My Sports Illustrated colleagues and I are journalists by day (and night), but like those who read the pages of the magazine and frequent this and other sports web sites, we are fans at heart. Objective? I can say with certainty that those of us at SI wear that hat when we need to, but as a professor at the University of Missouri told me almost 40 years ago, “Show me a journalist who’s 100% objective, and I’ll show you someone who’s headed to an insane asylum.” Plus, you don’t get into this business without having an admiration of and a curiosity about the athletes and the games they play.
Over the past 30 years, I have dragged my understanding wife, Leigh, to too many sporting events to list here. At home I have subjected her to countless telecasts that have dragged from the early afternoon hours through dinner and deep into the night. (“It’s my job!” is the typical refrain.) On Wednesday, I made one of my typically maddening spur-of-the-moment proposals, suggesting two hours before first pitch that we attend the Rangers-Mariners matinee in Arlington. (I’ve been a Rangers fan since the franchise arrived in Texas from Washington D.C. in 1972; I still have nightmares about the fly ball Nelson Cruz misplayed in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.) The suggestion was fueled not only by the Rangers’ improbable walk-off win the previous night but also by the magical season I have watched unfold. Leigh said yes. I found a pair of seats on StubHub for $6 each, and 25 minutes after we left the house we were in our seats, down low in leftfield, just inside the foul pole.
After braving the sun for a couple of innings in a section we basically had to ourselves, we moved for cover, under the overhang of the second deck. A gentle breeze cooled things down, making the temperature bearable. And we were watching baseball. Is there a game that provides a better respite? We were just a couple of fans soaking it all in.
In the fourth, Carlos Gomez stepped to the plate for Texas with the bases loaded. Gomez had been released by the Astros earlier in the month, and the fan in me had questioned why a first-place team would jeopardize its clubhouse chemistry by bringing in a guy whose batting average was hovering around the Mendoza Line. I told Leigh as much. Then, magic. Gomez hit a towering shot into the next section over.
In one regard, Gomez has something in common with my favorite Ranger. Adrian Beltre plays the game with a joy and a passion that we don’t see enough of in sports today. The man is just plain special. Last August, Leigh and I were there to watch him hit for the cycle against Houston. He’s pulled off that rare feat three times now, more than any other player in MLB history, and he's closing in on 3,000 hits. He’s a future Hall of Famer; first ballot, if you ask this fan.
But I’d also say he’s underappreciated. One night this week, I watched as MLB Network's analysts ran through a list of 10 AL MVP candidates without even mentioning a player who’s batting close to .300 and is on pace to hit 30 homers and drive in more than 100 runs. He plays a Gold Glove-caliber third base while being the unquestioned leader of the team with the best record in the league. Respect? In the bottom of the 10th inning of a tie game against the A’s last month, Oakland manager Bob Melvin opted to intentionally walk Beltre with runners on first and second and one out. A hit batter on the next pitch capped a three-run rally. It’s magical, I tell you.
In the fifth inning and with a man on against the Mariners on Wednesday, Beltre came to the plate in a game the Rangers already led 6-0. Then, more magic. I had just told Leigh that Beltre was due “to run into a fastball” when the ball came screaming our way. It landed about a dozen rows in front and to the left of us, rattled around like a pinball and came to rest in an aisle seat a few rows below us. I was on it like a cat: Adrian’s Beltre’s 438th career home-run ball.
(Sharing my story that night on Facebook, I was deluged with likes and comments. Friends posted video and a screen grab of a 59-year-old man awkwardly scrambling to secure the ball. When our son, allegedly in class at TCU, asked how crowded the stadium was, I said it was packed and that I had to wrestle the ball away from a nine-year-old. His reply: "You’re horrible!")
Within seconds, a stadium official approached me. Turns out that Beltre is at the point in his career where he wants all of his home-run balls back. I was asked if I’d be willing to go to the clubhouse to “negotiate” an exchange. The journalist in me said I should have given the ball to a glove-toting nine-year-old; the fan in me said it was a school day for nine-year-old Texans. Off we went.
At the door, I was greeted by Rangers clubhouse manager Brandon Boyd. As he showed me into his office, the journalist in me said I needed to tell Boyd who I was, and I did. He then explained the deal. He was there to negotiate on Beltre’s behalf. What would it take to surrender No. 438? I didn’t give it much thought before settling on a signed Beltre ball. We shook hands, and I snapped a picture. After the exchange was made, Boyd asked, “Are you sure I can’t offer you something else? How about a hat?” I sensed I should have driven a harder bargain (a signed bat?), but I laughed before replying, “I have more hats than I know what to do with.” I’m also confident Leigh would have divorced me had I added another piece of headwear to my stack.
Boyd showed me to the door, but before it closed I turned and said, “There is one more thing I’d like to ask for. Please tell Adrian that I’d love to see the Rangers win the World Series this year.”
It was the fan in me.
Mark Godich is a senior editor at SI, where he has run several beats, most notably college football, the NFL and golf.