JONNY GOULD COLUMN: IRC ON WEDNESDAYS

WHY I LOVE BASEBALL!

I’ll never forget my 27th birthday. Row 128, Seat 10 up in the Gods behind the Pitchers Arm at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.

I’d never been to a baseball game before. In fact, I was only there in a desperate attempt to bond with my American girlfriend’s abrasive father. He was a man of huge intellect with whom, I quite literally, had nothing in common – except a love of sport that is.

Memorial Stadium was like nothing I had ever witnessed before. I’d been to Twickenham and Wembley, but I didn’t suffer vertigo at any of these venues. Nor do they have hot-dog vendors running up and down the aisles selling you their wares. Let alone offered you the opportunity to buy a beer without moving from your seat. Amazingly, if you passed your $10 bill down the aisle and shouted out your order, back came your beers plus change. Correct change that is. Just imagine trying that at Stamford Bridge!

So, you get the picture?

Me, as an auctioneer.

I was impressed, which is pretty amazing when you consider that the 1988 Baltimore Orioles were the worst team in baseball that season. Their record of 54 wins and 107 losses is still the 6th worst ever season in the club’s 120-year history. Plus, it was a Tuesday afternoon with a lowly crowd of about 5000, so not exactly the perfect advertisement for the game.

Yet I was enthralled. I sat in my seat, one eye on the action, one ear listening to a detailed explanation of what I was witnessing. If I’m honest I don’t remember much of the game, but one moment stands out.

I had just asked my girlfriend’s now strangely mild-mannered father, why so many fans came to the game with a baseball glove on. “Ahhh!” he said. “The ultimate prize – to catch a foul-ball.”

Let me explain.

Apparently, in baseball, any ball hit into the crowd – whether foul or fair – is theirs to keep. The baseball fan who did just that in St. Louis in 1998, is now over $2million dollars better off.  He happened to catch “Big Mac” Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball – a shot that set a new record for home runs hit in a single season. Baseball history is much revered and clearly very valuable.

Anyway, at that moment I noticed this fan about 30 rows below us. He was returning to his seat well stocked, with a bucket of popcorn under one arm and a bucket of beer under the other. This was not a small man. This was not a guy who’d missed many lunches. I was almost transfixed by his journey, weaving (or should I say waddling) his way back to his seat.

Just then, a cry went up that shook me from my thoughts. It was a foul ball that had sailed high over home plate, and was now heading straight for my beer-laden friend. His dilemma was clear for all to see. Here was that moment he’d always dreamt of. A foul ball coming straight at him – his moment of glory beckoned, and all he had to do was catch the ball.

Only problem – he didn’t have his glove – in fact he didn’t even have a free hand. He glanced nervously from beer to popcorn, popcorn to beer. Then, as if in slow motion he made up his mind. Sometimes in life you just have to go for it. So, dropping both beer and popcorn, he leapt forward towards the ball. Clearly it wasn’t going to reach him. He had to claim his prize and to do so he shed wings, and flew gracefully over two rows of supporters!

Amazingly the big man had judged his jump to perfection. As he landed with a crash, the ball made contact with his outstretched hand. But life can be cruel. The impact of his substantial frame coming into contact with fans, seats and the ground, knocked the ball from his hand. There was nothing he could do – drenched in beer and covered in popcorn, he could only lie and watch as the ball bounced along the floor towards the glove of a grateful child.

But as he stood to his feet, wiping away the debris of his heroics, apologising profusely to fellow fans that he had either drenched or flattened, the stadium camera closed in on the scene. And just for a moment the baseball was forgotten. This man was our hero and, as one, all 5000 of us rose to our feet and applauded him!

It was a magical moment, and one I’ll never forget, because that was the day I fell in love with baseball.

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