I have a theory that if you attend enough professional baseball games over a long enough period of time, eventually you are going to see and experience almost everything that the great game has to offer.
I just completed my 44th season of attending Philadelphia Phillies games. I’ve seen a lot of things in person: a World Series game in 1980. Numerous playoff games, including Doc’s 2010 no-hitter.
But over the course of hundreds of games during that span, there is one thing that I’ve never experienced: catching a foul ball at a game. I did get close once. Should have had one. And then a little girl stole my ball. Sort of.
I’ll always remember the night of my should-have-been foul ball, because after 30 years it would be my final night at Veteran’s Stadium. For three decades, since the stadium opened in my South Philly neighborhood at age 9, I had been attending games here, and this would be the last.
The date was Thursday, September 4th, 2003. The Phillies were in a battle for the NL Wildcard playoff berth, tied with the upstart Florida Marlins for that position. And they were sending my favorite pitcher, lefty Randy Wolf, to the mound against the New York Mets.
Manager Larry Bowa wrote out his lineup card for the game: Marlon Byrd in center field, Jimmy Rollins at shortstop, Bobby Abreu in right field, Mike Lieberthal at catcher, Jim Thome at 1st base, Pat Burrell in left field, Tomas Perez at 3rd base, and Nick Punto at 2nd base, with Wolf in the pitcher slot hitting 9th.
The Mets countered with Hall of Fame lefty Tom Glavine on the mound, and his battery mate was future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza. But aside from those two, the Mets didn’t have much. They were a shell of the team that just 3 years earlier had reached the World Series, and now floundered in last place in the NL East.
New York scored a run in the first off Wolf, and then another in the top of the 5th, both knocked in by shortstop Jorge Velandia. But then the Phils erupted for a 4-spot in the bottom of the 5th. Wolf helped himself with a rbi double, and then a 3-run homer by a then 24-year old JRoll put the Phils on top.
The Mets scored again off Wolf in the top of the 7th, cutting the Phils lead to a single run. But in the Phillies half, Bowa sent up Jason Michaels to pinch-hit for his pitcher. Michaels drove a homerun to left field, putting the Phils back up by a pair.
I had missed the top of the 7th, because I decided that, with this being my likely final trip to a Phillies game here at The Vet, I wanted one final hotdog. So I had gone down to a stand just under our seats, which were pretty good, right behind the first base bag.
I was scarfing down my dog when Michaels homered, and it seemed that this was going to be a fitting way to end my three decades relationship with the old concrete giant at Broad and Pattison. Enjoying a hotdog during a clinching homerun of my final Phillies game while they were in serious playoff contention.
And then Byrd stepped up to the plate.
At some point in his at-bat, he got around late on a pitch, and shot a foul ball my way. This was no popup or looper. A screaming line drive was honing in on me like a Patriot missile on a Scud in Desert Storm.
As soon as the ball was off the bat and headed in our direction, myself and those around us stood up. I was on the end seat in our aisle, with my wife directly to my right. I had just a couple of seconds to react, tops. With no glove to defend me, I used the only padded object available to me. I turned my butt.
The screaming missile found it’s target, nailing me directly on my turned left butt cheek. My thought in the next split second was “Oh my God, at my last Phillies game here at The Vet, I’m FINALLY going to get a foul ball!” Though the first small pangs of pain were creeping into my consciousness from that left cheek, I was happy. For a second.
It’s funny how much your mind can take in with just a couple of seconds to react. I knew that I had been hit by the foul ball, square on that butt cheek. I knew also that there was no one really close to me except my wife. There were just over 19,000 in attendance that night, and the crowd directly around us was spread out.
In the split-second after the ball met the cheek, I had heard a sound. Later, the best way that I was able to describe this sound would be, if you ever have played a game of Skee-Ball on an amusement pier or at a carnival, the sound that the wooden balls make when they plop into the hole? That was the sound that I heard in the second after getting hit with it.
I turned to try to find the baseball, knowing that after it hit me, it must have dropped right down at my feet. I didn’t see it, and turned around to observe that when I had stood up, my plastic seat had flipped back to the upright position. The ball must have hit my butt cheeck, and dropped down into the space between my seat and the seat-back. That was the Skee-Ball sound I had heard.
I looked down, but didn’t see the ball. And then I did, it was rolling out into the aisle. I got to see the ball. I got to watch it slowly, excrutiatingly slow, roll out into the aisle. I had just enough time to think about how I was going to just reach out and scoop up my prize.
And then SHE appeared. Out of nowhere. A little girl, couldn’t have been more than 5-6 years old. She wasn’t running for the foul ball. She just happened to be walking up the steps in the aisle as MY ball rolled out into it. The ball rolled directly into her path, and in one motion she reached down and picked it up.
My foul ball was gone: that fast, and that simple.
I am not proud of the thought that passed through my then 41-year old head in that moment. It involved swearing and cussing and all manner of outrage. But none of that came out of me. You had to see this little girl. She was like a little, innocent angel who had simply stumbled into something at age 5, maybe at her first Phils game, that I had waited a lifetime to have happen.
I smiled at her as she looked up at me, holding my foul ball in her little hands. Then I looked up and saw what must have been her Dad right behind her, and I smiled at him. If he was a human being at all, he had to see the hurt in my eyes behind my half-hearted, purely polite smile.
He scooped up his little girl, and I watched the smiles on their faces as they looked at each other and the ball, and he offered her some sort of congratulations. And I was happy for her. Genuinely happy. She would have a story to tell for the rest of her life. And a ball. My ball. Her ball.
But she wouldn’t be the only one with a story to tell, so would I. My wife and I sat down, and with my butt still throbbing a bit, we talked about what had just happened, wondering how it was possible that things could have turned out the way that they did.
Back in the ballgame, the Mets tied things up in the top of the 9th. In the bottom, tied at 5-5, Lieberthal singled to score Byrd, and the Phillies walked off with a 6-5 win that kept them tied with the Marlins for the Wildcard berth for another day.
We walked out of the old stadium generally happy, but also melancholy. The Phils had won and were contending still. My butt was feeling better, but my psyche was still a bit bruised from the loss of the ball. I asked my wife to wait for a moment as we walked down the ramps to leave, and one last time, I walked out to look on the field.
The lights had been turned down, giving the old Vet a shadowy feeling. For a few seconds, I thought back on all I had seen here over 30 years: astroturf and dancing fountains, Bull Blasts, Schmidty going Outta Here, Lefty gems, Bowa’s glove, Charlie Hustle, Tugger slapping his thigh, the Phanatic, Dutch, the Dude, Krukker, the Wild Thing, now a new generation with JRoll and Pat the Bat and The Wolf Pack.
Veteran’s Stadium gave me a thousand great memories over three decades. I soaked it all in one last time, thinking about all of these things. Then I smiled, thinking again about the one thing that I had never got, but so nearly did on that final night, thanks to the little girl who stole my ball.