Thursday, April 26, 2012

SMALLS TALK: Foul Ball Etiquette

Fans go nuts over foul balls. It's how it's always been and it's how it will always be. Even if you're hanging on the game's every pitch, you can't help but get mesmerized by a foul ball's mystique. With each ball that goes up into the seats, we wonder which fan will defy the 1 in 30,000 odds and win the Foul Ball Sweepstakes. The errant hit has a power over fans, and while we may not know where it's going or who will catch it, we do know that the play will result in at least one of the following: 1) A priceless souvenir... 2) An inconsolable child... 3) A fistfight... 4) A SportsCenter Top Play... 5) A SportsCenter NOT Top Play... 6) A trip to the hospital... or last, and most definitely least: 7) Adults acting like schoolgirls.

Balls hit out of play are a real life piece of the game that suddenly become available to the fans. In the matter of seconds, a baseball went from a Big League pitcher's hand to a Big Leaguer's bat, and now it's finally come to rest, in your hands. You can't help but feel a connection - you were part of a play with major league ballplayers. It actually is pretty cool. 

But some fans simply cannot handle the foul ball experience. The instant a ball enters the crowd, they lose their minds. They want that ball - they need that ball. It's not even a ball anymore - it's a Honus Wagner rookie card, a Wonka golden ticket, and the final Horcrux all rolled into one. The survival of mankind relies on their tracking down this prize - it's the reason they were put on God's green earth. And so, like a crackhead desperate for a fix, they hunt it down, refusing to be denied and terrorizing rows of helpless fans in the process.

But fortunately, in the minds of other - dare I optimistically say "most"? - fans, foul balls are simply a fun side effect of a baseball game. These fans are at the ballpark to enjoy nine innings of America's Pastime - if a foul ball comes their way, sure they'll go for it, but you won't find them rolling around on the ground or pulling another fan's hair for the souvenir. To these more sane fans, the foul ball itself dictates who will take it home. They respect the role that luck and chance play in the foul ball experience, as well as the skill and courage that go along with actually catching it. And if it bounces off the chosen fan's hands, it simply changes direction and presents another opportunity to a different fan. As for those balls that find their way under a seat? If it's under you, reach down and grab it. No diving. No pig-piling.

My stance on foul balls is simple: If it comes at you, catch it. Don't leave your seat, don't let yourself get worked up over it. It is a baseball. Unless it's Hank Aaron's 715th home run ball, it will likely spend a lifetime collecting dust in a drawer or, if it's lucky, on a mantle. It's a fun souvenir and if you get one, great, but it will not enrich your life and it is certainly not worth fighting over.

That being said, I believe the biggest misconception in the foul ball game is that adults should always give their souvenir to a nearby child. If you want to make a little kid's day, that's your prerogative, but by no means should the crowd boo a guy who just stifled a 100-MPH line drive with his bare hands if he doesn't want to hand it over to the crying infant four seats down. Foul balls are for everyone. As mentioned before, I believe the foul ball chooses its owner. It happens naturally. If you have the coordination and ability to catch it, that baby is all yours. If little kids want a foul ball, it's up to them and their parents to catch one. Not everything can be handed to you. Foul balls are earned - not through aggressive and possessed hunting, but by capitalizing on the opportunity bestowed upon you by the Baseball Gods.

And those little guys can cry and pout all they want when they walk away empty-handed. It's not a fair world, kids - sometimes it's just not in the cards. Mick was right: "you can't always get what you want." If anything you're doing those parents a favor by teaching their kids this valuable lesson at an early age. The parents will appreciate it next week when the kids' response to "No ice cream" is "Ok Mom and Dad, you're the best!" instead of exploding into a crying fit.

Balls thrown into the crowd are a whole different situation, however. Every ball thrown into the stands should find its way into the plastic glove of a little boy or girl. No question. Players and bat boys throw dozens of baseballs into the crowd every single game - these are cheapies. They're gifts - the chance, the skill, the gamesmanship, it's all gone. You don't have to earn it. The players are trying to bring a smile to a little kid's face, they're not out to make some middle-aged man's day. The way I look at it, unless you're under 13 year's old, it's your first baseball game ever, or the guy throwing it is your all-time favorite player, you should be handing that souvenir off to the nearest child.

Live foul balls are the only ones that count - there's no pride in catching a charity toss. So when it comes to giving balls to little kids, my philosophy is this: It may not always be the right move, but it's never the wrong move. Unless he's an entitled cry baby, of course, in which case you're only encouraging this "Occupy" generation's complain-until-I-get-what-I-want movement. Don't be an enabler! 

(You can imagine my inner turmoil as I analyze this situation: Overzealous middle-aged man who thinks he just single-handedly won the World Series by coming up with a ball gently tossed directly at him vs. Young boy crying because he didn't get what he wanted. Tough call, but I think you bite the bullet here and give the kid the ball. The ecstatic couple clearly does not agree.)

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  1. I don't care how old you are, you take my ball I'm knockin you out!

  2. love the couple just taking pictures with the ball, rubbing it in this kid's face. gotta want it kid!

  3. in a statement made by the couple it was thier first game. does that trump the kid. Besides if im stuck next to a kid with my season tickets do i have to give him every ball tossed my way? I guess i will have to bring one to the game and keep it in my pocket just in case