My uncle Larry, back in Illinois, only recently got into baseball. He'd been more of a NASCAR guy most of his life until my father, his older brother, took him to a Cardinals game during the 2011 postseason. This was an excellent way to get someone into baseball. It's like hooking someone on astronomy by flying them to space.
I went to a game with Larry and dad last year, maybe Larry's third game ever in person. Larry seemed to understand everything about baseball except: He didn't understand why fans seemed so desperate to grab flying baseballs. This struck him as absurd, like a NASCAR fan trying to run onto the track, or someone with courtside seats reaching out and tickling an inbounds passer. Those are flying baseballs, just seconds before actively a part of game play, and we're trying to catch them? Larry found that idiotic. Why in the world would anyone do that? Just get out of the way.
Three innings later, the inevitable happened. Jon Jay hit a screaming line drive down the third-base line, on a direct line to our seats. We all leapt up. Larry, without realizing it, elbowed me out of the way and jumped for the ball. I heard a SMACK, and then Larry, back down in his seat. "GodDAMN it," he said, massaging his red right hand. "Almost had it."
I've never caught a baseball at a game before, and that's probably as close as I've ever come. But I try every time. Even in the most tension-filled game, if a foul ball is even on my side of the field, I forget everything going on in the game and track the trajectory of the ball to see if there's any chance it's coming near me. Even when I've had a rare moment where I'm sitting in the press box, I'll throw my computer aside and shove any poor scribe if a ball's hit up there. I want it.
I don't know why I do this. I have no need for a baseball, and if I got one, I'd end up just giving it to a kid near me anyway. (And remember: If you are an adult person who gets a baseball at a game, this is your only option. Otherwise you are a monster.) But that doesn't stop me from dropping everything I'm doing, no matter the context, if a ball looks like it's headed my way. In the ninth inning of a close game, you could set off firecrackers next to my ear and I wouldn't notice. But a fly ball in my direction? It becomes my soul focus in life.
This is human nature, almost instinct. If I woke you up in the middle of the night and tossed you a baseball, you will, without thinking, try to catch it. We couldn't stop it if we tried.
I thought about this last night, when the Tigers tied Game 4 of their American League Division Series against the A's with a contested home run by Victor Martinez in the seventh inning. Martinez appeared to have a home run even after replay, which showed that two fans reached over the wall and grabbed the ball.
Here's the video:
As much as Josh Reddick claims that ball was gonna end up in his glove, I don't quite buy it. That ball looks like it would have landed above that yellow line, even if the fans hadn't been there. This isn't like the Jeffrey Maier play, which, I suspect, would have been overturned by replay had such a thing been allowed, and high definition television had existed, back then. This one is not so obvious, and all told, it didn't matter that much: It only tied a game the Tigers would end up winning by two anyway.
But we'd definitely know had those fans not touched the ball. Now, there's a certain school of thought that this is precisely the type of ball fans are supposed to go after. It was hit by the home team, in a close game: The fans aren't just going for the ball, they're helping their team win! This is the same mindset that says you should try to grab foul balls away from the opposing team, or make sure to stay far away from foul balls your team can catch. This is a nice idea, but I'm not sure the human condition allows such discernment. I think it's more likely "see ball, go after ball." If an A's player had hit that homer last night, I bet those same fans would have gone after it regardless. This is the same reason you often see home fans go after crushing homers hit by the road team. When Jack Clark hit his crushing homer in the 1985 National League Championship Series at Dodger Stadium, the fans in the left-field bleachers can't get to that ball fast enough even though the homer essentially ended the Dodgers' season. When it comes to balls hit into the stands, fans, in that immediate moment, are agnostic. Our loyalties fall out of our heads, along with our brains. Our thought processes, essentially: SQUIRREL!
You don't blame a dog for going after a squirrel. You don't blame a fan for going after a ball.
Any time we talk about a fan reaching into the field of play for a live ball, we must of course bring up poor Steve Bartman. I've written extensively about Bartman and we won't rehash that here. But I'm pretty sure it proves my overarching point. Bartman was as devoted a Cubs fan as anyone on earth, and he was five outs away from his beloved Cubbies reaching the World Series. The Cubs! In the World Series! He had a perfect view. It was all happening. All they needed was five outs.
Yet still: He went for the ball. And when you watch the video, it's obvious everyone in his section was doing the exact same thing. It is instinct. We can't help it. To deny it would be to deny our true nature. There's a ball! Grab it! Squirrel!