The Ethics Of Foul Balls


The Internet loves horrible people. And there's nothing more horrible than people who take a picture holding a foul ball in front of a crying toddler who wanted the ball. By now you've probably heard about the couple in Texas and passed judgment on the crimes they've committed against humanity. I'm not going to defend them specifically -- I mean, the camera-phone part was amazingly repugnant -- but because this scenario will keep coming up in the social-media age, there's something to be said about reserving judgment.

A few years ago I went to a game with my (very) pregnant wife. We sat down the right-field line, and in the fifth inning, a foul ball came our way. It wasn't a screaming liner off the bat, but it was hit high enough to appear as if it was ramping up to terminal velocity on its way down. My pregnant wife -- who practically vomits in fear when a bee gets in the house -- started to panic a bit. There were people on either side of her, so she couldn't run. She had no choice but to curl into a ball and cover her head.

Women who are seven months pregnant don't curl into a ball like a Pokémon. She was kind of hosed. But lucky for her, she was next to a masculine individual who endeavored to catch the ball. And when he couldn't reach it, I was on the other side of her, trying to do the same thing. I caught the ball, saving her from certain bruising.

A couple seats down, there was a man with his daughter, who was about 12 or so. He stared at us for a bit as the section did the typical chattering and joking after a foul comes its way. After everything died down, he asked if his daughter could see the ball. I passed it over, and she gave it a thorough looking-over before passing it back. A few seconds later, the dad said this:

"So, I'll bet that ball's just gonna rattle around in your trunk for the next few years, huh?"

Great moments in passive-aggressive dickery. He was clearly hinting that his daughter should get the ball. And based on what I've written so far, the great unwashed Internet likely agrees. But I pointed at my wife's stomach and told him that the ball already had an owner.

The baseball is not in my trunk. It's behind me right now in a display case. And my three-year-old daughter will occasionally look in the display case at it. She'll get quiet and study the baseball. And then she'll ask me to tell the story again.

I play it up as if the ball is a meteor hurtling towards Earth, waving my arms frantically. She giggles. I tell her that her mom, seven months pregnant, leapt over rows and rows of seats, desperate to get out of the way. She'll giggle more and ask me what she was doing inside her mom's belly. I'll mix it up at this point, sometimes telling her that she was sleeping, other times telling her that she was desperately crawling away too, doing loops inside the womb like it was a hamster ball. She likes pantomiming that last part as I'm telling the story.

Then she'll go away, completely satisfied. The energy that the foul ball brought to the section in the minutes directly after didn't dissipate into the atmosphere; there are still trace amounts of it inside the ball, and my daughter is the only person in the world who knows how to access it. The 12-year-old girl up there is now a 15- or 16-year-old who does drugs and listens to awful pop-punk bands with crappy haircuts and names like Getting Alf Back To Melmac. I mean, that's just an educated guess.

Now change the story up a bit. Maybe instead of seven months, my wife is at two or three months. Maybe she's not showing yet. But when I catch the ball, I have the same idea -- that I'm going to give it to my unborn child. And instead of a 12-year-old girl, pretend it's a shrieking 4-year-old, sobbing uncontrollably as the cameras linger just long enough to make me a villain. It goes viral. All of a sudden, I'm the worst person in the world for the 48 hours that it takes for the Internet to forget about such things.

I wouldn't have deserved that. And the couple in Texas -- geniuses who actually sought more attention out -- could have had a story that made more sense than what we all saw. They have five kids, for example. Maybe "Sorry! Gave it to another kid!" isn't something that would fly with a young tyke in their own house. Maybe they wanted to give it to the paperboy who put out a grassfire with their garden hose while they were on vacation.

Or maybe they were just selfish twits without a shred of self-awareness. Danged if that isn't the most likely explanation.

But the point is that a young kid in the general vicinity of a foul ball has only a really, really good claim to the ball. But he or she doesn't have an absolute claim. There are extenuating circumstances. Judge not, lest ye be the subject of a sleeve-caught-in-the-doors-of-a-moving-bus video that goes viral. This is a clever and handy flowchart about foul-ball ethics, but there can be gray areas. The only two absolute rules I'd follow are these:

1. Don't do this

2. If someone throws a ball into the stands, they were trying to throw it to the kid close to you. Look for that kid. That ball belongs to that kid.

Simple. All I know is that sometimes, things aren't always what they seem and oh my god did I just write an article that's supposed to conclude with a plea for people on the Internet to be calm and reserved with their judgment? Well, that was stupid. Forget I said anything, and stare at this for a while as I scurry out the back door.

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