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Introducing Baseball Week: Catching a Foul Ball

  • Najib Benouar

Opening Day

America’s Pastime returns to regular season play this weekend, so in our countdown to opening day, we’re proclaiming it Baseball Week here on Kempt.

Deep in the baseball almanac of 2012 lies a very extraordinary yet underpublicized stat: your humble blogger caught two foul balls in the stands last season.

And luckily for you, I, as a seasoned veteran of foul ball fielding, plan on taking you under my wing Bull Durham–style to teach you the ways of the elusive foul ball catch. You will learn from my mistakes (and my triumphs) and we’ll grow all the closer for it. (As long as we don’t let Susan Sarandon make things weird). So when that life-defining moment finally arrives, and you’ve got a baseball hurling toward your face like an orb of red-stitched destiny, you’ll know exactly how to play it.

Herewith: a user’s guide to catching a foul ball.

Sit in the right seats. Your best bet is to do a little scouting beforehand—if you’ve already been to the stadium, try and remember where you saw the majority of the foul balls land. The obvious choices here are the lower sections down the baselines, but depending on the particular ballpark, sitting behind the plate can get a decent amount of action. (The slightly lower backstop at my local AAA ballpark made it prime territory for me.)

Stay alert. You don’t want to be that guy who turns a routine fly ball into a television replay of your girlfriend getting pegged while you’re flinching there next to her, covered in the full pint of beer you just purchased. Get situated; keep your head on a swivel.

Get a lay of the land. In the heat of the moment, it will be impossible to get a good survey of the people around you—because you’ll be looking upward and focused on the ball. But if you’ve noticed there’s a kid who brought his mitt to his first game on your left, try and remember that he’ll be going for the ball too if it’s flying that way. (You can always flip him the ball after you’ve caught it, for major style points or to make any amends.) Also, if you're sitting front-row on the foul wall, try not to interfere with your own team's ability to catch a fly ball (please see: Bartman, Steve).

Otherwise it’s all fair game in foul territory. The trajectory of a ball flying into the stands really only gives about a handful of people a good chance at catching it. If you’re one of them, it’s yours.

Okay, a ball has been fouled off toward you. Thousands of onlookers are tracking the ball’s trajectory right to your seat. It’s go time. This is your time to shine—the rare moment when a regular guy gets to show his athletic prowess at a professional sports game. And usually the fans are just as invested in your catch as they are in any play being made on the field (perhaps that’s just how it feels at my home ballpark because it’s the minors). Here’s how I learned my lesson the first time.

Fundamentals. Fundamentals. Fundamentals. Use two hands if they’re both free, keep your eye on the ball and get squarely behind it. Forget about whether it’ll sting (it might). And once it’s in your palm, immediately clasp your off hand over it just like you remember securing a ball in your mitt (effectively your catching hand in this situation, assuming you're barehanded) in Little League. If you can read the stitching on the ball for spin, that’ll help too—my first foul ball looked like it was going to land about two sections away when it came off the bat, but by the time it cleared the backstop, I could see that the spin on it was breaking sharply back toward my section. (I was the only one in my row even remotely prepared for the ball to come our way.)

And here’s where my nonchalance failed me, yet fundamentals saved me: I thought I could just snag it with my bare “mitt hand” and use the off hand to slow it down a little, but the ball was still moving so fast it landed in/smacked my hand before the off hand could get there. But luckily—thanks to many a Little League practice—I had positioned my body squarely behind the catch, knees bent, and the ball was cradled by my midsection. My off hand was able to handle it and raise it to the crowd. But it was admittedly a bobble. And secretly, it stung—more than any lingering pain I was feeling in the meaty part of my palm. (Nothing that the cheers from the crowd and a few nearby high-fives couldn’t remedy, but still.)

So you’ve caught it—now what? There is some etiquette in this, which is mostly giving the crowd what they want. At this point, everyone’s gaze is upon you. The ball is now miraculously in your hand. Raise it high and mighty. Let the wave of cheers wash over you, soak in all 15 seconds of it, milk this ephemeral moment when everyone relishes in one person's dumb luck for all it's worth. I once saw a guy (using zero fundamentals) totally drop his foul ball, but he was quick enough to pick it up from his feet and flash it sheepishly to the crowd—turning awwws into “Oh, hey!” Why not? Have some fun. Get a picture of you with it, reenacting the catch. The whole nine. This is why we go to baseball games—aside from the wholly satisfying atmosphere of wanton hot dog and beer consumption. During the aftermath of the second ball I caught, I even managed to incorporate a quick slapstick-esque routine. Speaking of...

The curveballs: you’re already holding something, you brought a mitt, or you’d rather catch it with your hat so as not to risk a hand injury. There’s nothing wrong with bringing a mitt to the game as a grown adult—it just seems like the logistics of carrying one around all day might be a little cumbersome. And at least make sure you’re sitting in foul ball territory. The hat-catch seems better suited for fielding a home run (yes, there’s a difference: a home-run-hit ball has usually reached its terminal velocity before dropping much more slowly into the stands—plus, the rules of throwing them back come into play). As for the one-handed catch, it’s pretty much the same deal as above, but the stakes are higher without a second hand to assist.

That's how I caught my second foul ball—moments after I’d been handed a basket of fries. Fortunately, this one wasn’t a screamer like the last—it was a high pop-up. I reached up with my free hand, fully extended, worried for a moment that it would sail over me as I closed my eyes and gripped it like hell once it made hand-fall. (This time I didn’t play it cool with the grab. I made sure this was my triumphant unequivocally-caught-without-a-chance-of-bobble foul ball.) And there I was again basking in the adoration of the masses, my hand already fully outstretched, displaying my latest conquest. It gave me a little more time to soak in the oohs and applause, so I revealed my other hand, full of fries—to the delight of the crowd—and dove my face into the basket for a few fries to munch on while standing there in triumph as they cheered me on even louder.

Then we all went back to watching the game like nothing had happened...