Long before he became a big league All-Star, Ron Coomer was a little kid growing up in Chicago who delighted in going to ballgames with a mitt on his hand and his father by his side.
They would head to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs or Comiskey Park to check out the White Sox, but the game itself was almost a sideshow for little Coomer. More than a win for the home team, more than seeing a homer from Ron Santo, Coomer always wanted to get his hands on a baseball used in the game.
"Every person who has ever been to a ballpark would love to get a baseball," Coomer said in a telephone interview on Friday. "Other than getting your favorite player's autograph, getting a baseball was what you wanted the most."
Maybe even more than the crack of the bat, a hot dog with relish or the seventh-inning stretch, the prospect of bringing home a piece of the game is one of the most charming and unique parts of America's pastime, a tradition as old as baseball itself.
But the pursuit of that memento proved dangerous Thursday night when a man fell to his death in Texas while reaching for a foul ball tossed his way by Rangers star Josh Hamilton.
"When I was younger and I went to the ballpark, my hope was to get a foul ball," an emotional Rangers President Nolan Ryan said. "You can see how many people come into our ballpark with gloves, just hoping to have that opportunity. That's just part of the experience of being there."
It's been that way for as long as the game has been played.
From Ebbets Field in early 20th century Brooklyn to Target Field in 21st century Minneapolis, fans have always gone to the ballpark in hopes of getting their hands on a baseball used by their favorite player.
The intoxicating possibility of it all often extends beyond the walls of Fenway Park or Camden Yards.
Kids would gather on Sheffield and Waveland on the north side of Chicago, carrying "Hit it here, Sammy!" signs as slugger Sammy Sosa would launch homers out of Wrigley. During Barry Bonds' assault on the home run record, fans would paddle their kayaks in McCovey Cove outside AT&T Park to chase down the balls as they splashed into the water.
"I think it's about connecting to the sport and to our heroes and feeling like we're involved somehow," said 33-year-old Zack Hample, who has collected more than 5,000 baseballs and written three books on the subject. "There's something extra special about earning or catching your souvenir as opposed to buying one in a souvenir store."
"Anyone can go buy a baseball, but to get someone as good as Josh Hamilton to pick you out and throw it to you, to have his DNA on the ball, to have the story to go with it, there's something very exciting about that."
The strongest memories seem to be made when a player flips a ball to a fan in the stands. It's a personal connection, if only for a few seconds, that seems to be equally rewarding for both sides.
"I think that's just part of being a fan, they want that foul ball," Cardinals third baseman David Freese said. "As a kid you grow up quote unquote dreaming of getting that foul ball, and a parent will do whatever it takes to get that foul ball, and hand it off to their kid."
Think about it. How often did Brett Favre toss a football into the stands at Lambeau or Kobe Bryant flip a basketball to a kid at Staples Center?
Happens all the time at the ballpark.
"I can't tell you, through the years, how many people have come up to me and said, 'You threw the ball to my son or my daughter,' or 'You tossed me a ball at a game,'" said Coomer, who spent nine years in the big leagues with the Twins, Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees. "The impact that made on people, you might forget their names or you might forget their faces, but you never forget how good it made you feel to see the smile it put on somebody's face."
The smile, Hample said, lasts long after the catch is made.
"If you are that person, you have a story for the rest of your life," he said. "It's not all about catching A-Rod's 800th homer or a walk-off grand slam, that's the pinnacle of catching baseballs.
"Sometimes something as simple as a batting-practice toss up from a player is just as thrilling. You're connecting directly with a big league ballplayer."
Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson looks in the stands before he gives away a souvenir.
"Most people I'm throwing to can't catch," he said. "I've seen people get hit in the face. I've seen people get hit in the body. Depending when and where I'm tossing it to I'll try my best to throw it at a very high arc so it comes down."
"If a person looks like they can't catch, I'll put it away from them and then they can go get it," he said. "It's amazing what people will do for a $5 baseball."
There is some inherent risk involved, however, even when there isn't a battle for a historic ball like Bonds' 756th home run.
Tumbling over a field-level railing is relatively common when a foul ball is hit down the lines, normally a harmless accident that induces chuckles and maybe a wisecrack on a late-night highlight show.
In August 2008, 10-year-old Phillies fan Kenny Campbell fell about 15 feet from the right field stands to the warning track at Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia while reaching for a ball hit during batting practice. Clearly shaken, but not seriously injured, Campbell was comforted by Mets pitcher Mike Pelfrey while stadium officials rushed to examine him.
For some, the eagerness to catch a souvenir has brought anger. Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth berated a man for catching a foul ball over Werth in 2010, and of course Steve Bartman was vilified by many for touching a ball near him in the stands, preventing Cubs outfielder Moises Alou from a chance to catch it in the 2003 NLCS.
All that pales in comparison to what happened to 39-year-old Rangers fan Shannon Stone, who was fatally injured when he fell 20 feet to his death while reaching for a ball tossed into the stands by Hamilton, all in an effort to get it for his 6-year-old son, Cooper.
Stone's death resonated with players throughout the league. It may only be a $10 piece of rawhide, rubber and string to them, but to fans it's a treasured keepsake and a story that can be told forever.Comment on this story
"I always toss it three or four rows deep at least," Indians outfielder Michael Brantley said. "What a sad sight that was to see. I feel so bad for everyone involved."
Milwaukee closer John Axford agreed.
"It's such a friendly part and a happy part of the game, especially with a father and son and for it to end in such a tragedy, it's just full-on brokenhearted," he said.
AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Denver, R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis, Colin Fly in Milwaukee, Howie Rumberg in New York and freelance writer Chuck Murr in Cleveland contributed to this report.
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