There is an endless variety of souvenirs that a fan can take away from a visit to any baseball stadium. However, no matter how many t-shirts, foam fingers, and bobble heads that are produced, the ultimate prize remains bringing away your own game used ball from the park. The voracious appetite that baseball fans have for such souvenirs has resulted in increasingly boorish and even dangerous behavior. Fans seem to temporarily lose grasp on decorum and sensibility if a baseball is hit or thrown in their direction, and it is something that needs to be addressed.
This issue came to the forefront recently due to the tragic death of Shannon Stone, who fell approximately twenty feet while attempting to catch a ball tossed into the crowd by Texas Ranger outfielder Josh Hamilton. As a fire fighter, Stone’s profession was grounded in safety, but in trying to get a baseball for his son, he made a mistake with dire consequences. Deserved or not, Stone’s death will serve as an example for fan behavior towards getting baseballs at games, as future incidents will be scrutinized even more closely.
Just last night (and the same day as Stone’s funeral), there was nearly another horrible accident, when a fan at the Home Run Derby stood up on a table to catch a ball, fell over the edge of a balcony, and was only saved by his companions grasping his legs. An earlier, a fan lurched into a swimming pool, with full beer in hand, as he snared one of the home run balls. Sandwiched between those types of actions are the all-too-frequent episodes of adults mauling, and in some cases even snatching baseballs from the hands of children; seemingly with no recognition of the ridiculous nature of their behavior.
The question that gnaws at me is what is so special about a baseball that reduces so many people to their more animal-like tendencies? In nearly every notable ball grabbing incident, the ball involved is not from some record setting land mark; they are regular foul balls or those put in play by batters. Not that it would excuse it, but if a fan is going to exhibit aggressive behavior or put their lives at risk for a ball, it better be one that has the potential to put a few dollars in their bank account. The typical ball a fan may get at a game is nothing more in value or substance than what you can get by going to your nearest Dick’s Sporting Goods, buying a baseball and rubbing it up with a little mud. Memories a fan thinks they may be capturing by snagging a ball at a game are surely tainted by the methods many take to obtain it.
I have first-hand experience on the perils of obtaining a ball at a game. About 15 years ago I was at Fenway Park for a game between the Red Sox and the Blue Jays. Prior to the game I was standing near the Pesky Foul Pole and was chatting with Toronto outfielder Shawn Green. When he needed to leave, he told me he had something for me and flipped me a ball from about ten feet away. I caught it, but as soon as it was in my hand, I was hit by a rush of at least 8-10 children and adults, who banged into me, attempting to claw and yank the ball from my grasp. As soon as they realized that I had it firmly in my possession, they melted away almost as if nothing ever happened, and seemingly regained their sanity as if nothing had happened. To this day it was one of the most bizarre and creepiest experiences I have had.
Unfortunately I don’t have a surefire solution to curb the dangerous behavior of fans who attempt to grab baseballs at games. I do feel that it is something that baseball must address because surely we are in line for more severe incidents if things continue unchecked. At the very least, fans who exhibit dangerous or reckless behavior when going after a ball should be immediately ejected from the stadium. I would also advocate that players should stop throwing balls into the crowd. A possible alternative would be to use ball boys and girls, and the ushers to hand out balls that would normally be tossed into the stands- using their best judgment to identify appropriate recipients- hopefully more young children receiving the balls than middle aged men with beer guts. There is a lot more to enjoy about a baseball game than just getting a ball, so hopefully fans will start realizing this and bring an end to this unfortunate aspect of the game.