Today was one of the happiest sports moments of my life. It is a day I will not soon forget. Finally, after decades of dreaming, I got hold of an honest-to-goodness foul ball hit into the stands at Yankee Stadium. This was no lollipop floater lobbed into the stands and landing in my lap; I had to fight for it. The result is the joy on my daughter's face in the picture above, ball in hand, Derek Jeter up at the plate behind her, in Yankee Stadium. It is in the cuts and scrapes and bruises on my arms.
Like the time my wife's cousin got me field press pass for Giants home game or running on the field after Notre Dame beat Miami 31-30 in the infamous Catholics vs. Convicts game on their way to a National Championship or being in the old new Yankee Stadium when Chris Chambliss hit a walk-off home run to send the Yankees to the World Series or watching Bruce Jenner wave an American flag after wining the Olympic decathlon in Montreal, this was a great sports moment in my life.
For the non-fan it may be impossible to explain why getting a foul ball hit into the stands is such a big deal so if it means nothing to you then this story may not make much sense. For those who get it, I should not need to explain further.
The best I can put it is that getting a foul ball is a sort of grail quest -- one that for many such grail seekers often goes unfulfilled for a lifetime. Today was the day I lifted the cup to my lips and drank from it. The taste was better than I could have imagined. Pure joy.
I am still elated and the game, which the Yankees lost to the Braves 10-5, ended hours ago. It was an afternoon game in the Bronx where the teams combined to hit 9 home runs. It was a hot June day. The temperature was 94 degrees at the first pitch and the heat coupled with high humidity sent the heat index soaring to about 110 degrees.
I may not remember any of that but I will always remember getting my first foul ball, decades after attending my first Yankees game as an eight-year old kid. That 1971 team was forgettably mediocre with the likes of Horace Clarke, Jake Gibbs and Jerry Kenny (to their credit, the same team had Thurman Munson, Mel Stottlemeyer, and Bobby Murcer).
I only vaguely remember attending my first Yankee game. The Yankees were a shadow of their former greatness. Mickey Mantle had long since retired and the crowd that day was apathetic and sparse. I was in field level seats but way to the back, behind a steel girder. What I recall the most was foul balls landing in the area in front of us, along the area near the third base line, out of reach. I vividly recall wishing I could get one of those balls. Ever since then I have dreamed of catching a foul ball. And ever since I have never even come close to getting one.
About 10 years ago, I took my two oldest kids, then about 10 and 12, to a Yankee game against the Toronto Blue Jays. We had great seats for that game but it rained all day including throughout the game. Few fans showed and even less remained on into the 7th inning. As the game moved into the final three frames, I told my kids to go ahead and move up to the front row. No one minded. The security guard just shrugged. They were still sitting there into the top of the 8th when Derek Jeter fielded a ground ball at short and threw onto to Tino Martinez at first for the third out of the inning. As Martinez turned to run off the field, he spotted my two kids, jogged in their direction and flipped them the ball.
That was a great moment. I was a big Tino fan and he was great to do that. But it was still not a legitimate "get" of a foul ball -- and I did not get the ball myself, my son did. I was still sitting 20 rows back talking with my father-in-law, trying to keep the rain off us.
Today I was offered a pair of tickets in what is called the Main Level which the stadium site describes as approximately 12,000 seats located on the second level of the new Yankee Stadium, seats that are on top of the action and provide great views of the playing field.
With the school year all but over and classes on a half-day schedule, I sent a note to my daughter's teacher, also a Yankee fan, advising her, tongue in cheek, that Micaela was very ill that morning. I told her that my daughter had come down with a bad case of Yankee-itis which, I assured the teacher, could only be cured by eating hot dogs outdoors in the Bronx while watching a baseball game.
At noon we hopped a Metro-North New Haven line train from New Rochelle to 125th Street, switched to a Hudson Line train and headed back up to the Bronx, arriving at Yankee stadium a half hour before the first pitch. After a quick tour of the stadium we arrived in our seats which were, thankfully, below the Luxury/Club level and so, mercifully, in the shade.
Our neighbors in the seats around us were charming and fun. Soon Miceala was explaining to all of us her strategy for getting a foul ball - asking how many fouls balls would be hit to where we were sitting and seeking advice on what to do when a ball would come our way. Should she use her hat or try to catch the ball with her bare hands. This all with the optimism of a ten-year old, confident that her desire to get a foul ball would be rewarded simply because she wanted it to be.
I tried to set her expectations on how rare it was to get a foul ball. I told her of my own years of futility. I pointed out that we were under a roof so that few, if any, balls would be hit where we were sitting. This led to two innings of swapping stories with the group of fans sitting around us - like a gathering of Ahabs, each chasing their own elusive White Whales -- tales among the Yankee faithful of near-misses and the heartbreaking woulda-coulda-shouldas of nearly getting a foul ball. None of us had ever got one.
