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BILL PLASCHKE

Headlong pursuit of baseballs in the stands can have tragic consequences, but the lesson continues to go unheeded

Fans were risking life and limb to chase souvenirs during Monday's home run derby, only four days after a fan fell to his death while trying to catch a ball at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Will they ever learn?

July 12, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • A fan is held by his feet as he tries to reach for a home run ball during the All-Star home run derby in Arizona on Monday.
A fan is held by his feet as he tries to reach for a home run ball during the All-Star… (Jeff Haynes / Reuters )

I've got this old college buddy, stable guy, family man, conservative, churchgoing, careful.

Several years ago at a major league baseball game, the danged fool fell out of the stands trying to grab a foul ball.

Barry McCoy leaned far over the railing along the third base line at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, in hopes of grabbing a foul grounder. He missed the ball and tumbled four feet down to the grass, landing on his back, lucky he didn't hit his head.

I still don't understand why he would take that chance. He said I still don't understand.

"You get caught up in the moment, you've got a chance to grab that trophy, you have to go for it," he said.

Recently at the same location, another fan was not so fortunate.

Shannon Stone, a veteran firefighter and family man, fell 20 feet to his death at Rangers Ballpark last week while leaning out of the stands to catch the toss of a foul ball from Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton.

The tragedy saddened everyone, but taught nothing. Four days later, during Monday's home run derby at the All-Star game festivities in Phoenix, fans were still willing to risk paying the ultimate price in hopes of catching a $12.99 ball.

There was the guy in checkered Bermuda shorts who lunged to catch a ball just before falling into a swimming pool less than five feet deep. There was the guy in the polo shirt who wrestled a ball from the clutches of a woman while both tangled on a concrete floor.

Then there was Keith Carmickle, the guy who reached too far in attempting to catch a homer by Prince Fielder and was left dangling 20 feet above the pool deck before his brother and a friend pulled him to safety.

An understandably overeager dude chasing his first homer? Not quite. It wasn't even his first home run ball of the night.

''We caught three balls and I told the guys I was going to go for the cycle," Carmickle told the Associated Press. "Dude, they were really holding on to me."

On the day of Stone's memorial service, fans were still treating the cause of his death like some misguided test of manhood, and you wonder when they will learn.

C'mon people. It's just a ball. It's just a moment. Neither are worth the risks that are often taken to acquire them.

"People go crazy, they're not thinking properly, they see something free and they have to go for it," said Aaron Tung, a New York advertising executive.

Tung is in this story because several years ago in Oakland, he coaxed a third-out ball from outfielder Jermaine Dye. The toss was made, Tung caught it in his bare hands and . . . boom.

''All of a sudden I was surrounded by people hitting me and shoving me and grabbing at the ball," he recalled. "My glasses were knocked off my face and crushed. I was really battered around."

He didn't give up the ball. He couldn't believe that nobody apologized or asked if he was OK. He blindly made his way back home. Yet if he finds himself near another batted or thrown baseball? Tung said he would be the one leaping on the dog pile.

"I'd throw some elbows, I would elevate, I would get right in there," he said. "That was the only ball I caught, and I would like to get a chance at another one."

That's the problem. Baseballs in the stands are the junk food of sports. Everyone knows their thrill is fleeting and their effect can be poisoning, yet the price is right and the gratification is instant and few can stay away.

"People just go nuts over it, and there's nothing anybody can do about it," said Rob Main, a longtime Angels fan from Garden Grove who may be the local dean of balls in the stands.

In more than 40 years of attending Angels games, Main has caught 21 fouls and one notable home run ball. In October 2002, it was Main who ended up on the bottom of a pile and in possession of Scott Spiezio's landmark World Series homer against the San Francisco Giants.

The disappearance of the ball Kirk Gibson hit in the 1988 World Series meant that Main owned perhaps the most valuable home run baseball in Southern California history. Yet the following season, Main returned the ball to Spiezio with no demands, beginning a relationship that he calls priceless.

"For the rest of his career, he took care of me in so many ways. I'll never regret giving him that ball," Main said.

Sitting in the front row along the third base line in the top level of Angel Stadium, Main now picks off foul balls from left-handed hitters with his glove, but then hands them to nearby children.

"I look at people fighting for them every night down in the Diamond Club and I'm thinking, it's not really worth it, is it?" he said. "Everybody wants that piece of history. But most of the time it's just a ball."

My buddy Barry certainly has a good story about chasing one of those balls, and has caught several in his life, but where are those balls today?

"I don't know where any of them are anymore . . . except for one," he said.

That would be the first foul ball he caught, many years ago, amid great effort and angst. He recently retrieved it from storage, only to discover it had been eaten away by rats.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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