If I were a professional athlete whose job was contingent on my body remaining not only in one piece, but a perfect piece, I would not be very eager to run toward a wall or fence at full speed to intercept a baseball hurtling toward the ground, the sole consequence of which would be a strike against the guy in the batter’s box. Thank god that I am not a professional athlete because in the short half week since Major League Baseball has returned, far more men than I could have imagined have sacrificed life and limb in pursuit of foul balls.
There is a beauty to improbable catches in the outfield. Man runs toward ball. Ball streaks towards ground. Man leaps outstretched, timing his rise against the earth, then falling, hopefully faster than the baseball. If he’s lucky the ball snaps into his glove as he slides on his belly, the front of his jersey smeared by the grass when he finally pops up to throw the ball back into the infield.
None of this beauty exists in pursuit of a ball in foul territory because a ball that careens into foul territory is a menace. It does not care for beauty. It craves chaos. And in that chaos we find either a disaster or a miracle. This week we have been lucky.
The foul territory in every park in Major League Baseball comes with its own nuances. Some are spacious. Some are narrow to the point of terror. Some have a weird corner that might attack you. All of them have a dugout that could appear at any moment to twist your ankle. All of them have walls that have a tiny cushion on them that will not prevent you from breaking your elbow if you run hard enough. It is kind of stupid to chase a foul pop fly, which is exactly why when it works, it’s beautiful.
This week, I have observed four ridiculous, chaotic catches in foul territory that I will now share with you. The first came from the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Justin Turner on April 9th:
The pitch comes and immediately rockets straight upward on a little chop swing by Blackmon. Justin Turner, at third, clocks this and begins sprinting toward the visiting dugout. Away he goes, leaping over the foul line, slowing down a little. Once, twice, three times he checks where the dugout is. He puts his hand (so gently) on the wall that protects the camera men from the violence of play on the field. Justin Turner does not care about their isolation. He stretches his arm out over their heads, finds the ball and clenches it.
Oh no! His momentum! He cannot stop. He continues over the fence! Luckily, there is another railing to grab and a camera man to help overhead press him back onto the field. Whew. That’s… uh… one out in a tie game in the 5th inning versus the… checks notes… Colorado Rockies. Thank god he took that risk, am I right?
Who else has a gnarly foul ball catch for us? Oh, will you look at that! It’s the Mets’ Pete Alonso in last night’s game.
Rhys Hoskins, at the plate, take a swing completely off balance and ricochets the ball down the first base line. He hoped it would go into the stands but it does not. It hangs a bit in the cold spring air. Pete Alonso is running a half marathon toward the wall. He is sprinting from his position at first base, looking over his shoulder and into the sky where the ball is falling, falling, falling. He catches it just as he begins his slide. The slide, I might add, is because he is RAPIDLY APPROACHING A TWO FOOT WALL WITH NO PADDING. If he doesn’t slide here, he is going to hit that mini wall at full sprint, bruise his thighs, and probably break his teeth on the seat in front of him. Instead he slides so forcefully into the ground that he stops immediately, ball in glove. Beautiful. So stupid.
Let’s watch another. Here is the Phillies’ Bryce Harper in the same game a little later.
The Mets’ Mark Canha takes a cut at this ball and has absolutely no clue where it went. He’s staring out at the pitcher for a second before he realizes the ball is going to right field pretty rapidly and pretty deep.
Harper does not run quite as fast as his fellow foul ball pop-up sickos, but he runs like a haunted gazelle, his feet like one half of a grapevine warm-up, passing over each other quickly while his hips stay squared toward the ball. At no point does he check where the wall is. He knows where it is in his head. He just continues toward the wall as if it cannot hurt him, slides in a textbook figure-4 shape, and grabs the ball without a problem.
Why are all the boys doing this? Let’s watch another and see if we can figure it out. Here is the Rays pitcher Brett Phillips.
Brett Phillips —I have since learned—is a backup outfielder/knuckleball pitcher who came in to do some mess control for the Rays yesterday. He throws the ball slowly, so he has time to track it going straight upward and descends from the mound and toward the visiting dugout like he’s possessed. He watches the ball the whole way, glancing once to see where the dugout fence is and deciding, unlike the others, to slide earlier. This man starts sliding five or six feet from the warning track, still on the grass. He slides probably ten feet, his legs flailing around, his arms stretched as far forward as they can be, and the ball smacks the heel of his glove and pops up. Oh no! He clenches it with the very tippy-top of his glove like a snow cone and takes it with him for the final two feet of his slide into the wall. The Rays would lose to the A’s 13-2.
All of these plays are incredible. They are also very stupid. If I were a manager, I would tell all of these players to please be careful. There are 162 games in a season. This is only the fifth one. Please do not become injured for seven weeks because you had no self-control chasing a foul ball.
But I am not a manager, and I love these plays. They are reckless and silly and so inelegant. They have the same hold-your-breath terror as a long fly ball headed for the back wall. But they have a brutality that a caught ball in the outfield can never match. This cursed ball could never be a hit. It is a waste, an accident, a throw-away pitch returning to spell a batter’s doom, an out stolen from them by recklessness and determination.
I hope it’s not just new season enthusiasm breeding these plays. I hope that all season long we get to watch an elite athlete flail his way toward a wall in pursuit of a hanging pop fly, dead set on stealing an out where his team shouldn’t have one.