My Bubbe, The Bull And The Kabbalah Of Catching A Foul Ball
It’s a weird thing to admit, perhaps, but my most vivid memory of my first major league baseball game involves foul balls.
Sure, I still remember how awestruck I was by the hulking, battleship-like presence of Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium, and by how lush and lurid the green of the field appeared in contrast with the peeling dark green paint of the ballpark’s interior. (This was 1976, a few years before the park’s big blue-and-orange makeover.) Yes, my nostrils still recall the way the concourse smelled, an unappetizing yet somehow vaguely alluring combination of hot dog water, spilled beer, stale cigarette smoke and fresh disappointment. And, of course, I can still picture red-faced Yankees manager Billy Martin getting tossed from the game by an umpire, and I can still see the home run hit by Yankees catcher Thurman Munson arcing proudly into the left field grandstand. But mostly, I remember my feeling of mounting envy and frustration as I watched at least a dozen foul balls sail off the players’ bats and into the upper deck between home and first base.
The Tigers’ public address announcer had informed us before the game that fans could keep any ball (fair, foul or thrown) that landed in the stands, news that came as an exciting revelation to me. I’d previously attended several University of Michigan baseball games at Ann Arbor’s Ray Fisher Stadium, where any ball hit into the stands or the parking lot was immediately chased down and returned to a ball bag beside the dugout. Here, I could conceivably take home a genuine American League baseball as a souvenir, and I was suddenly desperate to do so. But since we were sitting just a few rows behind home plate, with the backstop screen protecting us, I could only watch wistfully as one foul pop after another landed in the cheaper seats.
For our next trip to Tiger Stadium, I insisted that my father buy us some seats in the upper deck between home and first, since that’s where all the balls seemed to go during our last visit. Our section was almost entirely empty, which seemed to bode well for my chances; armed with my Wilson Bobby Bonds outfielder’s mitt, I felt ready to snag any number of the flurry of fouls that would surely come my way. Only, none did; this time, they all went into the seats along the third base line, as I pounded the mitt against my splintery seat in frustration. It seemed like some kind of perverse joke: Whenever I was playing Little League baseball or pickup games with my friends, it was as if I had active baseball magnets implanted in my head, chest, shoulders and (argh) groin; but here at the ballpark, baseballs didn’t seem to want to come anywhere near me.
I’m not entirely sure why I wanted to catch a ball so badly, even after I learned from my friends that you could just go down to the sporting goods section of our local K-Mart and, for six bucks, buy an official American League or National League one (yes, there were different balls for each league in those days). I suppose I wanted to catch one for the same reason that most baseball fans still scramble after them: Catching a batted ball makes you feel like you’re part of the game, and not just a spectator. (Of course, it also has the potential to make you part of baseball history, as Steve Bartman can unfortunately attest.)
But I think, in retrospect, that there was something of a transubstantiation aspect to it, as well: A major league pitcher threw the ball, and a major league hitter’s bat made contact with it, and that combination of people and events miraculously changed the ball from an everyday object into a holy artifact. Even if the pitcher was as forgettable as, say, the Tigers’ Jim Crawford, and the hitter as laughably inept as, say, Yankees shortstop Fred “Chicken” Stanley, they still had the power to imbue a ball with magical properties… and I dearly wanted one of those magical balls for myself.
Three years later, during the sweltering New York City summer of 1979, I came excruciatingly close to catching one. On an afternoon in early August, my grandparents took my sister and me to Shea Stadium for a Mets-Phillies game, as part of a group outing organized by their Jewish community center in Long Island. The Mets were absolutely terrible — Lee Mazzilli was the only “big name” they had at the time — but baseball was baseball, and I was stoked to see the visiting Phillies in person, since their lineup was packed with such Seventies stars as Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Garry Maddox, Bake McBride, Larry Bowa, and their recent free-agent addition Pete Rose.
It took the senior center’s bus about an hour to get to the ballpark, and then it seemed to take an additional hour for our group to slowly shuffle from the parking lot all the way to our cheap seats in the right field corner of Shea’s upper deck. As we began our laborious trudge up the stadium’s ramps, some little Dennis the Menace-looking kid about my age — a grandson of one of the other Jewish center attendees — fell in step beside me. Without any greeting or introduction, he began to boast about how he was going to catch any ball that was hit to our section. “I’d hate to have to take a foul ball away from you, kid,” he sneered, “but I’ll do it if I have to!” I didn’t even know how to respond, but he kept hectoring me about it, getting in my face like a player trying to psych out an opponent. “Whatever you say,” I finally shrugged, trying to appear as indifferent as possible, but he had definitely gotten under my skin. I just wanted to take in a ballgame with my grandparents, but now the presence of this alpha-ballhawk schmegegge was making it impossible for me to fully enjoy the experience.
