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foul ball
catch the damned thing
by dirk cotton

Longtime Baltimore Orioles PA announcer, Rex Barney, was famous for saying, “Give that fan a contract!" when a fan caught a foul ball on the fly, but if the fan dropped it, Barney would say, "Give that fan... an error!"

Fans in that situation have to decide whether to try to catch the ball or bail out to avoid getting hurt. Either decision can be right or wrong depending on the ball’s speed and trajectory and the fan's bare-handed fielding skills.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who played baseball as a kid and those who didn't. If you catch well, you'll be more inclined to go for the catch and take a shot at fleeting fan appreciation.

My wife, on the other hand, never learned to catch. If I toss a pillow to her, she will cover her head, duck and scream. Seriously. Turns out that whether a ball is being thrown to you or at you is a very personal perspective.

It’s commonplace to see a group of fans scream, cover their heads, and bail out of their seats when a soft pop foul appears about to drop on top of them. In my observation, women do this more often than men but in fairness, a lot of men do it, too. The guys just suppress the scream. Usually.

A foul tip hitting the safety net in front of the stands always causes fans to duck before they remember the net’s there to stop it.

When you watch these reactions from safer seats, it’s hard not to chuckle. (Especially if a guy screams.)

Occasionally, a fan catches a foul ball bare-handed. They unfailingly hold the ball over their head to solicit applause — deserved, in my opinion — from the other fans.

More often, fans duck and scatter and one chases the ball down and picks it up when it stops rolling. That is not a catch. Many fans, nonetheless, hold that ball over their head.

Don’t be a buffoon. You don’t get applause for that. Return to your seat and try not to draw attention to yourself.

If you want applause for picking a baseball up off the ground, hand it to the nearest youngster before you sit down. That way it doesn’t look like you just arm-wrestled a kid for an Oreo and expected people to cheer while you ate it.

Geez, you can buy a new baseball at Amazon.com for five bucks. Will a free used baseball really make your day?

They’re not always free at college games, by the way. Some stadiums insist you return foul balls and dingers, like Elon University and Duke, as I recall. UNC and others let you keep the ball.

I went to see UNC play at Elon a few years back and noticed a couple of students in Elon polo shirts and shorts who apparently had the responsibility to track down foul balls and reclaim them. An adult fan picked up a foul ball and within seconds one of the students showed up and recovered it.

A few minutes later, the batter hit a high foul ball directly behind the plate and over the stands. I watched a small boy, perhaps 11, catch the ball on a dead run on its first bounce in the parking lot and head towards some nearby woods as hard as he could go. As I like to say when I see a moon shot leaving the park, “That one ain’t coming back.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Foul balls can be dangerous. Fans have been injured seriously and even killed. Occasionally, a bat even gets slung into the stands by accident. You have to know when duck-and-run is the right strategy.

Physics is the key.

A moving baseball has both vertical and horizontal velocity. The vertical velocity of a ball hit into the air will drop to zero when it reaches it’s peak height. It will then reach the ground at the same speed as if it had been dropped from its peak height. If a foul ball goes really high but doesn’t travel far from the hitter, you can typically catch it bare-handed without a lot of pain.

A foul ball that has to go up and over the safety net behind the batter but lands not far behind the batter is not going to sting a lot. A line drive foul ball that comes sizzling into the stands without much altitude can take your head off.

I saw an adult fan at Baltimore’s old Memorial Stadium bare-hand a line drive foul ball in the left field stands near the foul pole. He held the ball in the air waiting for the cameras to find him, acknowledging the applause from fans and hearing the aforementioned contract offer from Rex Barney. I kept an eye on him for a minute after play resumed. He waited until the cameras and fans had turned away and then started shaking and rubbing his aching hand. You could see the pain on his face.

As Billy Crystal's Fernando Lamas character used to say on Saturday Night Live, “It is better to look good than to feel good, don't you think?”

If a bat ever comes into the stands, even if it has a lazy, pop-fly trajectory, best to duck.

On the other hand, if you’re sitting behind the safety net behind home plate and a lazy pop fly heads your way, don’t duck and run — catch the damned thing.

Yes, fans will light-heartedly boo if you try to catch it and don’t, but this is your moment in the spotlight. No guts, no glory. Of all the people in the stadium, God chose you to sit under that foul ball.

Players on the field sometimes have to make these decisions, too. A line drive hit right back at the pitcher gives him about a millisecond to decide whether to try to protect himself by catching it, or to get the hell out of the way. More often than not it’s an instinctive reaction and not a decision.

Remember, though, that the pitcher has something to gain by catching the ball — an out. You stand to gain a slightly used $5 baseball that you really ought to give to some stranger’s kid, anyway.

Kids can take gloves to a ballgame but adults who do look like dorks. At a recent UNC home game, the batter hit a sizzling line drive foul ball into the left field grandstands near where two teens were sitting. One wore a glove.

Instead of ducking and covering, the kid with the glove stood up, ran about three steps to his right and snagged the line drive beautifully. Frankly, it was one of the best catches I saw all night. Then, inexplicably, he ran back to his seat and sat down (maybe he thought he was at Elon).

He received a rousing round of applause from the fans and the PA announcer simply said, “How about that!

Then he held the ball over his head.

That’s how you do it.


Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

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