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On a Day Like This, a Foul Ball Sets the World Right

September 29, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

I caught a foul ball at a baseball game last week. First time in 60 years of going to baseball games it ever happened to me.

I was making my annual farewell trip to Anaheim Stadium. I don't like to go on the last day when they give away all those prizes. If the Angels are out of the pennant race--as they have been for most of this year--I prefer to go a night or two before their final home game, when the crowd is likely to be small, and I can drape my legs over the seat in front of me and spread out my beer and newspaper and hot dog on the seats around me.

I perform this ritual every year: kiss off the baseball season in person, packing it all away in my head till next spring when the cycle resumes. Twice it has happened at divisional playoff games; I saw--and will never forget--the Boston debacle when the Angels blew their only real chance in 25 years for a World Series with that tragicomic ninth inning in the fifth game. But there was no chance of that this year. The game with Minnesota was meaningless for both teams, and the crowd--much smaller normal--reflected that.

Even so, the terrace seat I bought that night was out in the boondocks of right field. It fascinates me that in a stadium two-thirds empty, the best seat they could find for me almost overlooked the Angel bullpen. I have long since stopped paying attention to that, however. I buy a seat to get me into the area I want, buy a tray of food so I clearly can't get my ticket out of my pocket for checking by the usher, then sit with great assurance in the best empty seat I can find. I usually have to move a few times, but that is no problem. Apparently the corporations buy up the good seats with season tickets, then frequently don't show--especially when the game is meaningless, as it was last Thursday.

So I was sitting behind first base, where I could read the lettering on the players' uniforms, and soaking up the ambiance while I watched the Angels get worked over for the fifth straight time. Usually this last visit is also intended to stoke up some hope for next year, but that is hard to do with the Angels. They desperately need power hitting and have no one in their farm system to supply it. So unless they go into the free-agency market, things look bleak for next year.

The Angels were losing, 6-2, at the end of the seventh inning, and I debated going home. But it is tough to walk out early on the last game of the season--at least, my last game of the season--so I had settled back in my seat to go the whole route with the Angels when they came to bat in the bottom of the eighth. Dick Schofield was the hitter, and he had already fouled one ball into the stands. A new ball was thrown in, and he sliced it 8 or 10 feet off the ground directly toward me. By this time, I was sitting about 20 rows up in the field boxes behind first base.

The ball hit an empty seat about five rows below me and made a perfect arc toward my outstretched hands. It settled there, spinning wildly--and I dropped it. The ball fell to the floor under my feet and rolled around there. And instantly I was surrounded by vultures. There were probably a dozen of them, mostly young men in their late teens or early 20s.

I was acutely conscious of hands and shoulders coming in from every direction, and suddenly I was swept with an enormous determination not to lose this ball. So I fell on it. Literally. As if it were a fumbled football. While all these hands were plucking at me, I lay atop the ball under the seats. Finally the hands and the bodies withdrew, and I stood up with my ball. I waved it, and what was left of the crowd cheered. I had fantasized this moment a few hundred thousand times, and I forgot to look to see if the stadium television had picked up my moment of triumph.

The aftermath was surprising. An usher came down to see if I was OK, then patted me on the shoulder and said: "I'm glad you got that ball instead of those kids." A dozen people made eye contact with me and smiled, and a few pumped their fists. And for the rest of that inning, everyone who walked up the aisle either patted me on the shoulder or congratulated me. Apparently the picture of a white head of hair, submerged under all those young bodies and still coming up with the ball, pleased them. Even one of the boys who was grappling with me gave me a soft poke on the arm as he went by.

It's funny, the impact of such a small incident. I have written sports on and off for years and even worked for the St. Louis Cardinals many years ago, so I have had access to major league baseballs. But getting one in the stands is a totally different experience--a sign, somehow, that good fortune is looking in your direction.

I was very conscious of the ball bouncing in my pocket as I walked out to the parking lot, and when I got to my car, I turned on the dome light and studied it. It says "*OFFICIAL BALL* AMERICAN LEAGUE" and it's signed by Bobby Brown, president of the league. That's authority enough for me.

Right now, the ball is a centerpiece on our dining room table. I'm hopeful--but dubious--that it can stay there until spring, when the season stars again and we can all go on to new triumphs.

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