As the first two innings of the game went by, I began to relax slightly, suspecting that this kid’s psych-out routine was ultimately pointless; our seats were so high in the sky, so far from home plate, it looked like you’d have to fire a ball out of an actual cannon in order to reach us. Unless, of course, you were Greg “The Bull” Luzinski. In the top of the third inning, the Phils’ hulking left fielder sent a pitch from Mets hurler Dock Ellis screaming over our heads. The ball hit the stairs a few rows up from where we were sitting, and I turned around just in time to see it carom back toward me. With the ball heading straight for my chest, all I had to do was hold my hands up and brace for the impact, but the impact never came. A split-second before the ball reached me, that little Dennis the Menace shithead shot out of nowhere to spear it one-handed, then proceeded to run up and down the stairs with his prize held triumphantly aloft, while everyone around us cheered.
I was beyond pissed. Not only had the kid made good on his vow, but he’d utilized impressive stealth, perfect positioning and lightning reflexes in his successful bid rob me of the ball. And I couldn’t cry foul — It wasn’t like we’d both been fumbling around under the seats for it, and he’d punched me or bent my finger back in order to pry it from my hands. He’d simply beaten me fair and square, and all I could do was sit there and quietly fume about having come THISCLOSE to finally taking home a game-used baseball as a souvenir.
My Grandma Rae was a woman of few words, her reticence primarily the result of having endured childhood hardships far worse than anything I’d ever experienced — she and her family had immigrated to the United States from Łódź, Poland, shortly after World War I — and having lived for nearly five decades in the overbearing shadow of my Grandpa Joe. Still, she was a warm, loving, and extremely perceptive person; and even though I didn’t say a word to her or anyone else about the angst I was feeling at that moment, she couldn’t help but notice the steam coming out of my ears.
My cranial steamworks reached full-throttle during our agonizingly slow bus ride home, which seemed to drag on forever due to us getting caught in rush-hour traffic. The Mets had lost the contest, 9-6, their last five runs coming only after the Phillies had already plated eight, so there were no real highlights for anyone to rehash — except, of course, Dennis the Menace’s foul-ball grab. And oh, how our fellow passengers did kvell over it. “Your little grandson was the hero of the game,” I heard one woman gush. “The Mets should sign him up!” shouted a man from the rear of the bus. I continued to stew in silence; but Grandma Rae, seated beside me, knew exactly what to say to make me feel better. Patting my hand, she lowered her head down to mine and looked me straight in the eye. With a conspiratorial smirk — and a voice as sweet as her noodle kugel — she whispered, “Biiiiiig deal.” And then we both cracked up.
And that was it, really. Not only did Grandma Rae’s shot of chicken soup-grade wisdom snap me out of my funk that day, it also somehow instantly freed me of my obsession with catching a foul ball. Over the next four decades, I would attend hundreds of baseball games, both major league and minor, without ever feeling at all compelled to join the scrum whenever a ball landed near me in the stands. There was even one game at Dodger Stadium where, fully cognizant of the fact that my depth perception had been hindered by too many overpriced beers, I simply let a Chad Kreuter pop foul land with a loud bang in the empty seat in front of me, rather than risk injury trying to grab it. “You should have caught that!” yelled a woman a few rows back from me, as the ball skittered away. I just laughed, once again hearing Grandma Rae’s voice in my head: “Biiiiiig deal.”
Two weeks ago, I was sitting about halfway back from the visitors’ dugout at First National Bank Field in Greensboro, North Carolina, watching the Greensboro Grasshoppers take on the Lakewood Blueclaws. Despite the evening’s “Thirsty Thursday” promotion, the park was still pretty empty in the first inning, when the Blueclaws’ towering outfielder Carlos De La Cruz stepped to the plate. He swung at his first pitch from ‘hoppers hurler Steven Jennings, looping a high pop foul off the end of his bat. The ball hit the rim of the ballpark’s roof, then bounced back into the section to my left, caromed off the top of a seatback, and then — in what seemed like total defiance of physics — somehow turned at a right angle and headed straight for me. There was no one else within twenty feet of the ball; and without even thinking, I stood up, reached out and watched it float softly into my hand, almost as if in slow motion.
A couple of people clapped, I think, but I was too busy high-fiving my inner thirteen-year-old to pay much attention. Sure, it was a minor league game, the ball came off the bat of a guy hitting .223 in the South Atlantic League, and I’d caught it on two (maybe even three) hops. But my forty-three-year catch-less streak had finally been broken; and for the first time in my life, I’d be heading home from a ballgame with a game-bruised baseball in my pocket. If making the catch didn’t trigger the ecstatic rush that I might have expected from it as a youth, it was sweetly satisfying just the same. “This one’s for you, Grandma Rae,” I whispered.
Dan Epstein is the Forward’s contributing music critic.