When the Braves put another three runs on the board in the top of the 8th our new-found friends joined the throngs filing out of the stadium. We stayed. I always stay, right until the last out. Just in case. You know…"It ain't over 'til its over." My philosophy is you will never see the greatest comeback ever if you leave before the last out is made.
As the stands emptied my daughter asked if we could move up. She pointed several sections over, closer to the infield, and further down front. She had seen a ball land down in that area and wanted to move into position to get her foul ball. Humoring her, I agreed to move and we left Section 211 Row 18 to Row 1 and ended up in Section 214B Row 1, directly over first base.
In the top of the ninth the Braves scored again. Frustrated and annoyed with the long-since departed Phil Hughes and the rest of the Yankees, I began texting/griping on my cell phone to my buddy in Los Angeles who is a die-hard Yankee fan like me. Suddenly, and very faintly, I heard my daughter quietly, almost breathlessly, say "Dad…a ball".
I am not even sure what happened. Apparently, one of the Braves players had fouled a ball over our heads but it had bounced back down several rows and managed to land in one of the cup holders affixed to the railing about three seats to my right. The seats there were empty but there were two people behind us. In a flash I saw my daughter slowly reaching her hand towards the ball, more gesturing rather that making a serious attempt to get the ball, and behind her a guy just starting to come over the seat, lunging towards the ball. I could just tell she had no chance; he was going to beat her to the ball. He was going to get her ball…my ball.
Those few seconds were frozen. Some primordial instinct took over. I had to get the ball.
It was just sitting there, undisturbed, in the well of the cup holder. For that brief moment, there was no one near it and then suddenly came a rush and whirl of movement. Without a second thought I jumped from my seat with my hands outstretched. I landed, prostrate on the ground, my arms extended. By a split second I managed to get my hand on top of the cup holder before the guy behind me could get his hands on the ball. He came crashing down on top of me.
For what may have been 20 seconds but seemed like several minutes, he tried to rip my hand from the cup holder as I held on to keep the ball secure inside. Fans were yelling "fight for it" and "go for it". We wrestled. He clawed at my hand. His knees were pressing into my back His hands began pressing down on mine, squeezing them against the cup holder. Soon, I could feel the cup holder begin to move. Suddenly, the frame securing the cup holder snapped off its moorings. I had the entire plastic contraption in my hand. I immediately rolled over, pulling the cup holder with the ball under me. The other guy would not let go. Sensing this, I continued to roll over with the the cup holder, the ball and his hand all under me. I could feel his arm being bent at an awkward angle. As the angle, and presumably the pain, increased, the guy finally gave in; he shouted "you got it", released his grip and gave up the struggle. I relaxed and let him pull his arm out from under me.
I pulled myself up, pulled the ball out of the cup holder, set the cup holder down on the floor and handed the ball to my stunned, amazed, mystified, and absolutely elated daughter.
I said something to the guy who had jumped on me like "I had to get that ball for my kid" and he said something like "don't worry about it". The guy next to both of us was worried; he asked if everything was alright between us.
"It's all part of the game," I said.
The other guy nodded and said "Yeah, we're cool".
We both laughed.
Really it was absurd but we both understood that it's a part of the game -- when you have a chance to get a foul ball you have to go after it with everything you've got. I did not need to explain it to the guy behind me. He had nothing to apologize for. We understood each other. When it comes to a foul ball, you do what you gotta do.
As I had to chance to catch my breath I realized I was bruised, scraped and scuffed. There was blood trickling from a small cut on my forearm and my back and neck were aching. I knew I was going to feel like I had been in a car collision the next day. And I knew I could care less.
It was only looking back later, laughing about it with my daughter on the train home as she held the ball in her hand, that I could picture in my mind's eye that flash of a moment -- seeing the ball, getting my hand over the cup holder and getting control of the ball. The childhood desire to get a foul ball has always been pretty strong in me. I had often wondered what I would do if a chance came my way. Now I knew. And I was both proud and pleased. I now knew I had what it took to get a foul ball at Yankee Stadium.
The best way I can put it is that for that brief moment the world ceased to exist. There was just the ball. It's all I could see. I was totally in the zone. The ball had become the entire world and my mind was fully focused on one objective -- get the ball, hold the ball, don't let go of the ball. I did not speak. I did not argue, plead, complain or call for help. I did not make a sound. I just grabbed on with all my might and refused to let go.
When I was a kid the only way to get a major league ball for the average fan was to get lucky at a game. These days you can buy a game ball at the gift shop at Yankee Stadium or even get a signed ball from Steiner Sports. But you can't buy going after and getting a real foul ball during a game and getting it.
I am 49-years old. I have a wonderful wife and four beautiful children. I have seen and done many interesting things and traveled the world. But being a Yankee fan is an important part of who I am and only now can I say, as a fan, that I truly feel contented.
If you ever had that dream you understand me. And for the rest of you, rolling your eyes, wondering why the big deal over a ball, just know that today was truly memorable and joyous.