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Making That Special Catch in the Stands

August 21, 1986|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a free-lance writer who lives in Santa Ana.

There is in every human life a quota of experiences without which one cannot claim to have lived well. And no one who eats all his vegetables, is kind to animals and only cheats on his tax return when absolutely necessary should be denied even one of them.

Every deserving person, for instance, should own a convertible, wear a tuxedo (or designer gown), hit a jackpot, receive flowers, taste hand-cranked peach ice cream, go strolling along the Seine, ride in a hansom, fly first class, have lemonade in the summer, hot cider in the winter and fall deliriously in love at least twice.

And everyone, by God, should catch one ball hit into the stands at a professional baseball game.

It's the last item that's the toughest. You can't control it. It's harder to accomplish than hitting a jackpot (if you feed the thing enough quarters, it'll pay off), and often all it takes to fall in love is a modest little coq au vin , a corner booth and one glass too many of champagne.

All those other delights you can engineer yourself, one way or another. But catching a baseball hit into the stands qualifies as a reward, a gift, a sign from On High that today you are the Favored One, that sometime in your life you did something good enough to rate having one of those little red-seamed beauties knocked into your lap.

It happened to me Aug. 12. At Anaheim Stadium. Versus Minnesota. In the top of the 11th.

It came, as they always do, unexpectedly. The Angels and Twins had struggled to a 4-4 tie in the ninth and had managed to fight on to a draw at the end of the 10th. And now the Twins' Kirby Puckett, the No. 2 man on the American League's list of top hitters, was at the plate, facing the Angels' Gary Lucas. My brother and I, sitting in the press-box level about halfway down the first-base line, had finished the traditional seventh-inning box of Cracker Jack and our hands were unoccupied with food or drink. The clock was inching toward midnight and it was beginning to look like a very long game. We watched as Lucas reached back and fired an inside fast ball at Puckett.

Some things you know instinctively. Antelopes can sense a lion in the bushes. Mules bray before earthquakes. And the baseball fan, after sitting calmly in his seat for years while foul balls cruelly plunk into seats all around him, knows almost before the crack of the bat that this ball, this one, is his.

It came whistling up like it was guided on a string, spinning angrily in the glare of the lights, getting larger, seeming to accelerate. My brother and I stood up together, watching it like a snake, transfixed. More than 29,000 other pairs of eyes were following its flight. You could feel it. The moment cried out for an eloquent, truly memorable comment.

"Here it comes," I said.

On it spun, arcing toward--my God!--the guy two rows in front of me! He'll jump up and snag it and rob me! He's going to catch it and go home with the ball that's supposed to be MINE!

I was getting ready to leap toward him, prepared to fight to the death for the ball, when, incredibly, he seemed to scrunch even lower in his seat, a posture of avoidance. Just as the ball reached the deck railing, he leaned to the right, toward his girlfriend, and the ball whirred over his left shoulder, heading straight for my outstretched hands.

I'm not even going to have to reach for this one, I thought. It's too perfect. Even my brother, standing at my left elbow, kept his hands at his side, recognizing, he told me later, that destiny had taken a hand in causing the ball to fly straight at me. I could feel the eyes around me getting larger. I could hear the ball hiss . . .

It smacked into my cupped hands with a dull slap. But before I could close my fingers around it, the ferocious spin Puckett had put on the ball took hold and it popped away and dropped straight down toward the empty seat in front of me.

NO!!! It was getting away! Perhaps the only opportunity I'd ever have in my lifetime to take home a professional foul ball was evaporating in front of me. I had seen what happened to dropped balls in the stands. In about a microsecond, I knew, dozens of crazed bleacher bums would swarm me, clawing and punching for the ball, which would probably roll away, down the aisle and over the edge of the deck into the field boxes far below. Into the astonished lap of some fat cat who'd already caught his quota of balls decades ago.

Then fortune smiled a second time. Rather than skittering away forever, the ball struck the bottom of an empty seat and sprang smartly straight back up. I reached down with my right hand and swiped it up.

There it was. Slightly scuffed, well rubbed with brown clay compound, tightly stitched and solid. An Official American League baseball, made in Haiti by Rawlings. All mine.

I don't remember any applause. I do remember the usher hurrying down the aisle, grinning, and saying "Nice catch," and I remember transferring the ball from my right hand to my left carefully in order to shake hands with my brother and two men sitting behind me. I was surprised to feel my arms shaking slightly.

"Great!" enthused one of the men behind me, who looked about 50. "I've been waiting all my life for one of those. Never got one."

Down on the field, the game went on. I sat down. But I couldn't stop tossing the ball up and down in my hand, turning it over and over.

Later, at home, I enshrined the ball in the place of honor in my study, next to the darts trophy, and dreamed dreams of the Big Leagues all night. Sweet kids' dreams.

Oh, yes. The Angels won in the bottom of the 12th.

And now, if I can just scrape the money together for a convertible, I can die a happy man.

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