Always stuck in the back of your mind at a baseball game is how you would react if a ball is hit your way.
If you’re in the outfield, it’s going to be a long home run with slim chances of making a catch.
Behind dugouts and down foul lines is terror territory. You take one peek at the cotton candy vendor, and if for one second you question if you want pink or blue, Denard Span‘s late check-swing foul ball could split your cranium.
Both of these situations leave you scrambling for a baseball after it bounces off a human, a seat or the press box.
(Unless, of course, you’re that guy with the glove. I believe bringing your mitt limits the odds of a ball even getting to you. All you’ve done is set up a date with leather, and you’ll spend the game tucking it under your armpit while you dab that hot dog with mustard or go to the restroom.)
Then you could sit where I was sitting Wednesday during the Detroit Tigers 7-3 loss to the visiting Minnesota Twins at Lakeland’s Joker Marchant Stadium.
With all these Grapefruit League games getting sold out, I’ve been lucky with scalpers. When you need a single ticket, the chances of finding a prime spot are likely. I sat sixth row between home plate and the Baltimore dugout in Sarasota, and I was eight rows behind the New York Yankees dugout in Tampa.
I sat front row in Lakeland, five seats up the third-base line from the Twins dugout. I asked the fella to my left — I believe he said he’s a 20-year season ticket holder — if this was a jackpot for live baseballs. He said most foul balls clear their heads but a couple games ago, Brandon Inge hit a hard liner that broke a photographer’s camera and knocked over his half-drank beer bottle.
I’ve seen some really bad bobbles in the stands this week. I’m talking about caroms that are eating these Florida retirees alive. (Yes, I’m one of those fans who follow the complete flight path of a ball. I even imagine what lies in harm’s way as the ball clears the stadium roof.)
Being so close to the Twins dugout, our area was a hotbed for ball tosses from Twins players after they ended an inning. But at 34 years old, I’m an unlikely candidate for a free baseball. These balls, for obvious reasons, are reserved for the kids. Foul ball etiquette applies. If you put possible broken fingers on the line or win a scrum with another grown man, you lift that ball with pride and accept the crowd’s admiration. Otherwise, hand it to the youngster.
I had a few tosses come my way. The first caught me off guard, and I couldn’t get out of my seat in time before the lady behind me missed, the guy behind her caught it and he gave it back to her. Then a little kid came out of nowhere, unloaded the sad, puppy dog eyes and the lady gave him the ball. The kid didn’t even say thanks.
The second toss would have came right to me if not for a guy that claimed an empty seat next to me. He put it in his pocket and told me it was his third of the week.
Then a pop foul narrowly missed my section and found an ungloved college baseball player. The ball popped off the palm of his hand and into the hands of the guy behind him. His college coach and fellow teammate chided the young man, saying he’s been fielding the ball like that all week. I caught a good laugh at his expense.
Then the spotlight shined down on me.
In the top of the ninth, with nearly all reserve players in for both teams, Twins outfielder Joe Benson fouls this ball that is seeking me out. It takes a pair of beautiful bounces and then a candy hop as I get in position near the padded railing. I reach over with both hands, ready for the easy catch and I flat-out butcher it. The ball hits the base of my thumb, fumbles up my wrist and I’m forced to slap it away from Mr. Pocketful-of-Baseballs because I’m that guy.
I heard a few snickers and a few boos from the crowd behind me. I quickly look for a kid to hand the ball to, but the trio of little Twins fans lurking by the Twins dugout already had baseballs.
I’ll accept this ball as payback for a couple mistakes I made as a kid.
The first was losing a baseball caught by my father during batting practice at Tiger Stadium in the late 1980s. Sitting in the first row of the upper deck in left field, my dad stood his ground against another guy and caught a Texas Ranger Larry Parrish home run.
The second was losing another baseball. This one I caught as a youngster from the front row of the upper deck in right field at Tiger Stadium. I remember leaving a conversation with my best friend Joe as I watched California Angels pitchers Jim Abbott and Greg Swindell play long toss. I reached over the fence with my glove and snagged the ball. They moved further away after that.
Catching a ball is a memory I’ll cherish for a longtime. It makes you feel like a kid again.
- I was disappointed in the Detroit Tigers today and not because of the loss to the Minnesota Twins. It was pointed out by the lady behind me that the Tigers have not left their dugout all spring for The National Anthem. I thought back to the St. Patrick’s Day game in Lakeland and she’s right. That’s a pretty disrespectful, thoughtless act by the Tigers. It definitely isn’t representative of a Jim Leyland team. Baseball is our national pastime. Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg and Ted Williams all served during wartime. I couldn’t defend the Tigers, who sat in the shade of the dugout while the Twins stood at attention down the third-base line and stood firm until the military representative and the flags had left the field.
- There was a pretty special ceremonial first pitch. A police officer and his K-9 went to the mound for the pitch. The police dog took the ball in his mouth and delivered it to home plate.
- Floridians love to show off their reptiles. I saw a man with a snake wrapped around his neck at the Boston Red Sox Jetblue Park and now I’ve seen a baby alligator with electrical tape wrapped around its jaw at Joker Marchant.
- In the excitement of my big catch, I completely lost my car. I followed a path that led me to a cornfield and I had to turn around. I spent a lot of time like other fans do by hitting the panic button on my van. Parking costs were a big hidden fee in this trip.
- With Miguel Cabrera out of the lineup, Clete Thomas was the designated hitter and batted third. The guy behind me asks, who is that guy, and the man to right responds “That’s Clete Thomas.” The guy behind me said: “Ahhh, I thought it was Clete Boyer. It’s been a few years.” Boyer was a former Tiger from the 1960s, and I’ve heard that name several times from my father. I can never get enough stories from the elders about baseball.
- Delmon Young smacked another long home run. I wonder if the Twins are having second thoughts about his release.
- Parked next to a car with Alaskan plates. My epic spring training trip feels very ordinary now.