April 22, 2010
Anyone that's ever caught a baseball in the bleachers during batting practice or has had one thrown to them near the dugout has probably heard these words before: "Give it to the kid." It's happened to me. Multiple times. I really dislike that people think that way. The shouts can die off quickly or pick up steam depending on the energy of whatever section you're in or whatever stadium you've gone to and sometimes the vibe is different based on how the game is going. Is the home team winning? Is it just too cold outside?
Whatever the circumstances it seems like, more often than not, somebody in the seats near anyone that catches a baseball has the expectation that said ball should end up in the hands of the nearest tyke under the age of ten. Anyone ever see that episode of Rocko's Modern Life? Rocko gets a foul ball-there's a little kid nearby and eventually Rocko, who would have treasured that ball, hands it over to the kid out of guilt. Ever happened to you? Ever been heckled because you got a ball? Confronted? Threatened? It's happened to me.
I caught my first baseball at a game between the Red Sox and the Angels at Angel Stadium during batting practice. Manny Ramirez hit it. I caught it on the fly by reaching out over the wall in right field. I was thrilled; in disbelief. I was twenty-one years old. I looked around to see if my girlfriend (or anyone else) had seen it. She had gone to look around the stadium... and no one else cared except one young boy. He asked me if he could have the ball. I looked him straight in the eye and said, "Nope."
I don't care how old or how young you are, when I get a baseball or a hockey puck or a football or a piece of candy, whatever it is, it's mine. I can choose to offer it to you or I can choose not to. Who are these kids nowadays that feel like they are entitled to other people's stuff? Who encourages this? I'll get to that in a minute. I had just caught my first baseball. It was special to me. I still have it. And I couldn't help but be angry at this boy of about eleven or twelve who thought it was totally OK to ask if he could have my souvenir.
Thanks to my newfound hobby of attending batting practice regularly and actively pursuing baseballs the way an antique enthusiast pursues old, handmade, decorative plates I'm up to 166 baseballs as I write this article. Is any one baseball quite as special to me as that first one? Probably... I did finally catch a foul ball last year. My first foul ball-ever. I was twenty-six. That one was pretty special. My first home run during a game will be pretty cool, too... one day. My point is I certainly don't expect a stamp collector to just hand me (or my son, brother, or whoever) a rare, limited edition stamp he tracked down. That would be ridiculous.
Why, then, do fans at baseball games expect that I should simply hand over a ball that was thrown into the seats? I put the effort into catching it so I obviously want to have it. Now, there are three ways I usually obtain a baseball: it's hit in my direction and I have the skill and coordination to catch it, it's thrown to me, or it's thrown near me. I've never stolen a baseball that was thrown specifically to someone else. As a matter of fact, I often help people with young kids get baseballs because I have a glove and they don't. If it is meant for a little kid and I have anything to do with it, that kid's getting the ball.
If I catch a ball hit into the stands I'm probably protecting someone from getting hit in the process. I've caught baseballs that would have hit people who weren't paying attention on multiple occasions. Sometimes they thank me... and sometimes they complain that I should give the ball to their son or cousin. And if a ball is thrown right to me... I know it. Non-verbal communication is pretty clear.
And more than once I've been shoved out of the way or someone has snuck in and grabbed a baseball meant for me... I get upset but I don't ask for the ball. They probably didn't know any better. Why does this craziness of insisting that a ball be given to a kid take place at every baseball stadium across the country? You know what? Sometimes, even if a kid really wants something, they don't get it. And that's OK. Sometimes you don't get what you want until you're twenty-one.
My first guess is that parents don't teach their kids the right values in a lot of situations. My parents taught me to work for the things I want. And that it is rude to ask someone I don't know to give me their possession to keep. So I don't do that. Plenty of parents out there, it seems, teach their kids that asking for stuff from strangers is okay. It's not-unless the stranger is your waiter and you want more Pepsi.
Sometimes parents teach that poor lesson by setting a terrible example: "Hey, man, that ball was for my kid," comes to mind. Was it? Because it got thrown into a crowd of people from twenty feet away. I feel like a lot of the time the parent wants the ball for their child more than the child wants the ball. My son or daughter will get a ball when they show some effort in trying to get one. I hope to be able to help them achieve their goal. They don't need to achieve my goal for them.
Recently I saw a guy prop his kid up on a wall near a field and ask every player nearby for a ball for his son. When I got one shortly thereafter I decided to give it to the kid. I walked over and said I'd like the little boy (about two) to have the ball because he seemed to really want one. When I handed it to the boy he didn't even care. He didn't even know what was going on. I learned quickly that the father wanted his son to have a baseball. That's fine. But if you want a ball-don't tell me that I upset your kid because your kid doesn't have a ball yet. I think your kid is fine. I upset you... and you and I can have some words, aggressive-parent-that-gets-on-my-nerves.
At the last game I went to I found a family of four (two young boys, a mom, and a dad). I saw that the two little boys were wearing baseball gloves. I asked the dad, "Did you guys catch a baseball today?" He said no. I pulled two baseballs I'd caught out of my jacket and handed one to each boy. Their eyes lit up, the parents thanked me, the kids thanked me, and the family was thrilled. Kindness is better than guilt. I give away baseballs on my terms. The idea that anyone would just expect me to give something of mine away is ludicrous. Cool Jason Bay autographed baseball card, dude. Can my kid have it? Doesn't that sound absurd?
Why not teach your kid how to get a baseball for themselves. Teach them to catch, spend the time at BP, and actively watch the game, being aware of foul balls and toss-ups. That will improve your kid's life more than a baseball-more than teaching them how to mooch. Once, I caught a third out toss from fifty feet away from the field, sat back down in my seat, and two minutes later a middle-aged man wanted to know how old I was. He said it was ridiculous that I wanted to catch that ball. A lot of things people do are ridiculous to me... but their stuff doesn't hurt me so I let them go on doing it. Live and let live, right?
The other type of give-it-to-the-kid-minded person is your average Joe fan. This fan doesn't know you-or the kid. He or she shouts out what you should do with the baseball or heckles you for bringing a glove to the game or makes fun of your excitement over catching a baseball. But do I go around making fun of people when they catch a wave while surfing, or catch a lightning bug in a jar? No, I don't. Because that's important to them. That's how they spend their time. I feel like the guy that says I should give the baseball I caught to a kid is mostly jealous because I have a baseball and he doesn't. And he wants the playing field to be level again. Instead of thinking, "Cool, that guy caught a souvenir and that makes him happy," the heckler probably thinks, "That jerk got a ball. That sucks he's got one and I don't," or, "Only kids care about that... give it to a kid."
Some of the thrill of getting a baseball is about the skill and/or luck of getting it. When I get a baseball it's like I won a mini-lottery. Sometimes I feel charitable and I give away my prize to someone I believe wants it more than I do. I don't like it when other people assume they know what I should do with my prize, however. I give away baseballs to children all the time, or if I can't decide on someone to give a ball to I will usually give one to an usher to keep or to give away as they see fit. Whatever the situation, if I catch a baseball then I'll decide when I want to give that baseball away. Thank you to everyone else in the stadium for understanding.
Matt Jackson is a contributing columnist to myGameBalls.com and also maintains a Blog.