Chasing baseballs: tradition as old as game itself

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Happens all the time at the ballpark.

“I can’t tell you, through the years, how many people have come up to me and said, `You threw the ball to my son or my daughter,’ or `You tossed me a ball at a game,’” said Coomer, who spent nine years in the big leagues with the Twins, Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees. “The impact that made on people, you might forget their names or you might forget their faces, but you never forget how good it made you feel to see the smile it put on somebody’s face.”

The smile, Hample said, lasts long after the catch is made.

“If you are that person, you have a story for the rest of your life,” he said. “It’s not all about catching A-Rod’s 800th homer or a walk-off grand slam, that’s the pinnacle of catching baseballs.

“Sometimes something as simple as a batting-practice toss up from a player is just as thrilling. You’re connecting directly with a big league ballplayer.”

Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson looks in the stands before he gives away a souvenir.

“Most people I’m throwing to can’t catch,” he said. “I’ve seen people get hit in the face. I’ve seen people get hit in the body. Depending when and where I’m tossing it to I’ll try my best to throw it at a very high arc so it comes down.”

“If a person looks like they can’t catch, I’ll put it away from them and then they can go get it,” he said. “It’s amazing what people will do for a $5 baseball.”

There is some inherent risk involved, however, even when there isn’t a battle for a historic ball like Bonds’ 756th home run.

Tumbling over a field-level railing is relatively common when a foul ball is hit down the lines, normally a harmless accident that induces chuckles and maybe a wisecrack on a late-night highlight show.

In August 2008, 10-year-old Phillies fan Kenny Campbell fell about 15 feet from the right field stands to the warning track at Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia while reaching for a ball hit during batting practice. Clearly shaken, but not seriously injured, Campbell was comforted by Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey while stadium officials rushed to examine him.

For some, the eagerness to catch a souvenir has brought anger. Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth berated a man for catching a foul ball over Werth in 2010, and of course Steve Bartman was vilified by many for touching a ball near him in the stands, preventing Cubs outfielder Moises Alou from a chance to catch it in the 2003 NLCS.

All that pales in comparison to what happened to 39-year-old Rangers fan Shannon Stone, who was fatally injured when he fell 20 feet to his death while reaching for a ball tossed into the stands by Hamilton, all in an effort to get it for his 6-year-old son Cooper.

Stone’s death resonated with players throughout the league. It may only be a $10 piece of rawhide, rubber and string to them, but to fans it’s a treasured keepsake and a story that can be told forever.

“I always toss it three or four rows deep at least,” Indians outfielder Michael Brantley said. “What a sad sight that was to see. I feel so bad for everyone involved.”

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