Fans Seem Ready to Die Just to Grab Foul Ball : Going After One Is Dangerous, and It Took a Court Decision to Permit It

August 25, 1985|THOMAS BOSWELL | The Washington Post

All baseball fans want to catch a big league foul ball. At least they have since Reuben's Rule was created by a 1921 lawsuit. But last month in Baltimore, William Joyner almost became the first person to die for a souvenir.

"I can't believe I almost killed myself over something that costs, what, maybe two or three dollars," he says now, weeks after pictures of him hanging from an upper-deck railing caused a buzz across America.

Sitting in the front row of the upper deck in Memorial Stadium along the first base line, Joyner leaned forward and sideways to try to snag a pop hit by Frank White of the Kansas City Royals.

An instant later, July 18 had become a date he would never forget.

He doesn't remember precisely how he fell, except that "my concentration on the ball was total" and that, as the pop curved away, he went over sideways. How he reached backward and grabbed the railing with one hand also is a blur. He does, barely, recall getting both hands on something solid and clambering back to his seat. "I sat there spitting out blood but I couldn't have cared less. I just kept saying to myself, 'Here I am, back in my seat.' "

"That guy must have great upper body strength," said Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks. "It looked like he hung on one-handed backwards for a second."

Orioles radio announcer John Miller called the near-tragedy "something out of Indiana Jones."

Joyner, who hasn't talked about the incident publicly until now, has taken the tack that, "It looked a lot worse than it was. As soon as I sensed I was going over, I grabbed the rail."

Perhaps he takes his own strength for granted. Those who saw him tumble assume he was just one sweaty palm away from catastrophe. Only one person ever has fallen out of Memorial Stadium's upper deck (in 1969), and he died.

"If I'd (fallen and) lived, I don't think I'd have had legs worth mentioning," Joyner says, "though I guess you could have hit (landed on) a big fat guy."

The incident has been especially difficult to forget because of Joyner's job and his personality.

A construction electrician who works on industrial buildings, Joyner must be safety-conscious every minute of his work day. High voltages and fairly high altitudes are routine to him. His father worked construction, once took a 20-foot fall and preached caution.

"I work construction all the time, so I'm up in the air a lot . . . I rate myself best for common sense," says Joyner, 34. "Every adult tries to teach their kid not to run out in traffic after a ball. I thought all my craziness and dumb things were behind me . . . It's just defeated everything I was about."

Joyner has been far harder on himself than anyone else could be. What others treat as an adventure and a moment of fame, he sees as "totally embarrassing . . . Friends had glossy prints made up for me, like I'd want to keep it my whole life to remember.

"I'm trying to get rid of it."

That's been brutally hard. "The first two days after it happened, that's all I thought about 24 hours a day. It's a shaking experience. On Saturday morning, my head was clear and I said, 'It's finally over.' I turned on CNN (Cable News Network) and there was a picture of me (hanging from the railing).

"I said, 'Oh, my God, it's not over.' I went to Ocean City and I was just totally badgered about it. My picture's up on my friends' walls. You gotta go over the whole thing again. If I see somebody in three months, they're gonna want to know about it."

The cruelest twist for Joyner is that, as a front-row season-ticket holder, he already had a firm point of view about such an incident before it ever happened to him. "Remember the guy who went over (the rail) in Cincinnati (in 1982)? It was on TV. I thought, 'There's a real jerk.'

"That's the way I figure everybody in the whole world thinks of me."

Perhaps Joyner needs a broader perspective on what happened to him. He's no different than thousands of other serious fans who've been making fools of themselves over foul balls for generations. His only sin--it was the first inning and he hadn't even had a beer--was that "I love baseball."

Common sense and foul balls seldom have gone together. Few routine occurrences in American life evoke as much craziness as a foul hit in the stands at a major league park, and Joyner hardly is the first person to amaze himself with his foolhardiness in pursuit of a silly, symbolic sphere.

Who hasn't seen a man in a business suit climb over kids and old ladies so he can fall on his face in the aisle as the ball lands in someone else's lap?

Catching a foul ball seems to us a confirmation of our luck and skill, our specialness. For an instant, we've been singled out of a crowd of tens of thousands. It's our moment to make a difficult play and, thus, join a game at which we were, an instant before, mere spectators. In Memorial Stadium, the PA announcer even says, "Give that fan a contract," after a good grab.

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