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I got it, I got it! (Or How I Knew My Baseball Career Was Really Over)

Have you ever caught a major league fly ball with your bare hands? Me neither.

The chances were slim I’d even be in such a position, but there I was, looking up at the bright Carolina sky, hands outstretched into the air, waiting for my moment of glory.

I’ve been to a lot of baseball games, major and minor leagues, college, high school, and even little league games. Never even sniffed a home run or foul ball. One time, during the 1995 World Series in Cleveland, Ryan Klesko hit a bomb to right field which landed at my feet. I still have that ball. It has an ‘X’ on it. That doesn’t count though. No skill involved in reaching down and picking a ball up off the ground is there?

Catching a ball, sans glove is the work of a real man.

I was a very minor baller once (scouting report: quick hands, OK arm, no wheels). I played baseball from the time I could remember. I was 7, or 8 and used to throw a tennis ball against my grandmothers' house, acting out entire games, sometimes pitching both sides, doing my best to imitate my heroes, especially Ron Guidry, that crafty Yankees lefty pitcher from Louisiana. To simulate fly balls, I’d throw the ball up high against the wall and get under it like Mickey Rivers chasing down a shot to deep center, maybe off Robin Yount’s bat, or even better, a World Series-winning catch against the wall to beat the Dodgers.

As I got older, baseball stayed fun. Between obsessing over how to organize my baseball cards, my friends and I challenged ourselves to take the batting stance of every player in a lineup. I can still remember wondering how the heck Oscar Gamble ever got a hit, or how low down Ricky Henderson sat in his batting stance.

In high school, I took pride in being an outfielder, doing my best to track down fly balls, using two hands, and learning how to crow hop. I drew a walk-off a guy who pitched ended up pitching in the bigs for the Yankees. I crushed a double off a kid who played at Auburn.

I think it’s possible that I love baseball more than just about anything other than my wife and kids.

About a year ago, as new empty nesters, my wife and I moved to North Carolina, far from Yankee Stadium. It’s not that we went all that often, but knowing the Yanks were going to be close was one of those comforting facts of living near the Bronx. And so it was a shock when my wife, watching the TV in a burger joint in Raleigh saw that Aaron Judge would be doing a rehab stint in AAA before rejoining the Yanks.

My brain fired and I said, “Hang on, what’s the chance they are in Durham?”

Google told me who the Bulls were playing that weekend. I couldn’t believe it.
Sure enough, Judge had been assigned to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the Yankees AAA team. He’d be joining his teammate Giancarlo Stanton for a weekend series. My world spun. It was too exciting. I felt as if I had won the jackpot.

With a few clicks on my phone, I snagged 2 lawn seats to the Sunday, Father’s Day game.

As we sat down on the grass behind the centerfield wall, I offhandedly said: “Judge is gonna hit a bomb today, and I’m going to catch it.” I held my hands up and saw the ball coming down from the sky into my hands. Easy peasy.

My wife smiled and rolled her eyes. Never mind her. Even if I’m wrong about Judge, Stanton will get one for sure. We were in the right spot, on the right day at the right moment.

Judge struck out twice but hit a laser to left field off the wall. Stanton took the collar, 0–4 with two of his own strikeouts. Exciting sure, but no dingers.

Around the 7th inning, we wandered up towards the first base side to watch the Yanks hit one more time before leaving. Billy Burns, the Yanks center fielder made the last out, with Judge on deck. “Let’s see how fast the Bulls get out so we can see Judge one more time,” I said, feeling like a 12-year-old begging my parents not to leave Yankee Stadium.

We were standing in a loose crowd, near a private party area. It had been a very hot day, the kind of hot southern day where it feels like you are inside an oven. The guy next to me was on his phone, not paying attention. Another guy was taking candid photos with his camera, of whom I’m not sure. He seemed happy.

Judge took a Ruthian swing and the ball went up in the air.

It seemed like it might be coming our way.

It was.

Time stopped.

I was going to catch an Aaron Judge foul ball.

I took a step backward. You always take a small step backward, never a step forward. Easier to come in than to go back. I’d been taught well.

I drifted another step to my left.

The ball really did look like it was coming right at me. I side-eye glanced around to see if there was going to be a scrum. I didn’t want to get hurt or slam into someone also going for the treasure.

I looked back up and saw the ball crest.

I thought to myself “Use your hands.”

The ball came at me like a lightning bolt thrown by a Greek god as it slammed into my finger. My middle $&%^!@ finger! A shot of electricity ran through my body as I was, for a brief shining moment, connected to a baseball legend.

But alas! There was no joy in Mudville that day.

I looked up and saw that some other guy had the Judge ball in his hand. He was smiling. I was not.

Instead, I was hurt. My finger felt like it was in a vice, and set on fire. I shook my hand, wondering if it was broken. I opened and closed it, testing it gingerly. It seemed OK, though I couldn’t tell what was worse. My finger, or my shame.

“I think it’s broken,” I said.

My wife said no, it’s not broken. She also said with wonder that the ball bounced some 10 or 15 feet up in the air after I didn’t catch it. I tried to laugh, but I couldn’t find the humor.

I muttered “let’s go,” without even glancing back to see what Stanton did at the plate.

I make note, out loud to myself and to my wife “that the ball crushed a finger on my throwing hand, and how does that even happen? I mean anyone who’s played outfield knows you protect your throwing hand!”

My wife told me, rightly so, that I don’t have a “throwing hand” - that I am not in fact, a baseball player.

It stung, sure. But also, she’s right.

This must be what it feels like to be washed up. Done. Baked. It’s a terrible feeling.

At least it was a foul ball.

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