November 5, 2009
As a 15-year-old A's fan, I went to war with my parents in 1991 for the right to go to games by myself. Despite my teenage histrionics, they weren't budging.
Their tune changed, but just a little, the next year. Before the season, they compromised by saying I could go to day games by myself. It was a start. I quickly set two goals: Go to at least 20 games, and get my first baseball at a game.
I quickly became a semi-regular in the left-field bleachers. I got to know the regulars, many of them ballhawks, and watched and learned. One of them, Chris Leister, told me, "You aren't really one of us until you get a gamer."
Fast-forward to July 23, 1992. I had been to 19 games, but still hadn't snagged a baseball. The A's were at home, but it was a night game against the Blue Jays. I sat at home and suffered while watching the game on TV.
The next night, the A's were playing the Jays again. After getting home from school, I was moping around the house dreading having to watch another game on TV. My mom was able to figure this out and asked me out of the blue, "Do you want to go to the game tonight?"
It took a few seconds for the question to register and what it exactly meant. I answered, "Do you mean by myself?" She said yes. After having gone to a few games with me and meeting all the regulars, she knew they'd look out for me and she was sick of me being miserable every time I had to watch a home game on TV.
I rushed to the park, missing batting practice, although I was still so clueless I couldn't get a ball in B.P. anyways. But still, I had reached my first goal. It was my 20th game of the season. I wouldn't miss another home game for two and a half years, and that's only because I picked a college on the other side of the country.
That left one more goal. Mark McGwire led off the bottom of the second inning against a young Toronto lefty named David Wells. McGwire hit a towering shot to left field and what seemed like a dozen ballhawks took off in the direction of the ball.
Eventually I decided, "I might as well go after it too." It landed on the stairway separating the bleachers from the reserved seats. (The stairway is still there, but fans no longer have access to it.) Eventually it hit something and started bouncing back down the stairs, somehow avoiding several ballhawks who had started up the stairs in pursuit.
Toward the bottom of the stairs, I was just standing there, stunned, as the ball basically rolled to my feet. I jumped on it and covered it up, and some kid I didn't know came in late and tried to pry it out of my glove. That wasn't happening though, I had a death grip on that ball and he eventually gave up.
Both of my goals were accomplished, and I was officially a ballhawk.
I added a couple Rickey Henderson home runs that season and slowly figured my way around during B.P., finishing my first season with a modest total of 35 baseballs. The next year I collected 15 home runs, including my first of five two-homer games.
More important than the baseballs were all the friends I collected over the years. I was the best man at the wedding of a friend I met in the bleachers in 1992. Now he's got two kids and he still has his gamers on display in his home office.
I still stay in touch with old-timers like Jay Didion, the best ballhawk I've personally ever seen in action. I also saw younger guys starting out, like a skinny pothead named Jake Frazier, long before the term "Jaked" was coined and he was using his now-ample frame to send people flying.
I miss those days now that I'm a "responsible adult." That doesn't stop me from running around the nearest bleachers every once in awhile, but I definitely don't cover as much ground.
Enough about me, though. How did it start for you?
Rick Gold is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com.