Ted: Not long ago, we thought that the American baseball fan could stoop no lower when an adult woman plucked a foul ball from the hands of an excited child. To put it simply, we were wrong. Two days ago, two men, also adults, wrestled for control of a foul ball that had flown into a trash can. We watched while two men nearly came to blows over a piece of garbage. What has become of us, Patrick? Is this a new phenomenon made grotesque by contemporary culture, or do we just see it more now?
Patrick: I’m tempted to believe that this is an age-old human foible that’s been exposed under the baleful light of the television camera. I’m sure the same phenomenon occurred in the old days, under the bleachers at the Polo Grounds, when dirt-encrusted newsies attacked each other with lead pipes and rusty nails for the sake of a foul ball. That said, back then they could have probably swapped that foul ball for a couple of moon pies or a hoagie in a rare opportunity to obtain adequate nourishment. My question: what, today, is this piece of garbage really worth? How does a foul ball drive well-fed men to madness?
Ted: Is the price of a foul ball as simple as the thrill of experience? Do I give these grandstand grapplers too much credit by suggesting that they are seeking not for the ball itself, the object, but for the need simply to suck the marrow from the bone of life? It’s hard to underestimate the impact of the shot of adrenaline that courses through the veins when a foul ball shows itself on a course right towards. However, as civilized beings, it’s our job to recognize in the heat of the moment the appropriate course of action and choose that over the quote natural course of action. For example, once you realize the ball is in a trash can, it is time to beg off and follow another passion before you hurt somebody.
Patrick: There may be some marrow at the bottom of that trash can, but I doubt it’s palatable.
The trouble with the adrenaline theory is that once the fan has met with triumph, he or she is left with a two-dollar baseball with an extra logo. You’d think at this point the fan could locate the nearest eight year-old boy, become a hero for the next ten or fifteen seconds by giving it to him, and be on his way. People don’t act like that, though; they throw Charles Barklean elbows and treat each ball as if it had a treasure map drawn on it. I can also get the visceral feeling of the ball nearing you, and I think there’s more than a little of a vicariousness to it, the desire to replicate the heroes on the field. But whatever it is, something in it must stay trapped in that ball even afterward.
A while ago, we had a discussion on the Twitter after some other fan made an ass of themselves on national television, which led to your call for #foulballexcitementreform. If I recall correctly, and I do (because I can go back and look at the history), your opinion was that “the authorities should step in and regulate it [foul ball behavior]. Save people from themselves.” I find myself drawn (on this rare occasion) to the libertarian viewpoint: that those who are willing to risk ridicule for the sake of their prize should be allowed to pay the price. Does this make me insensitive to the dangers of uncoordinated, usually inebriated fans? Or does it make you a communist? (Note: this is a leading question.)
Ted: I will get my #blackballed hashtag ready, Patrick, to prepare for the inevitable reaction, but I think that a baseball game is a controlled environment where many people are packed into a small space, and they gotta get along. We’re not out on Ron Paul’s family farm here, we’re in a manmade bubble, where an overzealous ball seeker can hurt kids or himself, as we’ve very tragically and regrettably seen lately. Nobody wants foul balls to get all serious, but real life took care of that for us, and that occurred well after myself and quite a few other people were becoming aware of a strange overexcitement about grabbing foul balls. I haven’t really thought through what it would mean to regulate the practice. I’d begin, theoretically anyway, by preventing anyone over the age of 18 from going home with a foul ball, and I’d prevent anyone from invading another’s space to get one. Home runs and memorable events would be an exception, etc. Who knows if you could ever enforce such rules, and maybe what we need is a collective unspoken agreement among Us Adults, that we’ll all just cool out. Are we cool, Patrick? Are we cool?
Patrick: We’re cool, Ted. Here in Seattle, the fans haven’t been packed in all that tightly as of late, so I tend to forget what it’s like. But even if we were to appropriate the actual baseballs to give to orphanages, we still haven’t deal with the attention-seeking aspect of the catch itself. Maybe we can alter the culture of fandom to prevent dangerous behavior, hopefully using copious amounts of shame.
Ted: Not knowing how to comport yourself is hardly a new phenomenon, I agree. Now, though, it seems that the actual stage is not the only stage. The stage has expanded past its traditional boundaries. Are we actually paying too much attention to the spectators, who aren’t supposed to be in our purview at all, except in a warm and fuzzy, “collective experience” kind of way?
Patrick: The boundaries of culture have shifted throughout our country, especially in the past fifteen years or so. Reality television has shifted focus away from a “celebrity class”, and the internet, in Twitter and sports journalism, has broken down many of the barriers between fan and player. This borders dangerously close to what the kids today call the “meta”, but are we in some way contributing to the shift with this very discussion? Are we changing the story, albeit very slightly, through our telling of it?