Catching a foul ball tough, but strategy helps

Catching a foul ball tough, but strategy helps

Sitting in the stands at Fenway Park on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon, 13-year-old Jonathan Rapposo keeps looking down instead of forward.

The Red Sox are in the middle of what appears to be a pitchers' duel: Felix Doubront is buckling knees with his changeup and Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy is spotting fastballs on the outside edge.

Doubront works another one-two-three inning in the third. Cheers erupt. Rapposo doesn't bother.

The score is 0-0. Rapposo has great seats in section 149, in shouting distance away from anyone standing in Arizona's on-deck circle, with clear vision of home plate. His grandfather, Gabe, proudly announces he was given the tickets as a gift from a longtime friend. But no matter what happens on the field, Rapposo doesn't flinch.

"I don't care," he said when asked who he thinks will win the game.

His grandfather smiles. The game is meaningless now.

Jonathan got a foul ball. And he can't stop staring at it.

Forty-nine other foul balls would enter the stands that day, some directly off the bat of a poorly-timed swing and others that were eventually tossed by a batboy, ballgirl, player or coach on the field. In addition, 16 baseballs would be carefully lobbed to fans at the end of every half-inning, almost always by the first baseman.

Without counting any balls that made their way into the stands during pregame batting practice, or any that may have been acquired via some friendly chatter in the bullpen, 66 five-ounce Rawlings baseballs would exit the field of play and end up as a souvenir. The crowd at Fenway was an announced sellout, with 37,611 in attendance.

Which left the odds of getting a Major League baseball in Boston on Sunday afternoon as one in 570. Perhaps not as bad as one would expect.

In comparison, Funny2.com lists the odds of getting a hole-in-one on the golf course as one in 5,000. Catching a ball at a baseball game is about six times more likely than getting injured while mowing the lawn (one in 3,623).

But it's still rare. You've got a better chance of dating a millionaire (one in 215).

"This is what all the kids come for," said Terry Klanski, 58, who attends about 15-20 games a season at Fenway and has collected zero foul balls. "You always hear the stores, 'I've been to hundreds of games and never caught a foul ball.' And you probably never will. Only the kids get them … I think [that's the way] it should be."

There always seem to be a few that make their way into the hands of adults. At Fenway Park, there's a good-spirited tradition when this happens: The adult gets booed.

It happened again on Sunday. A foul ball sailed into the stands behind home plate. A middle-aged man came up with it, raised his hand in the air proudly and was booed on the spot. He handed it to a child one row in front of him and the boos turned to cheers.

While luck might be the primary ingredient in getting a foul ball, there's also some strategy involved.

When left-handers are at the plate, the ball is more apt to travel to the stands near the third-base and left-field side. And when right-handers are at the plate, the ball tends to fly foul off to the right-field and first-base side. On Sunday, 81 percent of the foul balls traveled in the assumed directions.

Since balls that don't skip into the stands straight off the bat are eventually tossed by someone on the field, getting that person's attention is a trick in itself.

One young boy famously wore two baseball caps to a Yankees game at Fenway in late July, flipping between caps when it made sense. During the action, he was doused in Red Sox gear. When a foul ball bounced toward the Yankees' dugout, the crafty young man quickly threw his Yankees cap over the Red Sox one and beckoned Yankees third-base coach Rob Thomson for the ball.

Thomson scanned the fans behind the dugout before tossing it to the boy.

"How about that? He's got a Yankees hat and a Red Sox hat on!" marveled FOX play-by-play announcer Kenny Albert.

"Smart," said color man Tim McCarver. "Politically correct. Oh man…"

The kids behind the dugout always seem to get the balls, which is why some players actively throw them deeper into the stands.

"Those kids right there, they'll get five or six," said Red Sox infielder Brock Holt. "So if I see them with a ball or two, I'll look for another one or toss it up."

Here are a few other tips gathered from Major League players: Don't be greedy, don't be rude, and never, ever, use the phrase, "Right here!"

"I make them say please for one," said Brandon Snyder, a lifetime first baseman who has been playing mostly third base for the Red Sox this season. "And I don't do well with [rudeness]. That's why I go for the little girls, because they're usually way more polite than little boys."

The extra-curricular responsibilities of a first baseman extend far beyond catching throws with one foot towed to the bag. They also have to chat with the opposition, throw a round or two of ground balls around the infield before each inning and then give away a souvenir afterward.

The first baseman becomes so attuned to the final part of his job that he often constructs an imaginary list of who the next lucky ball recipients will be. It's why you'll often see the first baseman end up with the final out in his glove even if the out was made somewhere else on the field.

In Sunday's game, the D-backs took special care of the ball used to make the third out, often throwing it around to touch every position player's glove before it ended up with first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who would carefully toss it over the dugout and into the stands.

Snyder describes the entire process.

"When you play first base, you have to really keep your mind going because you have a lot of balls to throw into the stands," he said. "I try to look for kids first, obviously. And obviously that has its own thing -- you look for little girls first, then little boys. Who doesn't have a ball? You just go down the line."

The ball that eventually makes it into the stands isn't always the one that was used in the game, either. Depending on how the pitcher is doing, or the superstition of each individual first baseman, each ball is carefully chosen as one that's worthy of being disposed.

"Sometimes, at first base, you throw a ball around the infield, that's the ball they throw out [to the stands]," Snyder explained. "So sometimes if we're doing really well with the same ball, I'll keep it at first base. I'll use the same ball to throw around, then I throw it [into the dugout] and someone throws another one back.

"So the game ball that gets hit for the last out, I'll throw that in the stands and keep the ball to throw around. But if we give up a run, I'm throwing that ball out and I'm keeping the game ball and rotating it."

Sounds complicated.

"It's a superstitious thing," Snyder said.

Fights occasionally break out over the foul balls. And the first-aid center at Fenway Park is almost always busy with fans who are struck by direct shots when they're not paying attention.

The path of the ball is unpredictable, your chances of getting one at a slim 0.18 percent.

But isn't that what makes it special?

Jason Mastrodonato is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmastrodonato. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.