When a child goes to a Major League ballpark for the first time, often they come with a glove. The glove - large or small - is already strapped to that child's hand as they enter the park, hundreds of feet away from any actual baseballs being thrown. The child is excited because their dad or mom has told them "You might catch a baseball tonight!"
Do you know how many of those children come away from the game with a game-used baseball?
According to the Fake Book of Statistics, about 2%. The rest of them wonder why in the world they brought this sticky piece of leather in the first place, forget their glove at the bathroom, cry that they never got a ball, or leave with a baseball...that their parents bought for too much money at the team store.
It's assumed by children that eventually they or their parents will get that piece of game-used spherical glory. The end result is me - a near-30-year-old who has been to many games in her life, yet never came away with any ball of any kind. That type of adult is one who still dives for balls over actual human beings, makes their friends or complete strangers hold their legs while they go over the wall to grab a rolling foul ball, or still brings that oversized softball glove to games.
My story begins with a trip with my father to Tiger Stadium back in the late '90s. It was just him and me - a rarity when I was a kid, but eventually commonplace as we attended Michigan football, Detroit Red Wings, and Detroit Tigers games as the Dynamic Duo. At this point in my life, it was totally cool! My siblings were home with Mom, and I got to stay out late and watch baseball. If I recall correctly, this game featured Juan Encarnacion hitting a grand slam and me choking on ice cream.
But before all that, my Dad and I were walking from our seats on the third base side to left field, hoping to catch a batting practice home run. As we were about to get there, someone sends a ball straight past us and down the tunnel that lead to the concourse. Honestly, I never knew my father could run so fast. He bolted towards the rolling ball, determined to grab it for his daughter. And whaddya know...another father and his son were walking up the tunnel, and the ball came to a halt at his feet. All he did was pick it up. And my father was dejected.
Did I mention my father had never gotten a game-used ball either?
Another example of an opportunity lost came in 2012, when I went to Lakeland, Florida for the Detroit Tigers' Spring Training. I went to a Tigers-Yankees game at Joker Marchant Stadium with a friend, and we sat in the outfield grass. During the game, a Yankee home run ball came straight for us and landed right in front of us on the grass. We both dove down to it - my friend even touched it, I believe - but the people in front of us managed to snatch it from the green grass.
There are many examples of chivalrous actions being done by adults when a ball comes to them (giving it to a girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife/grandparent/child nearby) but as the years passed and I kept being eluded by those game-used baseballs, I seriously began to doubt that I would be at all chivalrous.
I kept imagining scenarios when I would finally get the ball, and next to me would be a six-year-old in full on Bambi-mode, looking at me with wide eyes and pouty lips, and I would turn into the Grinch and say, "Just you wait 20 years and you'll know how I feel right now; you are NOT getting this ball!" Then everyone would boo me, and I would be stubborn, and people would throw stuff at me until I left.
My craving for a baseball was now becoming a nightmare.
Then came Wednesday.
I was in Pittsburgh visiting my sister for a couple of days, and even though she isn't a huge baseball fan, she got us tickets to the Pirates-Cubs game at PNC Park. I was thrilled to bits. I put on my Tigers' jersey, Tigers' hat, and Tigers' drawstring backpack, and we parked downtown.
Even though the park is on the North Side of Pittsburgh, we parked downtown because they close down one of the Three Sisters' Bridges (now called the Roberto Clemente Bridge) so pedestrians can use it. For us, this was a treat, since the only other time we can wander down the middle of a busy road is on Memorial Day after the parade in our hometown.
As we walked to the North Side, we noticed storm clouds gathering above Mt. Washington, meaning they were going to be passing over Pittsburgh next. We got out our umbrellas when the first drops started to fall, and then went under a walkway that connected two buildings when the rain came down harder.
Eventually the rain turned into an insane severe thunderstorm, and that turned into a downpour. We had taken shelter in a bar during the severe weather, but entered PNC Park when it was back to rain. Everyone was in the concourse eating, and we did the same. We did the entire loop of the stadium, and determined that if nothing had been announced about the game by 8:00, we would leave.
Wouldn't you know, ten minutes before 8:00 the grounds crew came out and took off the tarp. At that point we decided to stay for at least part of the game, even though the official start time wasn't until 8:40.
Because we had about 45 minutes to go, my sister suggested we get a helmet ice cream, so that I could get my souvenir. (I've been collecting them this summer.) The Sweet Spot was located behind home plate, so we got some delicious ice cream there. The nice lady who scooped our ice cream (I wish I knew her name; she was integral to the story) gave us way more than we were supposed to get, since she saw we were going to share. How nice!
This did mean that we had an overflowing helmet of ice cream, and our seats were out in center field. The two of us decided to just find a seat in the section behind home plate, finish our ice cream, and then head out to our seats.
The section worker was busy wiping down all the seats, so we didn't have to get our tickets checked. We simply settled into our seats and started eating.
The section worker did end up coming to the two of us and asked us kindly, "So are these your seats?" My sister - also integral to the story - was honest and said that we were out in section 139. I explained that we were just trying to eat our ice cream here before it melted. The worker said, "...Do you really want to go out to section 139?" My sister replied, "Not really," and he said, "Okay?"
That meant we were allowed to sit behind home plate! The worker told us that his name was Jim, and anything we needed we could ask. What a cool guy! No one came to claim the seats, so we stuck around in that spot.
The innings that we stayed for were great. In the first inning Andrew McCutchen hit a 2-run home run, and the centerfield wall exploded with fireworks while a building across the river lit up their roof in rainbow colors! There were chants of "Let's Go Bucs!" all around us, and everyone who stuck around in the rain delay was excited to see some baseball.
Then came the top of the 2nd inning. Pirates pitcher Brandon Cumpton was facing Cubs left fielder Chris Coghlan. Our ice cream conquered and my All-Star punchout card punched, we had settled in to watch the game. Cumpton pitched, Coghlan made contact...and the ball flew back, over the fencing and STRAIGHT FOR US.
I remember myself audibly saying, "OH MAN" as the ball came closer, and I watched as it went to the seats right across the row from us. The man sitting there tried to cradle it at his chest, but the ball bounced out and rolled into the aisle.
Which meant I was closest to a baseball as I had ever been before.
Even though my sister was in the aisle seat, I jumped up, leaned over her, scraped my left elbow against the chair in front of us, tracked it with my eyes, and before the man could reach down and get the ball, snatched it from his grasp!
As my fingers finally enveloped my elusive Golden Snitch, I could hear the angels singing the "Hallelujah Chorus" and my heart swelled. I had done it!!! I got a game-used MLB baseball!!!!
My sister texted my dad, and he replied, "Did she knock over four kids to get to it?" No, Dad, I did not. As a matter of fact, the nearest kids were several seats away, and none of them (bless their little hearts) came over to ask me for the ball. I got to revel in my shock and elation with my sister and Jim! He came over and said wryly, "Aren't you glad I didn't make you move to section 139?" Um, yes, Jim! He was outstanding. I made sure to get a picture of him with the ball.
My long baseball drought is now over. After years of failures and close calls, I have achieved a life-long dream of mine, and I can hardly believe it.
Thanks to the rain, the ice cream lady, my sister, and Jim all doing just the right things at just the right time, I completed the task.
Now that I have that baseball, my chivalry can now come out. If I get another ball and a child is next to me, I will hand it over with a gleam in my eye.
Of course, if my father is with me, he's going to get it. He's waited longer than I have.