The View From Section 416: Want a foul ball at Wrigley Field? You're on your own, kid

ByBill Savage via ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When you're sitting in Section 416 at Wrigley Field, you had better pay special attention to the game when a left-handed batter is up.

That's not just because National League MVP candidate Anthony Rizzo is the sort of player whose every plate appearance is worth watching. No, it's a matter of personal safety -- and souvenirs.

Left-handed batters send foul balls screaming into Section 416, as well as the seats to either side and behind it. Balls carom off concrete, ricochet off girders and bounce off the hands of inept fans or the heads of people not watching the game.

The joy of the foul ball, obviously, is in the adrenaline rush and the physical connection to the game. Not as great as a home run ball, but way better than a batting practice ball or a ball tossed into the stands at the end of an inning. A foul ball almost -- almost -- makes the fan who fields it part of the game itself.

Fans recognize this, and so we cheer when someone makes a clean catch in the stands, or boo when someone muffs one -- especially if they are in the front row and the ball falls down to the lower deck.

But since left-handed batters are a minority of players, most of my season-ticket partners have never even gotten close to a foul ball. That doesn't stop us from having some serious opinions about foul-ball etiquette, though.

Azz has one rule: "If you're old enough to have a driver's license, you're too old to bring a glove to the game."

But if you do get a ball bare-handed, what next? Are you morally obligated to give it to a kid?

That's the Country Doctor's position: "It's a freaking ball, give it to a kid!"

The Big Bun brings a bit more nuance, but ends up in the same place:

"If it's your first foul ball, you get to keep it. If it's not your first foul ball, it's your responsibility to find the nearest kid and give that kid the ball, but only if the kid isn't wearing a hat or jersey from the opposing team and their parents haven't been jerks during the game. You shouldn't expect to get anything in return. This isn't about getting a free beer. It's about being a decent human being and making some 6-year-old kid's year."

Me, I'm suspicious of this whole "kid" idea. Teach has a slightly sinister take on that. He writes, "One of the primary reasons I had kids was so that if I finally got blessed by the baseball gods with a foul ball, I would be able to dodge the ire of the crowd by 'giving it to a kid' -- but then immediately take it back on the car ride home. Looking back, it might have been easier to take a page from the bleacher bums: bring a dummy ball with you to the game, and if you catch a foul, keep it, and give a kid the dummy ball."

I'm not going to ask what Mrs. Teach thinks about this.

My own history with foul balls is pretty sparse. Back in 2003 -- early in the Sunday night Yankees game that Joe Borowski saved by picking a pinch runner off first base for the final out -- a foul ball bounced over from 417, past several grasping fans, and landed in my friend Kathy's lap.

But she hadn't grasped the ball and held it aloft, the gesture that claims the prize. So I grabbed it. Naturally, I handed it back to her; she's a Yankees fan, and her crush Jorge Posada had stroked that particular foul ball. She also might've clocked me if I hadn't.

In the 12-plus seasons since, many foul balls had come in my general direction, but never had I been really close -- heart-pounding, adrenaline-spiking close -- until the Pirates game on June 17. In the first inning, Jake Arrieta threw a fastball to No. 2 batter Gregory Polanco, who fought it off and sent it up to 416.

The ball was coming right to me on a high arc, a lofty popup. All I had to do was keep my eye on the ball and ...

I didn't. I looked away, stumbled slightly to my right, and knocked beer all over Stockfish. The ball caromed between him and Azz, and some pedestrian in the aisle picked it up. He got cheers, I got boos.

My guilt over the spilt beer was balanced by Stockfish having earlier nicknamed me "Ringworm Lardner" in honor of this column. But I did the right thing and gave him most of my beer (which he had bought anyway). Then I endured a well-deserved verbal lashing for having blown a freaking gift. In fact, I've been hearing about it ever since.

Then came the White Sox game on July 28. Adam Eaton led off against John Lackeyand sent a screamer above 416, into the stairs leading up to the 500-level seats behind me and to my right.

The Big Bun -- who had those seats that night, along with our pal Champ -- was late (thanks to a slow CTA bus, Champ claimed). These empty seats let me do a Fosbury Flop over the railing to play the carom. I plucked the prize away from a guy jumping down from above.

I grasped the ball and held it high. My first major league foul ball after 44 years of attending games. There were no kids in the vicinity, although a White Sox fan in front of me made a play for it. But she was too old to wear a glove, so that was that.

I'm averse to giving foul balls to kids, in part because I'm heartless and in part because of events at the Arizona Fall League last October.

I got a foul ball there, but that's no great accomplishment. With 500 people in the park, if you want one you have to go to the vast effort of standing up, walking over, and picking it up.

Pregame, I'd met and chatted with an autograph hound, a guy who had two umpire-pockets full of balls, and a book full of minor league baseball cards. He bragged about getting Kris Bryant's signature back in 2014. He also had a boy with him, I presumed his son, maybe 4 years old. All this kid wanted to do was run around and mess with things, and when the Autograph Hound wasn't on the railing waving his pen at players, he was chasing after his wandering offspring.

About five seconds after I snagged my official AFL ball in the eighth inning, this lad appeared in front of me. He put on an expression like one of those velvet portraits of a big-eyed Victorian street urchin, his hands held out together in an unmistakable wordless gesture: I'm a kid. Give me that foul ball! Please.

I told him, "No, this one is for my inner child," and he smiled and scampered off instantly. I got a dirty look from the Autograph Hound, but to heck with him. I mean, did I even know this boy was his child? He might've rented the kid from some Foul Ball Fagin, as a sentimental ploy to increase his odds of amassing more balls for prospects to sign.

But if the baseball gods bless me with a second foul ball -- this year or ever -- I'll follow the advice of the Big Bun and the Country Doctor and make some kid's year.

Unless it's a foul ball hit by a Cub. I don't have one of those. Yet.