Chasing baseballs: tradition as old as game itself

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Long before he became a big league All-Star, Ron Coomer was a little kid growing up in Chicago who delighted in going to ballgames with a mitt on his hand and his father by his side.

They would head to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs or Comiskey Park to check out the White Sox, but the game itself was almost a sideshow for little Coomer. More than a win for the home team, more than seeing a homer from Ron Santo, Coomer always wanted to get his hands on a baseball used in the game.

“Every person who has ever been to a ballpark would love to get a baseball,” Coomer said in a telephone interview on Friday. “Other than getting your favorite player’s autograph, getting a baseball was what you wanted the most.”

Maybe even more than the crack of the bat, a hot dog with relish or the seventh-inning stretch, the prospect of bringing home a piece of the game is one of the most charming and unique parts of America’s pastime, a tradition as old as baseball itself.

But the pursuit of that memento proved dangerous Thursday night when a man fell to his death in Texas while reaching for a foul ball tossed his way by Rangers star Josh Hamilton.

“When I was younger and I went to the ballpark, my hope was to get a foul ball,” an emotional Rangers President Nolan Ryan said. “You can see how many people come into our ballpark with gloves, just hoping to have that opportunity. That’s just part of the experience of being there.”

It’s been that way for as long as the game has been played.

From Ebbets Field in early 20th century Brooklyn to Target Field in 21st century Minneapolis, fans have always gone to the ballpark in hopes of getting their hands on a baseball used by their favorite player.

The intoxicating possibility of it all often extends beyond the walls of Fenway Park or Camden Yards.

Kids would gather on Sheffield and Waveland on the north side of Chicago, carrying “Hit it here, Sammy!” signs as slugger Sammy Sosa would launch homers out of Wrigley. During Barry Bonds’ assault on the home run record, fans would paddle their kayaks in McCovey Cove outside AT&T Park to chase down the balls as they splashed into the water.

“I think it’s about connecting to the sport and to our heroes and feeling like we’re involved somehow,” said 33-year-old Zack Hample, who has collected more than 5,000 baseballs and written three books on the subject. “There’s something extra special about earning or catching your souvenir as opposed to buying one in a souvenir store.”

“Anyone can go buy a baseball, but to get someone as good as Josh Hamilton to pick you out and throw it to you, to have his DNA on the ball, to have the story to go with it, there’s something very exciting about that.”

The strongest memories seem to be made when a player flips a ball to a fan in the stands. It’s a personal connection, if only for a few seconds, that seems to be equally rewarding for both sides.

“I think that’s just part of being a fan, they want that foul ball,” Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. “As a kid you grow up quote unquote dreaming of getting that foul ball, and a parent will do whatever it takes to get that foul ball, and hand it off to their kid.”

Think about it. How often did Brett Favre toss a football into the stands at Lambeau or Kobe Bryant flip a basketball to a kid at Staples Center?

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