Last week I took a few days off so I could do things that 15 years ago would have seemed tedious but now are prominent on my priority list.
Activities with my kids, household chores and “date night” with the wife are all things that most people consider routine, but they assume greater emphasis when your work in sports journalism occupies many nights and weekends.
One of these simple pleasures involved attending a weeknight Canaries game with my 13-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son and sitting in the stands, far away from the press box and any sportswriting responsibilities.
It was not a great night weather-wise, but it was a refreshing change to sit back, enjoy the action and stress the finer points of the game to my kids, as fathers typically do whether their offspring request such analysis or not.
It was a good night to feel, well, fatherly — and I settled in for a satisfying evening as the Birds took an early lead against the loathsome intruders from Winnipeg.
My son had brought his glove, as sons will often do, but mine was in the car. We had recently attended his baseball practice and he urged me to bring my mitt to the Birdcage, but I calmly informed him that I wouldn’t need a glove if any foul balls came my way.
“You just worry about your end of things,” I told him, and he reluctantly dropped the subject.
I recalled that conversation vividly about an hour later, when I was checking something on my phone during the game and was startled to hear my daughter yell, “Oh my God! Here it comes! Elliot!”
She shouted her brother’s name because he was the one wearing a glove and talking non-stop about getting a foul ball, but clearly I was part of this emerging situation, whatever it was.
I looked up to see a ball far up in the sky, seemingly skimming the clouds, and it was sort of twisting down right into our little world, as if it were going to hit me in the head.
I should pause here to explain that I have never actually caught a foul ball in my life. I retrieved a batting practice homer by Red Sox slugger George “The Boomer” Scott at Tiger Stadium when I was about 10, and the only person I could get to sign it was mediocre Detroit utility player Tim Corcoran, who put his name on it almost apologetically.
Then there was the ball I acquired during live game action at Target Field during a Tigers-Twins skirmish, though that one bounced off some poor sap’s hands and I merely picked up amid the confusion in the seats, celebrating like it was Hank Aaron’s No. 715 ball and drawing boos from the rest of the section (I was wearing a Tigers jersey and acting like a jerk).
But physically catching a foul ball at a professional game? No. It had never happened. Probably because I had never before had a ball come right at me like this one, and that inexperience would come to haunt me.
The mechanical aspect of nabbing the ball in flight wouldn’t have been a problem. I have confidence in my hand-eye coordination and would have hauled it in easily with my glove, which I reminded myself was in the stupid car.
But as the ball came hurtling toward me and the time to act arrived, I started thinking about what sort of damage it might do to my bare hand. A few weeks before, I was coaching first base during my son’s youth league game and snared a hard-hit line drive with one hand to look cool, and my thumb pad throbbed for three days.
This ball at the Birdcage appeared to have somehow fallen from Saturn, and I was just going to play hero because of the untold riches of an American Association keepsake?
In the end, just moments before the ball was set to strike my right hand, I yanked the appendage away, assuming I might just be able to pick up the ball the cheap way and hand it to my adoring son.
But the thing came in like a missile and smacked high off the cement, soaring back to another section where someone gladly took advantage of my failure and accepted congratulations all around.
At first, in the moments that followed, it seemed as if life might go on. There was some nervous laughter, and my son mentioned something about me being in the way of himself and his glove, though I highly doubt that his skilled 8-year old hands would have made the play on that ball.
We talked about it briefly and then turned our attention back to the game.
In the world of social media, however, it doesn’t take long for a normal night to turn nightmarish. And there’s no such thing as a do-over.
My phone started vibrating, which signaled incoming Twitter mentions, and I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.
The first was from Argus Leader sportswriter Matt Zimmer, who covers the Canaries and witnessed my humiliation from the press box. He called my attempt “feeble” and sent it out to the Twitterverse, where one person’s moment of misfortune is like Christmas morning for everyone else.
Then came a message from KELO-TV’s Matt Holsen, letting me know that he had caught the moment on tape. He’s such a nice guy that I doubt he ever used it, but I was too embarrassed to ask.
Next it was time for the Stampede’s Cary Eades to check in. The hockey coach was watching the game from a private box and deemed it necessary to tell his Twitter followers that a certain sports editor should be given an error for butchering a very playable foul ball.
When hockey guys start questioning your baseball credentials, you’ve essentially hit rock bottom.
I started to grow a bit despondent, running scenarios through my mind, and my idyllic evening started to crumble. Canaries managing partner Gary Weckwerth stopped by and helped rationalize my failure, saying that it’s unwise to expose your hand to harm for a minor-league ball, but I think he was just trying to be helpful.
The car was a little quiet on our way home, free from the normal verbal jousting, and I told myself that it was just because the kids were worn out from a long day.
That night, though, I tossed and turned, seeing that ball up in the clouds and coming down at me, envisioning myself reaching up a large and confident hand and hauling it in, the way it would have happened in a movie with a heroic father.
No matter how many times I replayed it, though, my hand always pulled away at the last second and the ball always smacked off the concrete, sailing out of “cherished family memory” range forever.
Believe it or not, though, the sun came up the next day and my son never even mentioned the foul ball. He had moved on to the next slice of summer, further illustrating the resiliency of youth.
When I briefly ran through the scenario for my wife, my daughter chimed in by saying, “It was really high up there, Mom. No one was going to catch that thing with their bare hand.”
The conversation moved on, and I realized that I was off the hook. As with the ephemeral world of social media, the incident had happened, caused a brief stir, and now folks were ready to move on, eager for the next distraction.
But maybe it’s not that simple. From my perspective, the episode felt like a missed opportunity that would never return. You only live once, and sometimes it’s the normal nights you remember most.
This much is certain: If given a chance to do it all over again, I would reach out and catch the damn ball.