Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Catching a Foul Ball

This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball.... Nuke LaLoush in the movie Bull Durham
There are 10 major league baseball teams that I have not seen play in person. The most important goal for myself in 2011 (other than to see 500 new species of birds in South Africa in September and October) is to see all 10 of those teams play in person. Between spring training games and trips to Tropicana Field to watch games with the Tampa Bay Rays, and trips down to Miami to watch the Florida Marlins, I should have all 10 of the missing teams under my belt by the time the World Series rolls around.

One of the teams I have not seen play in person is the New York Yankees, the team everyone loves or loves to hate. Despite my strong dislike for the word hate, I hate the New York Yankees.

Today the Yankees played the Pittsburgh Pirates in a spring training game in Bradenton Florida. Thanks to the help of a good selection of seats being available the instant I phoned the Pirates to get tickets for this game, I was able to secure a very good seat. The seat was not quite close enough to do any serious heckling of Yankee players. And besides the only Yankee I wanted to heckle was Alex Rodriquez who did not play today. Still it was in prime territory for catching foul balls.

I was a catcher when I played baseball as a kid. It was then and remains today the greatest position on the field. Other than the pitcher, the catcher is involved in every play on the field. The catcher is responsible for knowing what is going on every second of every game. If someone gets a single and decides they want to steal second base, its the catchers responsibility to throw his ass out. If someone wants to try stealing home, it's the catcher who stands there in his "tools of ignorance" protective gear and blocks the plate to get the runner. If there is a play at the plate, its the catcher who puts himself between home plate and the runner and tries to block the runner from scoring a run. I suffered my first concussion as a ninth grader when I blocked home as someone slid into me in an unsuccessful attempt to score on a tight play at the plate. When the runner hit me he did so with his right elbow square on the top of my head. I went down like a shot deer, but I held onto the ball and he was out.

Catchers love that sort of stuff.

For the 2010 Bradenton Marauders season I sat directly behind home plate which was prime heckling habitat. After mid May I started bringing a catcher's mitt to my seat every night. Although being behind a protective net, I used my catcher's mitt as a second catcher's mitt for opposing pitchers to use as a target. I viewed it as an advanced form of heckling. Although its quite a stretch I think that on more than one occasion last summer I pissed off an opposing pitcher enough that he threw the ball at me rather than at his own catcher. I'll never know.

Today at McKechnie Field I brought my catcher's mitt with me. I do this at all games when I'm not sitting behind the protective home plate netting. I do so in the very rare chance that a foul ball comes near me and I have a chance to catch it.

When I took my seat in Box 15, Row 5, Seat 5 at McKechnie Field I sat directly in front of a couple from suburban Pittsburgh who had come down to Bradenton for a couple of weeks away from the snow and ice of Pennsylvania, and to enjoy a Pirates game or two. With them they brought their handicapped son Mike. Unfortunately Mike is confined to a wheel chair because of a handicap. It might be cerebral palsy that is his handicap. Not sure what it is, but Mike is a Pirates fan and from what I could tell he was enjoying the game.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Pirates hot prospect Corey Whimberly whom the Pirates obtained in a trade with the Oakland Athletics in October 2010, came to bat. The thing about Corey is that I think he is part deer. He is lighting fast running bases and is no slouch when playing at shortstop. He made it as far as the AAA level Sacramento River Cats before being traded to the Pirates. I have watched him in spring training drills and I've seen him in several spring training games and Corey is definitely someone that Pirates fans need to watch.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the count at 2 balls and 2 strikes, Corey smashed a solid foul ball on a line drive toward the left field seats. In fact he hit the ball directly at Box 15, Row 5, Seat 4 of the left field seats - one seat to my right and a seat that was not occupied. There was no arch to this ball. No lazy Texas league hit. It wasn't one of those high pop flies that seem to take forever before gravity takes over. This ball was hit and it was hit hard and it was coming directly at my part of the stands. The ball was following the law of mathematics that says the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. It was coming at us in a straight line.

This is the view from Box 15, Row 5, Seat 5 - prime foul ball catching habitat at McKechnie Field.

It had been 42 years since I last caught a baseball. Nearly half a freaking century. Still when I'm sitting in the stands holding my catcher's mitt, I almost instinctively move with every pitch. There is no other way to describe it. I guess once you are a catcher, then always you are a catcher.

That is how it worked today.

Corey's line drive came right at the head of the handicapped kid sitting behind me. My catcher instincts kicked in and I put up my catchers mitt and SMACK....it hit my glove and I caught it. Had I missed the ball, it would have hit this immobile handicapped person sitting behind me. At a minimum it would have caused him some pretty substantial pain. Worst case scenario, had it hit him in the head it could have killed him.

I was a lousy hitter when I was a kid. I held the conference record in 1968 for being hit in the head more times than any other batter. Opposing teams probably went out of their way to hit me in the head because of how thoroughly I heckled them from behind the plate. Still I was hit in the head 8 times and that caused me to not want to be close to the plate for fear of it being nine times. Although I could not hit to save myself I was pretty good defensively. Try stealing second base and your ass was mine. Try to knock me off the plate as you roared into home and chances are you would be the one walking away with a limp. Put a mitt in front of me and I would catch anything you threw at me.

Or in the case of Corey Wimberly today, anything hit at me.

I go to baseball games now because watching baseball is about the only reason that my 59 year old body can still feel like its inhabited by a kid. I heckle because it makes me feel young again. I watch incomparable Bradenton Marauder players like Brock Holt whom I am convinced will be starting for the Pirates in 2013 and they make me feel like I am a kid again. Seeing that screaming line drive off Corey's bat today, and then catching it, also made me feel like I was a kid again.

People around me after the catch applauded and some said "that was the best catch of the game." Others said "The Pirates ought to sign you." My first instinct was to look at Mike sitting behind me and make sure he was OK.

The ball hurt my hand like you wouldn't believe. I had a ruptured tendon in my left hand from high school (because that's where all these pitched balls would hit my hand) and wouldn't you know it Corey's line drive today was caught directly on that tendon. I can't count the number of Pirates employees who came up and thanked me for catching the ball, including my Bradenton Marauders usher friend. Everyone asked if I was OK and I told everyone who asked "I am a catcher. This is what we do."

Earlier in the game Mike had received a ball from the third base umpire so he was taken care of. Sitting next to his mother was a couple who had a handicapped grandson who loved baseball but was not able to come to today's game. I had heard that earlier in the game so I turned around and gave the grandmother the foul ball. I hope he enjoys it.

Today in my quest to make me feel like a kid again, I caught a line drive hit by a major league player. It didn't mean anything as far as the game was concerned, but for this former farm boy from the north woods of Wisconsin, it made me feel like I was behind home plate catching Rick Gates' exploding fastball or Terry Christopherson's hanging curve. If just for one more time.


  1. Great story, Craig. I remember you as a damned fine catcher; it's good to know you still "have it".


  2. Craig, no good deeds go undone, Great job today my friend.

  3. Hit in the head 8 times. Now I know why you are the way you are! Great job on the catch and the passed ball, so to speak, you old catcher!

  4. Agree with Dave-HBP eight times in the head. That explains a lot.

    Wish I could have been there!

  5. Terry Christopherson. Now that is a name I hadn't thought of for some time.

  6. Great catch and post! Very evocative.

    So as a biologist, catcher, and serious baseball fan, do you think there's something to the similarities between fan cheers and birdsong? I've wondered about things like that this summer while watching my kids' Little League games and noticing the harmonization/synchronization that seems to occur among the cheers and comments by the parents on each side (and some heckling of umps). Maybe there's something more interesting going on here than simple territoriality (and supporting the kids)?