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Nice grab

Why we care so much about catching foul balls

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / October 10, 2009

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ON A CHILLY NIGHT IN FENWAY PARK when Red Sox bats went cold in a lopsided loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, Melissa Richards found something to warm her visit to the ballyard. Returning to her seat in the third inning, Richards, a 30-year-old Reading special-education teacher, spotted a foul ball hit by Toronto catcher Rod Barajas bouncing by her. The ball ricocheted off some stairs and boomeranged in her direction. Richards picked it up - her first foul ball ever - and tucked it away, knowing she’d have an exhilarating story to tell about an otherwise forgettable game.

“I’ll brag that the ball’s been touched by the greats,’’ Richards said, moments after her serendipitous grab. “Hey, we’re at Fenway. We’re in Red Sox Nation. I’m just enjoying the euphoria of it all.’’

Her euphoria - the kind captured on camera at a Philadelphia Phillies game a few weeks ago in a video that rocketed around the Web - was a reminder that while it’s easy enough to buy a big-league baseball for about $10, the magic stitched into an actual game ball makes getting one in the heat of action priceless.

The Red Sox return to Fenway this weekend for some playoff-intense baseball, the kind conspicuously absent from a virtually meaningless Wednesday night game played (and misplayed) in the waning days of the regular season. Yet even in that contest, a dreary one for fans to suffer through, beers, hats, and mitts went flying in the frantic and often contentious chase for every foul ball that got smacked into the stands.

Seated down the third base line, Stephen Miller, 19, narrowly missed one that clanged off his glove. John Sullivan, 48, fielded it three rows away, after it struck another fan’s beer cup. “I’ve only been close, but never touched one,’’ said a beaming Sullivan, who handed the ball to his daughter, Lindsey, celebrating her 24th birthday that night.

None of the ball-retrieving fans interviewed during the game had trouble explaining the joy of snagging a souvenir that, for most of them, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Kids and adults, season ticket holders and Fenway first-timers - all crowed about coming home with a small piece of hardball history. It did not matter who’d hit it - Red Sox or Blue Jay, star player or scrub. That baseball would find a special place back home, forever conjuring up memories of when, where, and how it got caught.

“Part of it has to do with simply beating the odds,’’ says Zack Hample, author of “How to Snag Major League Baseballs’’ whose collection (including batting practice balls) numbers more than 4,000 baseballs. “If they were throwing out 40 candy bars in a crowd of 35,000 people, it’d be fun catching one, too.’’ Still, he adds, catching a ball when everyone in the ballpark has their eyes trained on you is an irreplaceable thrill. “You feel like the 10th fielder out there.’’

Theoretically, Fenway should provide ample opportunity for fans to snare a ball. The team goes through 10 to 12 dozen baseballs per home game, or about 36,000 a season. Roughly two dozen foul balls went into the stands at Wednesday’s game, and the park itself has less room between the base paths and stands than almost any in the majors. Notwithstanding its reputation as a foul-ball magnet, however, it’s a tough arena for even seasoned ballhawks like Hample to operate in. Cramped seating and vigilant ushers make movement about the ballpark difficult. The optimal places to field foul balls, according to stadium security staffers, are field-level seats along the first- and third-base lines and Section 4 of the upper deck. However, at least one fan attending the Sox-Jays game, 15-year-old Chris Beck, caught a foul ball that dropped though a hole in the netting behind home plate. It was his first foul ball, too, said Beck, who’d been in his seat less than three minutes when the ball almost literally fell into his lap.

“We’d just gotten here,’’ Beck said. “My friend said we might catch a ball, but I didn’t believe him. We saw [the ball] hit the net, and my friend pushed me. I fell over that ledge and caught it. . . . That was my first foul ball. I might give it to my little brother. He’s 6.’’

For the most part, foul balls have no significant impact on the game’s outcome, rendering them less valuable as souvenirs than a walk-off home run by Big Papi. There are noteworthy exceptions, though. During a 2003 Cubs-Marlins playoff game, Cubs fan Steve Bartman deflected a foul ball away from Chicago outfielder Moises Alou, prolonging an inning that eventually ended the Cubs’ pennant hopes that year. Bartman had to be escorted from the park by security guards.

On a more uplifting note, Phillies fan Steve Monforto took his family to a game last month and made a terrific two-handed catch of a foul ball, which he promptly handed to his 3-year-old daughter. With TV cameras trained on them, Monforto watched in horror as she tossed the ball back toward the field. Monforto immediately enveloped her in a bear hug. Video of father and daughter embracing got them a replacement ball from the Phillies and face time on the “Today’’ show.

Monforto made his catch look easy, but as Christian Brunelle learned the other night, fielding a foul ball can be painful. Brunelle, 24, took one off his forehead, spilling several beers in the process before prying the ball from another fan, Steven Jensco, who briefly had it in his grasp. “I let him get it because he had the dent in his head,’’ said Jensco, 22, as Brunelle held up the ball in triumph. “He’s got the scar; he’s got the story.’’

Then there’s the matter of ball-chasing etiquette. Attending her first game of the season, Julie Devine, 41, asked her seatmates what she should know about going after a foul ball. Don’t hit any kids while doing so, friends advised her. Soon after, a ball sliced toward her seat. Devine ducked at first, then dropped to the ground and dove for the ball. She got it, too, no children flattened as she emerged with prize in hand.

For 9-year-old Alec Lazieh, patience proved to be his greatest ally. In the eighth inning, when thousands of fans had headed home, Alec and his father moved to empty seats behind the visitors’ dugout. As Toronto’s Lyle Overbay walked off the field, he spotted Alec and tossed him a ball. Alec could hardly have been happier had a pennant just been clinched. He slept with the ball tucked next to him in bed that night, his father later said.

Globe correspondents Jack Nicas and Sean Teehan contributed to this report. Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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