Baseball has been a big deal to me since I was eight years old. We didn’t have a TV when I was a kid but on a trip to a state park in Oklahoma with my family I saw most of two games of the 1968 World Series. That’s when I became a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan, probably because I liked the “birds on the bat” uniforms better than the nondescript ones Detroit wore.
It didn’t take long to begin learning about many of the greats of baseball like Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, the Dean Brothers, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Willie Mays.
I checked out all the books from our library at Western Oaks Elementary that had anything to do with baseball. When the Bookmobile came and parked behind the school, I’d go look to see if I could afford to buy a book. And I think the Weekly Reader franchise had ways to order books that would be shipped to the school a few weeks later. I was crazy about the game – and still am!
Most fans with any sense of history know that the New York Yankees are the historic gold standard for Major League Baseball. My beloved Cardinals have won 11 World Series titles, which is amazing. The Yankees have won 27. They haven’t been great lately but, still, the opportunity to drop in on a Yankees spring training game last week was too good to pass up.
Friday, March 11, was a nearly perfect day for baseball in Tampa. The sky was a deep blue and the occasional cloud that passed overhead did little to abate the brilliance of the sun. With my ever balding head and ears that attract the rays of sun like a moth to a flame, I quickly headed to the souvenir shop and bought a bucket hat with the famous NY on it.
I went back to my seat and took in the sights and sounds of the game I love the most. Spring training games aren’t like real games in that managers don’t treat it like they’re trying to win the pennant. Mostly, they’re trying to get their best guys in shape without getting them hurt. And they’re trying to see if an older veteran can catch lightning in a bottle one more time or if a kid has a chance to reach the potential for which he was signed in the first place.
So, the game is rocking along. There’s a group of guys in their 20s about four rows in front of me. I noticed them because the kid in the Yankees replica jersey had been drinking beer and yelling a lot at Ryan Flaherty, the Orioles second baseman and former Vanderbilt star. It was mostly just a guy having fun, but he was getting on my nerves.
I think it was in the seventh inning, and as you can see from the picture, I was sitting just a few rows up from the field down the right field line. I think also that a lot of people go to spring training games because the stadiums are smaller and, if you pay attention, it’s a good possibility that you might have a shot at catching a foul ball.
Honestly, I can’t even remember who was at bat. The sun was beating down and the Yankees were winning in blowout fashion. All of sudden, the crack of the bat and the response of people all around me let me know a ball was heading our way.
Having played as much ball as I have over the years, I knew the flight of the ball was carrying a little past us. I also knew that my only chance to catch the ball would be if the ball bounced off of somebody’s hands or the railings or the concrete between the seats. Sure enough, the ball bounced around and flew several feet above me but right overhead. I tossed my phone to the side and reached up with both hands and cradled the official MLB approved baseball to my chest.
People were cheering and I was thinking how cool it was that I had caught the ball and that I could soon give it to my oldest grandson because he would be able to understand how awesome it was that Papa J had brought him a baseball from a Yankees game.
Next thing I know, the drunk guy and his friends in front of me and people behind and beside me were yelling “Give it to the kid!”
I was thinking “What kid?”
In a split second, I saw the family down on the front row. It was a couple who looked be about 30 years old or so. They had a little boy who looked about four and their daughter was maybe two.
And even though I really wanted to save that ball and give it to my grandson, I caught the dad’s eye and tossed the ball down to the kid and people started cheering again.
The boy’s mom didn’t know for sure who had thrown the ball to them. Several people pointed back at me and in a matter of seconds, Mom brings her terrific little boy up to my row, sends him across the five people between the aisle and me, and suddenly this sweet kid is standing next to me. He’s looking up at me like he wasn’t sure what to do, looks back at his mom and she’s mouthing the words “tell the man thank you for the ball.”
This little boy whom I hadn’t even noticed until a few minutes before looks up at me and says “Thank you.”
My eyes were watering big-time and I tried to do a little fist-bump but just instinctively game him a hug and said “You’re welcome.” And people cheered again.
I got up to walk around the rest of the stadium shortly thereafter. As I was making my way toward the aisle, people were saying things like “that was a really nice thing you did” and “you made that kid’s day.”
I was thinking how that mom and her little boy made my day. Partly because the boy reminded me so much of my grandsons and partly because that mom was teaching her son, like I bet she and husband often do, one of the most valuable lessons we humans can learn: Gratitude!
Our country is in a state of political shambles. I think part of problem is our lack of gratitude. Unfortunately, in a land of so much plenty, we never seem to think we have enough. And it makes it hard to be appropriately grateful for what we do have.
So, yeah I caught a foul ball at a Yankees game, but I also caught a glimpse of what we could be as people if we learned to share what we had and learned to say thank you more often.
By the way, I really like that Yankees bucket hat. I wore it the next day while I was watching the Cardinals in Jupiter.