I was a lousy Little League baseball player.
I’ve never been a natural athlete, and I further handicapped myself by waiting until I was 11 years old to develop an interest in watching and playing sports. I was a jumble of gawky, flailing limbs in royal blue and white polyester, a guaranteed strikeout at bat and a liability in the field. To paraphrase legendary announcer and ex-player Bob Uecker, I used to catch the ball by picking it up after it had stopped rolling.
Since I played in a rec league where the coaches were required to use every kid for at least half of the game, they stuck me in right field and hoped for the best. What they got was … not the best. I did not catch a single fly ball in two years with the Essex Yankees, and then I hung up my cleats for good.
This past October, my hometown Baltimore Orioles surprised the hell out of me and the rest of the free world by reaching the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. As soon as their Division Series match-up with the big, bad New York Yankees was set, I leaped at the opportunity to buy tickets online at a significant markup.
I did opt for the cheapest seats I could find, which weren’t seats at all. They were standing room-only tickets that afforded me an obstructed view from the flag court overlooking right field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Still, I would be a witness to the excitement of postseason baseball. I took my father to the game with me as a birthday present.
It was chilly and damp when the big night finally rolled around: Monday, October 8. The Yankees were still taking batting practice when I made my way into the stadium. After grabbing a beer from one of the vending stands along the Eutaw Street concourse, I entered the flag court and began searching for Dad, who had gone in ahead of me. Occasionally, there would be a mild commotion as a New York hitter crushed a deep fly ball over the 21-foot-high right field fence; a few ballhawking fans would scramble around the flag court to retrieve the souvenir. I had only been there for a few minutes when I heard someone shout, “Heads up!”
I looked up and noticed a telltale white sphere soaring through the night sky, growing larger as it drew curiously close. I took a few steps backward, thinking that I should avoid the folks that would be jockeying for position under the ball. I’m not sure when I realized I was directly in the path of said ball.
Though it hung in the air for mere seconds, it seemed like several minutes passed. As it dropped down near eye level, I instinctively shrugged my left shoulder and reached out my hand, palm facing upward. I felt the ball glance off of my shoulder and my jaw, and a moment later I saw it resting securely in my bare left hand. With my right hand, I was still clutching my plastic cup full of beer, and I hadn’t spilled a single drop.
Seventeen years after playing my final baseball game, I had finally caught a fly ball in right field.