Nothing this side of Prohibition has put an end to as many beers as the pursuit of foul balls. People scramble for them, fight for them and, on occasion, do full gainers over the railings for them. Catching one—or at least catching up with one—is every fan's dream.
And so it is that Lee Miller, 41, has brought along his lefthanded first baseman's glove on the the 45-minute drive from Fairfield, Calif., to Oakland for the A's doubleheader with Texas. Miller works at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard on a team that refuels nuclear submarines. He is also the father of four, a Little League coach and a lifelong baseball fan, which means that the best possible place for him to spend this day is in the ballyard.
Miller, his son Todd, 15, and two family friends arrive during batting practice and take their seats—they have bought four 20-game packages this season—in Row 6 of Section 220, up in the second level, a little down the third base line from home plate.
The seats are over an exit tunnel and behind a metal railing that partly obstructs the view, but Miller doesn't mind. "I can prop my feet up on the railing," he says. He can also prop up his radio and listen to the A's broadcast as he watches the game.
"There are a lot of foul balls hit up here, particularly when lefthanded batters are up," Miller says. "On Friday night, the man who was sitting in this seat was hit with a foul ball."
Being a true fan, Miller thumbs his nose at reality: He has attended A's games for 15 years and has never gone home with a ball. The chances of his doing so are only slightly better than the chance that Oakland will heed the inevitable calls of other fans to "Sign him up" after someone does catch one.
In the first game of the doubleheader, 23 foul balls are hit into the stands, all but one of which became souvenirs. The exception: In the second inning, Oakland rightfielder Mike Davis crushes a ball, which smashes into a scoreboard clock. It is 12:52 p.m. The ball breaks a light in the "1" and remains stuck there. So there are 22 foul balls—and three home runs—for the 28,395 fans to fight over, making Miller's chances of getting a ball less than one tenth of 1%.
Yet for the the first four innings, each time a lefty comes to bat, Miller slips on his mitt, a weathered piece of leather made by Rawlings and autographed by Vic Power. Miller bought the glove in 1962, before his junior season at Valley High in Gilcrest, Colo., where he played first base and centerfield. Now Miller is a coach for the K Mart A's, the Little League team for which his son Kyle, 11, pitches and plays shortstop. (Note to Bay Area bird dogs: The K Mart A's finished the regular season 18-1 and have high hopes for the playoffs.)
As the game wears on, Miller's diligence wanes. His mitt is at his feet in the bottom of the sixth when Mickey Tettleton, the A's switch-hitting catcher, who is hitting lefty against the righthanded Jose Guzman, comes up. Yet Miller turns to Jeff O'Malley, 16, in the next seat and says, "Wake up. It's going to be coming this way."
And just like that, Tettleton sends a fastball screaming back to the second level. The ball caroms off a hand railing. "We just stood up to watch," Miller says later. "The ball was a whole section over, and usually they bounce straight back." This one, however, veers sharply. Miller leans into the railing in front of him and, without knocking over the radio, catches the ball cleanly with his ungloved left hand. He holds his ball aloft in triumph as neighboring fans applaud.
The appeal of foul balls is universal. They provide a direct link to the action on the field. Plus, they are free. But while most fans assume that foul balls are a birthright, that somewhere in the Bill of Rights citizens are guaranteed foul balls as well as fair trials, they haven't always been the take-home treasures they are today.
In 1904 the big leagues adopted a rule that gave clubs the option of retrieving balls hit into the stands. This saved money on horsehide but engendered little goodwill with the paying customers. When restaurateur Charles Weeghman bought the Chicago Cubs in 1916, all major league teams had policemen and ushers taking balls back from fans. As a publicity ploy, Weeghman allowed fans to keep foul balls. Over the years, other teams followed suit.
Miller's prize is his to keep. "I'd like to get Reggie's autograph on it," he says. Why Reggie? "Because he's a future Hall of Famer."
Miller doesn't seem all that surprised at his good fortune. "We were overdue," he says.