Thursday, August 27, 2009

The one foul thing we all crave

This has been the summer that something we can all agree is clearly foul has been more cherished than children.

Twice I’ve enjoyed video highlights of toddler-cradling fathers snagging foul balls at Major League Baseball games.

The clips show the balls roaring in while the two thick-bellied fathers nimbly tuck the kids away and grab the balls out the sky while meeker sorts in surrounding seats dive for cover.

I’m convinced had the one guy been freighted with both a full beer and offspring, he’d have sprung up and caught the ball with his teeth.

The clips caused controversy among those who believe children are universally good and shouldn’t be put at risk over mis-struck baseballs.

As a father, I’d like to stand up and testify on behalf of the balls.

Don’t misread this as some gaudy sort of fertility boast, but I’m a man with two children and three balls. I keep them on my desk and juggle them when I get bored -- and I’m talking about the baseballs, not my daughters.

The girls, ages 8 and 3, while often fonts of pure bliss, can also sass, disobey and merrily join their mother in making vicious sport of me, the way I dress and the sound of my voice when I try and show them how I ought to be an “American Idol” finalist.

The balls, in contrast, are memories of perfect moments. Every boy growing up at one time or another dreams of being a professional baseball player and making spectacular catches in front of cheering throng.

Catching a foul is the happy collision of circumstance and skill. You have to have the opportunity, itself a rarity that some experts have calculated at one in every 1,200 every game, and a talent you either have or you don’t. Some rabid baseball fans go their entire lives without ever catching one.

I’ve caught three. All barehanded.

Two of 'em beer-handed.

I wrote the dates, the pitcher and the batter on each one and every time I hold them -- and I often do -- I’m reminded of the three days when enormous stadiums full of baseball fans cheered for me as avidly as they did the superstars on the field.

The first one was May 20, 1991. John Smiley of the Pirates pitched a curveball to Randy Reading of the Philadelphia Phillies.

I’d been at a raucous wedding the night before and was still detoxifying. It’s safe to say my system was coursing with only slightly fewer foreign substances than those of the players on the field in those innocent days that predated mandatory drug testing.

Reading hit a rocket off the facade at old Three Rivers Stadium. It was no where near our seats on the first base side, but I knew to expect a ricochet. I turned in time to see the ball -- I’ll never forget it -- coming like a bullet for right between my eyes, which I felt instantly become saucer sized.

Pure reflex, I reached up with my left hand (I had a big beer in right hand) and deftly caught it. It was a great catch. The crowd went crazy. I raised both beer and ball in salute and the crowd of more than 30,000 went crazy.

The second was May 17, 1992. Pirate third baseman Steve Buechele hit a foul off Padre Andy Benes. It struck the railing adjacent to our seat. I had to monkey over my side of the railing, catch the ball and hold on for dear life or fall 30-feet to a messy ending in the aisle below.

Thank God the vendors were slow that day or a big beer would have complicated the physics with perhaps fatal consequences.

Again a big cheer and a soul-soothing memory that, yeah, maybe I had the goods to make it to the bigs.

The third catch wasn’t nearly as special. It was August 27, 1999, with forgettable Pirate Jimmy Anderson pitching to forgettable Colorado Rocky Terry Shumpert.

It was a gentle pop up. It wasn’t difficult, but I didn’t drop it or my beer -- something fans justifiably boo when they witness it.

That catch earned nothing but polite applause and envy from those who knew my day at the ballpark had somehow become blessed.

Observant readers will note the date and understand it was 10 years ago today that I caught my last foul ball.

That’s 10 years since I’ve done anything that might make a stadium full of strangers cheer me as if I were a real Big Leaguer.

I don’t know why I felt compelled to share the story now.

I guess the realization just put me in a foul mood.

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