knowledge that I was no longer cute, and no player or kindly nearby fan was going to toss me a free ball at this point. That was reserved for gap-toothed eight-year-olds waiting for the tooth fairy—and high school girls who were anything but awkward.

This was reinforced on a family trip to California the summer after my eighth-grade year. An unplanned trip to a California Angels game left my typically upper-deck family with front-row seats, again down third base. My glove was home in Pennsylvania. So when a batting practice grounder caromed toward me, I had only my hat with which to snag it. The cap gathered the ball in—and the force ripped them both out of my hand. A Milwaukee Brewers outfielder came over, picked up the ball and tossed it to me in the stands.

I nearly fainted in my moment of ecstasy—until the player pointed at me.

“No,” he said. “For him.”

He then pointed to the adorable six-year-old next to me. I looked down and handed over my ball. I went home to deface the player’s baseball card—which I then carried in my wallet until college.

At Northwestern University outside Chicago, I planned my spring class schedule around the afternoon games at Wrigley Field. Not just Chicago Cubs games, but Chicago Cubs batting practices. I’d hop the subway with my glove, knowing that this day in the left-field bleachers would reward me with my first real baseball. But for two and a half years, it was nothing but misjudgments and missed opportunities.

Until one series when the Phillies were in town. Over time, I had grown loyal to the Cubs, turning my attention from catching baseballs to taunting the opposing left fielder once the game started. And of course, there was the time-honored ritual of chanting “Throw it back” whenever an opposing player hit a home-run ball into the bleachers. Whoever grabbed the ball had little choice but to fire it back onto the field.

But when the Phillies were in town, I didn’t taunt the opponents. I cheered for them. I wore my Phillies jersey and Phillies cap and rooted against the Cubs.

And for a ball.

The Cubs were ahead by several runs in the third inning. I sat in my usual seat in the second row, the girlfriend who would later become my wife beside me.

Darren Daulton, the Phillies catcher and best hitter, was at the plate. His left-handed swing produced a slicing opposite-field line drive that looked to be headed for the left field wall.

But it cleared the wall, smacking into the crowd just to my left. Bodies flew as fans dove for the home-run ball, hands grasping at air. I reached my hand into a teeming mass of flesh and grabbed.

All ball.

I pulled Daulton’s homer from the chaos and raised my arm triumphantly in the air. I finally had my real live baseball.

And I was wearing a Phillies jersey in the Wrigley Field bleachers, the enemy’s home run in my hand.

I did the only thing I could: ducked and covered.

I pulled down my arm and curled up in the fetal position as the hands suddenly started reaching for me. As the “Throw it back” chant started, the hands became more aggressive in their efforts to pry the ball from me.

I stayed curled, the strength from twenty years of futility keeping my fingers firmly clasped around my ball.

Finally, the hands stopped and the negotiations began. As the chant died, the bleacher leader that night began to reason with me.

“It’s a Phillie homer, you have to throw it back.”

But I would not be reasoned with. Soon a compromise was reached—rather, thrust on me. The Bleacher Bum pulled the Phillies cap off my head and offered a choice.

Something was going on the field—the hat or the ball.

Away went my hat.

It didn’t end. The crowd started a new chant that would continue between every half-inning for the next six innings—a chant that can’t be printed here. I took off my Phillies jersey and shoved it in my backpack, hoping to eventually fade into the crowd.

It didn’t work.

As other fans continued to harass me, two strangers in front of me told the others to leave me alone. A minor scuffle ensued and my defenders were kicked out of the game.

Then from behind me, a fan dumped half a cup of water on my back and was also ejected. All the while, the Phillies were rallying to take the lead, causing the between-innings chant to grow more intense. Finally, as random fans decided to make more diving grabs for my baseball, a security guard came by and suggested that he take the ball and stash it in a security room under the stands.

I readily agreed, and was left to smile as I endured the chants for the rest of game, knowing the Phillies were winning and my ball was safe. Even the fact that my girlfriend was pretending not to know me didn’t deter my joy.

When the game ended in a Phillies win and she and I stood to leave, a Wrigley regular stopped us.

“You took everything we did and handled it okay,” he said, shaking my hand. “You’re alright.”

Of course I was. I had my baseball.

That’s all I cared about as my girlfriend and I walked back to the subway—escorted by a security guard, just in case a Cubs fan still wanted to kill me.

Doug Lesmerises

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