I was the kind of kid who was often starstruck around pro athletes. I got my first autograph at eight or nine from Cory Snyder, and I don’t know if I’d have been more thrilled if it had been Barry Bonds. I once got in trouble at a high school dance because the Sacramento Kings were gathering in the same building, and I kept going up to the team. Even interviewing Jose Canseco a few years ago felt surreal. As a journalist, I’ve learned to be objective talking to players, though part of me still brims with childlike awe whenever I talk to anyone whose baseball card I may have had. Baseball has and will hopefully always hold a certain magic for me, and watching a video online Wednesday night, some feelings came back.
To anyone who hasn’t seen it, Deadspin and a number of other outlets posted a clip of a young boy bawling at a game in Texas last night after losing out on a foul ball to a couple sitting next to him. In the video, the kid who can’t be more than three or four cries and cries while the couple obliviously celebrates. I know that kid’s feeling because I once had a baseball snatched from me at a game. The only difference is that I got it back.
It happened at a game between the Seattle Mariners and Chicago White Sox at the Kingdome in 1995. I was 11 or 12 and sitting with family next to the visitor’s bullpen, close enough that I could talk to journeyman reliever Jose DeLeon. I had never caught a foul ball or home run to that point, and I still haven’t at 28, my chances so low I don’t even bring a glove to games anymore. I don’t remember what I said to DeLeon, then in the final season of an up-and-down career, but perhaps he took pity, as somewhere through the course of the game, he flipped a ball my way– a ball that was promptly intercepted by a man two seats over from me.
My dad joked later about my look of shock and disappointment, about how my jaw dropped. There’s a scene in Field of Dreams where Moonlight Graham tells Ray Kinsella about playing half of one inning in the majors and never getting to bat, “It was like coming this close to your dreams, and then watching them brush past you like strangers in a crowd.” I felt a little like that. I didn’t burst into tears, but I was pretty close, and I assume the man saw, because he immediately gave the ball back.
Someone wound up giving that kid in Texas a ball last night, and there’s video of the little guy smiling, spirits restored. I know that feeling, too, how cool it felt to have a dirt-stained baseball with the American League logo on it. Was it a big deal I hadn’t caught a foul ball or that I essentially negotiated for it? Not really. A ball’s a ball. I took it with me to an A’s-Red Sox game in Oakland later that season and got it autographed by several players, among them Tim Wakefield and a rookie Jason Giambi. I never played with it, remembering a story my dad told me about using a ball signed by Willie Mays and Juan Marichal among others. The ball I got remains a prized possession.
There’s one thing I should probably add here. As we left the Kingdome that night, my four-year-old cousin kept asking for the ball, but I refused. I suppose I can sympathize with the couple who got that ball last night. I’m not perfect, either.