Baseball: What's Foul Ain't Fair

It’s April and baseball is back: time for memories and hopes to burden and blur our sense of reality and the here-and-now. Baseball is a link to the past, including the personal past: a line drive leading straight back to childhood. I am reminded of this by an incident that occurred exactly a year ago.

At twilight on April 16th of last year, a cool, clear evening in New York, I made my first trip of the season to Shea Stadium, the aging, soon-to-be-defunct pile in Queens. I won’t miss the place, despite all the fun I’ve had here over 45 years. I brought my friend Lewis along for camaraderie, though he’s not much of a fan; we rattled out to Queens on the #7 train as I have since childhood.

My first visit ever to Shea was after a day spent with my family at the World’s Fair in  May 1964, arriving at the new ballpark with an uncle in time for the second game of a doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals. I was eleven years old, and up to that point had only witnessed baseball at Yankee Stadium and at the Mets’ early home, the Polo Grounds. I was just about to enter a life-changing state of perpetual misfortune: I was becoming a Met fan.

The Mets were very bad that year, despite two .300 hitters -- outfielder Joe Christopher and my idol, second-baseman Ron Hunt. (Hunt would make New Yorkers proud with a ground single to left in the All-Star Game, played later that season at Shea.) As always in those early years, the hitting was okay but the pitching stunk.

This more recent trip to Shea was, I’d guess, about my two hundredth; and I’ve made a rough calculation that approximately once every 150 to 200 games one attends, one is likely to catch a foul ball. I base this on an average attendance of 25,000, and an average of 150-200 foul balls a game that go into the crowd. I’m sure someone at the Elias Sports Bureau keeps more precise statistics on these things -- but I don’t want to bother them.

My calculations would put the chances of grabbing a foul at a given game at about one in one hundred-forty-three. Roughly speaking, the law of averages (not adjusted for the fact that I seldom sit in the upper deck, or in fair territory in the loge or mezzanine) should toss a ball my way once every 143 games. In short, like some Met hitters, I am overdue.

I have come close two or three times. About twenty-five years ago, behind third base, a ball landed on the stomach of a little girl sitting immediately in front of me. She cried, but was unhurt, and the ball bounced away. Another time, about twenty-five years earlier, I was sitting fairly high up in Yankee Stadium, along the right field line, when the ageless wonder Minnie Minoso, then playing for the old Washington Senators -- soon to become the Minnesota Twins -- rocketed a foul ball in my direction.

I have an indelible mental image of a tiny white sphere coming straight at me from very far away. I stared in disbelief as it arced into my booth and past my seat -- missing my left side by perhaps six inches -- and wound up in the glove of some undeserving kid sitting nearby. I felt some relief at having dodged the bullet; somehow, it looked like it would inflict pain.  But there was a sense of loss too: I wanted that ball. That was at my third or fourth game, ca. 1961, and it’s the closest I’ve ever come to a foul ball of my own in a half-century.

The contest last April wasn’t to be my final visit to Shea; but a sense of nostalgia had already settled over the field, as the number of remaining games to be played was counted down on the outfield wall. Shea’s successor, the far more elegant Citi Field, was rising literally in its back yard, looming over the place like an impatient giant, waiting for Shea to be reduced to a parking lot. (Citi’s hulking presence altered the entire physical ambience of Shea’s last months, obscuring familiar old views and the  sense of space beyond the outfield walls).

On this brisk April evening, the Mets were hosting the Washington Nationals. Mets starting pitcher John Maine struggled with his control in the top of the first inning  and yielded a run. But the Mets came back in the bottom of the first with a matching tally. David Wright was batting third, and that is when it happened.

Wright hit a high pop foul that seemed almost to disappear in the gloaming, and then reappear on its way down, describing a perfect parabola with one end at home plate and the other in my vicinity. I stared at it in mild surprise; I hadn’t brought a baseball mitt to the ballpark since I was about  twelve, but now it would have come in handy.

As the gigantic pop foul descended toward me from the heavens, I reflected more on my personal safety than on any notion of catching the ball as a souvenir. The closer it came, seeming to have marked me as a target, the less attractive it appeared as a potential keepsake. Coming from outer space, it was even scarier than Minoso’s rising line drive back in the day.

I don’t recall my exact posture or attitude when the thing landed, but it must have been some sort of flinch, an unmanly standing equivalent of the fetal position. The ball came down more or less within my reach (in the aisle just next to my friend Lewis, who was seated to my right). I had failed to reach for it. Somewhere, an existential decision had been made for me by the powers that be: survival would come before pleasure or power.

Lewis, who as I said is not much of a fan, adopted an even more startling posture. Like a Bodhisattva, he sat looking straight at the field as if nothing were happening, ignoring the foul thing descending upon him and steadfastly accepting his fate (or maybe he never saw it leave the bat). Lewis isn’t a believer, but had the ball landed on his head, instead of a foot or two away, he would have been even less of a believer; and it would have been a mark against Buddhism.

In fact, no one in our crowded section behind the Mets’ dugout made a serious effort to catch the  missile descending on us from outer space. For a moment we were all suddenly Buddhists (or cowards). I heard someone nearby remark that he would have tried to catch the thing but, as he put it, “I want to go to work tomorrow.” As if a shell had just exploded in an empty nearby foxhole, there was a great unspoken sense of shared relief in our section that no one had been killed or maimed.  

I thought of the white ball as the white whale, tempting our sense of fate and our very relationship with the ruling powers of the universe. “There is death in this business of whaling,” Melville wrote, “a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into eternity.” Well, I wasn’t ready to be bundled off, least of all on account of a swing by David Wright, one of my young heroes.

The ball, with what must have been a great deal of top-spin, hit the concrete so hard that it bounced up and backward (which seemed strange at the time; in retrospect I suspect that in addition to its spin it must have hit against a step), ricocheting like a boomerang directly back onto the playing field and landing in front of the home dugout, some thirty feet from where I was sitting. The Nationals’ first baseman picked it up and tossed it gently back into the crowd a few rows in front of us.

The question lingers like a lazy fly ball: does the law of averages still favor me, or must I now, having survived this event (or due to the advent of a new stadium) wait another fifty years or 143 games for another shot at a foul ball off the bat of some as-yet unborn player. I know that someday baseball’s gods will favor me with a ball, and since I’m no longer an eager eleven-year-old with a glove, an easy one to catch would be nice too. I can wait. There’s still time.

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